I am asking if there are noted philosophers that have thought about the following paradox before, or something resembling it.

Democracy is seen here as a system in which a nation is governed by a majority. If most people are too immoral to let them be free in their choice, then democracy can't be the solution? Because if most people are too immoral to let them live their own life in freedom, how can they suddenly be trusted to choose something important, like the political leadership?

It seems to me that if you are too immoral, than you can't be trusted. But if most people are moral enough to take responsibility themselves, then you don't need much politics. You still need law, but not the politicians who will decide what people have to do.

  • Democracy as “a nation governed by a majority” isn’t how I would describe it. The nation is governed by the whole country - it just makes its decisions on the basis of a survey, either directly or via representatives. – Sofie Selnes May 18 at 22:59
  • How does being immoral make choices unfree? If anything, it should make them more free, as they are not bound by moral norms. And what is democracy in your question supposed to be a solution to? Most people are not moral or immoral "in themselves". Their behavior much depends on the conditions the legal system and social culture impose on them, so the argument in the last paragraph does not work. – Conifold May 19 at 4:06
  • IMO; you are simplifying too much... A democracy is governed by .... a government. A representative democracy is quite complex and it cannot be governed by all its citizens; this is the reason why it needs a lot of politics. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 19 at 6:50

This was Hobbes' original argument, that the mass of people were too immoral — venal, violent, selfish — to effectively govern themselves. They thus needed a strong, dominating government to create and enforce civil society. Of course, Hobbes wasn't overtly arguing for dictatorship or totalitarianism. He felt that choosing such a government was a rational choice, and that people should collectively choose to establish the government that would best restrain all for the benefit of everyone. In that sense he was echoing Aristotle's earlier distinction between a polity (community-centered government by virtuous citizens) and a democracy (senseless government by the unlettered, emotion-driven masses), with the twist that the emotion-driven masses could construct a polity for themselves by rationally adopting a set of oppressive institutions.

Of course, Hobbes' views were unpopular within the early Liberal movement, for all the obvious reasons, and most of early Liberal philosophy rejected his premise outright. They re-conceptualized people as, variously, rational individualists (Locke), community-oriented contractarians (Rousseau), or gregarious bargainers pulled together by their desire for trade and variety (Smith). The idea that people are 'too immoral to be free in their choice' is dismissed outright by the first two, and tempered into competitiveness by the last, so it ceased for a while to be a philosophical problem.

The issue wasn't revisited again until a century later, when political thinkers in the soon-to-be United States were faced with the task of implementing a pragmatic system of Liberal governance. Some of them, at least, were uncomfortable merely denying Hobbes' insight even as they clung to the more positive ideals, so they adopted a new strategy that was a bit of a mix of all of the earlier political thinking. They decided to create a system that leveraged all of these human weaknesses and follies. They came up with what we call Madisonian democracy, or sometimes agonistic democracy: a system in which people are expected to be self-interested and independent, but in which power is distributed so broadly, with so many checks and balances that pit each body and each individual against every other, that people will have to be cooperative and socially conscious merely to get the things that they selfishly want. It's a political version of Smith's economic 'Invisible Hand', combined with institutional and contractual controls on the accumulation of power into a small number of hands. It isn't a pretty system, and it's filled with numerous traps and dangers for the unwary, but it has stood the test of time thus far.

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The argument is wrong because we are not consistently immoral. Maybe 20% would be immoral concerning personal property, 20% immoral concerning treatment of animals, 20% immoral about sex with children. Plenty of bad things would happen if everyone had absolute freedom, but in a democracy there would be a large majority against any of these immoral things.

The argument is also wrong because even an immoral person understands it is bad for themselves if everyone is free to do what they like. Even thieves think that their property should be safe, and their wives should not be in fear of rapists. So in a democracy, even immoral people would vote for moral behaviour. With some regrets, perhaps, and they would be hypocritical, but they would still vote for moral behaviour.

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  • As Plato has noted in his Republic, even a gang of thieves cannot keep its unity nor functon correctly without adopting certain rules of justice. In particular, thieves will adopt the rule according to which theft is forbidden inside the gang.

  • So, ok, each person is ( by hypothesis) immoral.

But, immorality is precisely the kind of behavior that even immoral persons do not want to get generalized ( Kant noted this point).

For example, even racists will not vote a law according to which racial discrimination is universally ok , even if it is, say, black segregationism against white people. White racists are not ok with racism in general .

People that practice tax fraud are not ok with fraud in general : they want to have schools, hospitals, roads, police and army forces ; they want, as citizens , the State to be able to fullfil its missions.

  • So I would say that the immorality of people is not an argument against democracy provided people are only allowed to vote laws that apply universally to everyone, even to themselves.

What I've just said is inspired by Rousseau , On Social Contract.

See also Rawls, A Theory Of Justice.

  • Another answer would be : democracy is not the ruling of the people, but the controlling of rulers by the people.
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