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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.

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  • 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. May 18, 2020 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, 2020 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. May 19, 2020 at 6:50
  • The point of democracy is precisely that no one is particularly trusted with choosing the leader.
    – armand
    Sep 27, 2023 at 14:28

6 Answers 6

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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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  • 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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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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One thing about this is that it assumes most people will be immoral, but what stops the ruling elite from being immoral? As Churchill once said, "democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” Many forms of democracy are designed to have more checks and balances than many authoritarian systems that have facilitated great atrocities like the Nazis (who despite popular belief, never won a single election and were never that popular, but took over through forming a cult of personality).

According to Condorcet's jury theorem, a group of individuals is better at arriving at a decent long-term decision than a small group of people, even if the smaller group is a group of 'experts'. We all know a lot of alternatives to democracy that simply led to a group of self-proclaimed experts doing terrible or short-sighted things that negatively impacted others.

Also, modern psychology rejects the notion that in our modern world, most people are immoral with only 12.5% of people worldwide being found in a peer-reviewed study to have personality disorders and fewer than that having any personality disorders associated with a lack of empathy or immorality like antisocial personality disorder. The assumption that the majority is immoral seems to be a common claim of those who oppose democracy, but the evidence tends to say otherwise and there is not much evidence of democratic alternatives providing inherently better and moral leaders. In fact, they tend to lead to systems like oligarchies for the rich and other authoritarian systems where people in charge may act less morally due to their belief in their own superiority and greater access to resources.

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First of all, that is a particularly negative view on human nature and those that subscribe to that are not necessarily the proponents of democracy.

Like you seem to hint at Thomas Hobbes and his idea of homo homini lupus est. In which he rejects that humans are social animals drawn to each other for company and cooperation and instead envisions the original "state of nature" by asserting that every human is a solitary predator who considers everything and everybody as fair game.

So his conclusion from that is essentially an early version of the prisoner's dilemma. Where he acknowledges that cooperation would be the ideal solution, but where if you assert selfish players the consequence would be a conflict scenario with the worst possible outcome. And he argues that rationality is insufficient to avoid that as it is rational for the selfish individual to be to put themselves first.

So Hobbes' solution to that problem, of his own creation, is the creation of a powerful state (Leviathan). So if the state of nature leads to constant struggles over power, his solution is to resolve that struggle by giving all of the power to one all powerful entity.

So in that regard I'd disagree with Ted Wrigley's, otherwise very good answer, in that Hobbes actually was arguing in favor of a dictatorship and totalitarianism. His Leviathan is more or less explicitly a tyrant. In fact he MUST be a tyrant in order to fulfill his role. The Leviathan must have (according to Hobbes) have absolute, unrestricted and undivided power over everything. So afaik for Hobbes resistance MUST be futile. So the only resistance allowed is the defense of one's dear life. Like the threat of being crushed becomes less threatening if you're already getting crushed if you don't resist. So unless you go towards the religious and a threat of a bad afterlife, even the power of the Leviathan is limited at that point.

And Hobbes apparently hinted at a preference for an absolute monarchy (not really democratic). Though while the Leviathan is a personification and Hobbes might have looked favorably on a singular person to fill that role (the idea kinda lends itself in that direction). You can also view it as a metaphorical construct and as a personification of the societal contract itself. So think of something like the monopoly of violence. So without a state you could deal out violence as you see fit, but with a state the state might interdict all violence but it's own. And no one is a match for state level violence. So the smart won't start a fight that they cannot win and the dumb will lose it rather quickly.

So Hobbes was an odd combination of pessimism and optimism in that he saw a necessity to crush individual freedom for people to enjoy a peaceful coexistence, but at the same time believed in a benevolent dictator that would not abuse it's power. I mean technically he couldn't "abuse" his power because it's unrestricted so if there are no rules you're not able to break them... But he thought of that was better than the state of nature.

So as a consequence you can attack that from the optimistic angle and argue that humans are social animals, that we do form societies and that mutual aid is maybe even one of our evolutionary assets as societies that cover for each other are more likely to survive a crisis then a lone wolf.

Or you could be even more pessimistic and argue that, if all people are evil wolves trying to jump at each other if they can and if societies magnify the power beyond the sum of it's parts and if you then give that level of power to a single individual, you create a situation that is WORSE than Hobbes state of nature. Sure in the state of nature everyone is your enemy but they are weak, attacking you comes at the risk of taking damage themselves, while a strong state can rip you apart without any risk at all.

So rather than giving up one's power to create the Leviathan people might also argue that they trust no one but themselves with that level of power and as a consequence no singular center of power can establish itself. Meaning the centers of power are limited in power or can be restricted in it and if seen as unfit can also be replaced easier. So rather than be subject to the whims of the ruler, the ruler is reliant on the people for it's power and continued rule and as such is supposed to have an incentive to be benevolent.

So rather than an unchallenged power to prevent the struggle or a mutual cooperation, you can also champion the idea of constructive struggle. Where the ordered struggle for power and the limitation of power lends itself to something that could also be democratic.

So you have essentially 2 avenues by which you can end up with a system that spreads power to ever more people (democracy or in it's extreme anarchism), either by deliberately avoiding power and domination and instead focusing on cooperation or because of the complete opposite and a competition in which you're not willing to allow anybody else that edge over yourself. And you can have various levels of collectivism and individualism, so anything between people being completely isolated and avoiding each other as best as possible and people being really close to each other and taking care of each other as much as possible (as that might lead to collective and thus also individual benefit).

Also you have a practical problem with the Leviathan, in the sense of how such a power would manifest itself. That is at the end of the day every system is a democracy. Sure the monopoly of violence allows the state to assert itself as the power, but people nonetheless need to accept and contribute to it. The application of that principle still relies on people willing to volunteer for that job and they still rely on the rest of society to provide for them. So if no one would volunteer to be cop or soldier the monopoly of violence would cease to exist, same if people stopped working and paying taxes, then the state would run a deficit and rather sooner than later become unable to provide for it's goons upon which the monopoly of violence would be unable to be enforced.

So unless there's technology that makes the power to rule over other people independent of the support/cooperation/tolerance of these people it still in practical terms comes down to whether the majority of people agree with the system. So unless you aim for radical individual isolationism you'll have a society and how ever is in charge of that relies on some level of consent or at least lack of dissent of roughly a majority of the people.

So it's not really a paradox to begin with.

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Formalities of modern political philosophy aside, on a deeper philosophical account, democracy seems not so much an ideal(ist) solution by wise minds for government than a political amendment to modern moral crisis, AKA nihilism.

On this account, when truth about meaning of life and values can't be ascertained and a transcendental sacred purpose by which to effectively moderate/eliminate human ego is not recognized, it is believed that a multiplicity of otherwise selfish egos doing their best to provisionally converge on a number of political points in an election is the best you can get under the said dim philosophical climate.

However, since the shortcomings of nihilism are fundamental and unamendable by sociopolitical arrangements, the outcome with democracy is not any better if not worse than without it. So what you have in all so-called democracies are corporate oligarchies compromising and distorting even the said definitional democracy which only serves as a veneer of legitimacy to make the citizens feel good, while the economic elites have their way with greed.

Indeed, people can ask themselves when corporate elite, and even the particularly most nefarious segments, such as the Military-Industrial Complex, control politics, media and academia, how can there be any genuine recognition of public good by the government and the people and how can any so-called system of checks and balances have any effect.

As for the economic success of the said democracies, it is not so much explained by the adoption of democracy than centuries of colonial pillage of the global south and east which continues in more subtle forms to date.

Bottom line, there's no formal solution to a moral/philosophical crisis.

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