This debate is not as recent as it looks. Since the philosophers of
Ancient Greek, the issue of the decision-making in a society is problematic.
Indeed, a society is an ensemble of individuals who voluntary live in an
organised group. This supposes the adoption common rules: the laws. The issue
is to determine which decision-making process is the most fair and efficient to
determine the laws of the society. Since we understand that unanimity is not
reachable as it is underlined by the French historian Pascal ORY1.
Due to that members of a society have to reach an agreement about their way to
decide their laws. Several decision-making processes exist: the ruling of
“one” (dictatorship, monarchy…), the ruling of “a few” (oligarchy),
ruling of the majority…
Majority rule implies that laws are decided according the ‘rule of the
number’, if more than the half of the participants pronounce themselves in
favour of a laws it is adopted, whereas it is not. Majority rule can in the fact
be declined in different ways, in this essay we will take a look at majority
rule in its direct and indirect (through
the election of representatives) application.
The issue of the law-making process is complicated to answer because in
terms of politics, contrary to hard sciences, there is not an objective “one best way” which would lead to
make the most just and efficient laws of a society. It appears that each
decision-making process possesses its advantages and its disadvantages.
However, knowing that we can’t proclaim one mode of decision as being
unquestionably infallible is not a good enough reason to assert that all the
decision making process are worth. We have to recognise that one is likely to be
easier to implement and to produce better and fairer laws than the others. So
among all these decision-making processes which one can be regarded as being
“better” in term of justice and of efficiency. Finally, this question
basically refers us to ‘who’ should decide the laws governing a society? All
the members of the society in an equal way, the most qualified ones, the
strongest ones or and extra-terrestrial force such as random?
In this essay I will
argue that the majority rule decision-making process, even if it is not
appropriate for all situations and is not infallible, is in the case of law
making the most likely to produce the fairest and the most efficient laws for a
society. We will see that, as it is demonstrated in most of the theories of
democracy, that the ‘rule of majority’ doesn’t really own an intrinsic value
but is “desirable by default”.
First of all, we will argue that majority rule is the ‘best way by
default’ to decide the laws of the society because it is the decision-making
process that is the more likely to produce the fairest law. We reckon that
while legislating, a human group should theoretically aim to reach the common
good, it should be theoretically its “moral goal”. Thus we can
estimate the quality of a law by its capacity to reach it. We will demonstrate
that majority rule, often linked to democracy theories, is more likely to
produce high quality laws than the others decision-making process, due to the
values it carries in itself.
It is commonly agreed
that in an idealistic political system the laws should be decided unanimously.
Yet, in the fact, when a society exceeds a small number of members, unanimous
voted laws are impossible to reach. Facing to this failure, the issue is to
find the decision-making process that would be able to be the nearer of
unanimity. Several philosophers argue that majority rule can be seen as a
substitute to this.
This claim is for instance defended by the French philosopher l’Abbé SIEYES.
According to him “the majority
substitutes itself, reasonably, to the rights of unanimity”(1789, p38)2.
Why this statement? Because it appears majority rule is legitimated by several
values derived from the concept of unanimity.
We can firstly
assimilate the majority rule as the advent of autonomy for the members of the
society. Autonomy is one of the fundamental values of Democracy. Here we can
refer us to the branch of rationalist
philosophy. If we make the statement that there is no common good determined
by the nature or by a divine vine, the capacity to legislate should only come
from the People. It is the case with majority rule. It consecrates autonomy and
rejects heteronomy by entrusting only to the members of the society the right
to legislate. Finally, the principle of autonomy procures legitimacy to
majority rule faced to the laws imposed by an external power. Benjamin CONSTANT3
asserts that majority rule allows to reach an agreement which ensure that
nobody will have to undergo ‘foreign authority’ ‘s diktats.
Majority rule can be seen as a way to defend individual liberty while
defending equality among all society’s members. This participative mode of
decision (and in theory non oppressive) ensures a same liberty for each members
of the society by giving them a same level of participation to the power of legislation.
So, majority rule appears to be a more enviable way to decide the law of
the society because it carries values of equality, liberty and autonomy. J.J
Rousseau asserted himself “Only the obedience to the law which we
prescribe to ourselves is liberty”4
(Du contrat social, Livre I, Chap VII).
Majority rule is the only realistic making decision-process that is able to
meet these principles.
From another hand, in
theory, majority rule is a beneficial way of legislating because it implies,
theoretically, before a vote a process of deliberation, which is fundamental in
the making of reasonable laws. In this way we can assert that majority rule is
a law-making process that tends to the ‘reason’. This idea was mainly defended
by French philosophers of enlightenment and of post revolution in debates about
the ‘good government’. Deliberating implies that the final vote will be a
result of discussion between all the participants. Having deliberating, the
voters are able to take the most reasonable decisions to them. After all, laws
resulting from the process of deliberation and majority rule are more likely to
tend to “reason” and so to reach the common good. The jurist Hans
defends the idea the deliberation is the opportunity for majority and minority
to reach a compromise taking the better decision according to them, as long as
they both know that no political norm is indisputably the best one. Also, the French
political specialist Didier MINEUR asserts6
“It isn’t the number that makes the
laws but the number that constitutes itself as aiming to reach reason”.
In the same vein, the philosophe Pierre ROSANVALLON pretends that “the majority rule is only legitimate if it
is effectively reasonable”7.
In this way, it appears that majority rule, if it is led by a ‘desire’ of
reason, is able to produce the more high quality laws. No other decision making
process can pretend to propose same high quality laws while defending liberty
and autonomy of the members of the society.
Finally we can’t assert
that majority rule is an absolutely fair and desirable decision making process.
Yet, recognizing that unanimity is unreachable, we argue that majority rule is
the more desirable decision making process as it is the realistic law-making
process that is the nearer of unanimity. By this way, it consecrates fundamental
principles carried by the democratic values: autonomy, equality and liberty.
Majority rule appears to be the fairer law-making process, by default.
After having demonstrated the ‘non-instrumental’ values of majority
rule, we can have a look to the instrumental advantages that this law-making
process displays. Indeed, more than being more likely to produce fairest laws (more
likely to tend to common good), we will see that majority rule allows to decide
society’s laws in a efficient way. That because of these two aspects, that
finally we are able to argue that majority rule is the more desirable way to
define the laws of a society.
underlined the effectiveness of majority rule when he asserts that, in
democracy, majority rule presents the advantage that it allows to get
efficiently a political decision in a pluralist context.
First of all, we can highlight
the fact that majority rule is a law making process that is really efficient and
relatively easy to implement. The feasibility of law-making process is high,
that is not the case for all the decision-making process that tries to involve
equally all citizens. Majority rule is an efficient conventional mean, which
carries in itself moral principles, to cut political issues.
Yet, we could oppose that in
theory, majority rule is not the only process to ensure equality, autonomy and
liberty to each member so why prefer this one? Indeed, if we still commit the
statement that a law-making system should tend to unanimity, why be contented
with ‘only’ a majority of voters (ie 50% of the voters)? Why not expand the
percentage of voters required to accept a law? We can answer that above the
majority (for ex: 80% of favourable votes necessary to pass a law), it would be
really difficult to reach agreement above political issues. The decision making
process would not be anymore efficient and it can be really harmful for a
society not to be able to accomplish the fundamental and daily task that is
legislating and so to act politically.
From another hand, majority rule can be seen as an efficient way to
banish violence from the political sphere. Violence is very harmful for a
political system looking for common good. By asserting that only the number can
decide the laws that rule the society, we avoid the use of individual violence.
This aspect was developed by the philosopher Charles RENOUVRIER saying that
majority rule allows the pacification of political debate while submitting
society to the “law of number”
rather than the “law of the
strongest”. Majority rule is efficient to implement as law-making
process for its feasibility and the stability it implies for society.
However, we can oppose than the easiness of implementation of majority
rule can carry some failures. For instance there is a risk of diversion:
instead of looking for the better law, people don’t respect the whole process
theoretically implied (especially the part of deliberation) and cut short it only looking to reach a majority. In
this case, the simplicity of majority rule can be seen as an obstacle to reach
the optimal laws in case of a ‘lazy society’. Yet, this bias is easily
surmountable trough education and accountability.
Then majority rule is
efficient in the application of the laws that are adopted through it. Indeed, a
part of a quality of a law can be evaluated through its performativity: how is
it implemented in the fact from the text to the reality? This point refers us
to the crucial fact of legitimacy and consent that is required for the laws to
be truly implemented in a society. If not a law would only remain a simple text
with no particular importance. Majority rule possesses the advantage that it
gives legitimacy to the laws that are adopted because of the principles on
which it is based upon. Indeed a law voted according to the principles of
majority rule by the sovereign people is hardly contestable (except if it’s against
fundamental principles of democracy9).
Majority rule is a decision making that generates the more of consent in a long
term run among society because it is at the origin of its own laws. Indeed, it
refers once again to the Social Compact depicted by Rousseau. It asserts that
the laws of a society will be implemented and seen as legitimates on the long
term if they meet the principles of participation of each, which will led to
consent then to obedience. So majority rule, if it respects the moral condition
evoked in the first part of this essay, insures, more than the other decision
making process, the effective implementation of the laws, which is vital for
the stability of a society.
Finally, we can also
evoke a kind of efficiency in the choices to define the laws under majority
rule. Indeed, if a society as the moral goal to be as fair as possible, it will
try to reach by legislating the common good (ROUSSEAU10).
Defending the idea that the common good can only be reached through the
knowledge of the collective will, it appears that majority rule is the best way
to define the laws. Indeed, who could be able to determine the common interest
of the people, if it isn’t the people itself? One individual alone, or a few,
can’t pretend to know the common good (even
if this idea was defended by PLATO11
with his “philosopher king”), he/they would be necessarily driven
by individual interests. Even if we made the hypothesis, for instance in a
oligarchy, where legislating power is detained only by a few, that legislators
are genuinely looking to reach common good, to define what it is would ask them
a lot of time and a lot of consultation with the population, with no guarantee
that the laws they will finally made would fit it. So majority rule appears to
be an efficient way to reach this “moral
purpose” of a society that is common good the most quickly and
accurately possible (as far as we consider that common good is only reachable
trough collective will). Here we can evoke the “jury’s theorem”
developed by CONDORCET. In this hypothetical model, Condorcet make the
hypothesis that if we suppose that between two political decision, one is
‘good’ and the other is ‘bad’, mathematically, if “n” individuals
have to chose between this two solutions, more “n” is numerous more
important is the probability that the majority of the individuals chose the
‘right’ decision is important.
To conclude, it may be asserted that majority rule appears to be the
fairer and more efficient law-making process in a general way. However, we
cannot consider that majority rule is an absolute and is infallible.
Here we can refer us to RAWLS theory in which he asserts that majority rule can
establish a procedural fairness but
can’t do anything about background
fairness. By itself, majority rule is not enough to make a political system
“fair”, it has no intrinsic value. Yet, if it is correctly used and
respect fundamentals principles (liberty,
equality, search of the common good…), it appears to be the law-making
system the more able to reach common good on the long term while being realistic.
Interviewed in the newspaper Libération,
06.01.2018 ” No society in the
history has ever been unanimous about anything (…) Behind the will of
unanimity, the unanimity does’nt exist, there are only majorities”.
2 Preliminary to French Constituion, Abbé
3 Principles of politics, Benjamin
4 Du contrat
social (about social compact), Jean-Jacques
ROUSSEAU, 1762 (book I, Chap VII)
5 General theory of law and state, Hans
6 “The justifications of majority rule in
modern democracies”, Didier Mineur, Raisons politiques 2010/3 (n° 39), p.
7 Extract from Pierre ROSANVALLON’s classes at
Collège de France 2009-2010 : What is
8 « Rawls et la justification de la règle de
majorité » (Rawls and the justifications of majority rule), Foisneau, Luc, Raisons politiques, vol. 53, no. 1, 2014, pp. 63-79.
of civil disobedience”, Summa
theologiae, Thomas Aquinas
10 The Social Compact, ROUSSEAU, 1762
11 The Republic, PLATO, Book 5