The Might of Numbers (or: Might Does not Make Right)

You have probably heard the expression “might makes right”. People who are too “dogmatic” about the democratic procedure or who ascribe to legal positivism are often accused of adhering to that slogan. The complaint against it is that something cannot be right (or good) just because a majority of the people wants to impose it. What is right is right, and it does not change when majorities change. One implication of such a contrary view could be to endorse a strong constitution, perhaps one that protects our “natural” rights.

Now, I am a rather dogmatic defender of majoritarian democracy, and I do not believe in strong constitutions (and definitely not in natural rights). But I also reject the idea that might makes right. I do not believe that the mere fact that a majority wants to do something makes this right or good in any general (or perhaps “objective” sense). The fact that a majority thinks something is right does not necessarily make that right for people who are not part of that majority. You do not have to change your opinion of what you believe is right when you are in the minority (incidentally, this also means that there can be no “objective” duty to obey anyone).

However, the idea of democracy is not that only things that everyone believes are right should be done. In our societies it will always be the case that people have different ideas about what is right. But if these ideas are mutually exclusive, a decision has to be made (keeping the status quo might also be a decision). The only pertinent question is if we should make a decision in accordance with what the majority thinks is right or what the minority (or one of the minorities) thinks is right. I believe one should choose the majority line – not because it is right in any “objective” sense, but because it is the only reasonable decision procedure.

(Let me also add that I am aware that often there is no majority for any line of action in a particular case. There might, for instance, be 35% who favor policy A, 35% who favor policy B, and 30% who favor policy C. This, however, causes no problem, since if they are all unwilling to make some compromise to reach a majority for one policy, they all know that the status quo will continue to be the policy. There is, in effect, a majority that prefers the status quo to some compromise.)

So, instead of “might is right”, one should simply adhere to the slogan that “might is might”. The interesting question is not what is right, but rather whose might we are talking about: might in numbers or might of some other kind, e.g., moral expertise, divine inspiration, seniority, or physical strength. Since I see no meaning in might of those “other kinds” I must put my trust in the might of numbers. One alternative is, of course, to revert to anarchy, or the war of all against all, which, indeed, some people prefer over a democratic state.


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