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Immoral Democracy

September 18, 2014

Henry David Thoreau, in one of his most renowned essays, "Civil Disobedience", writes on the idea of a democratic state, "After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted ... to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest." He asserts that the majority by being the majority does not automatically gain the virtues of wisdom and justice. In other words, he sees democracy not as a system for moral good but as a tool for political stability. So how do we ensure that a democratic system is also morally good?

At first glance, democracy would seem to almost guarantee the moral correctness of the resulting decisions. After all, if most of the people agree that something is true, then they're probably more correct than the minority, right? But it is too often that the majority just doesn't know what they're doing - women's lack of suffrage, slavery, and racial segregation were at some point supported by the majority. In its creation, the idea of democracy was alluring to its creators chiefly for the way in which each individual of a community will be able to have equal power and control over a decision as the next one. But going hand in hand with this ideology is the assumption that each individual has a good judgement of what is morally correct from what is immoral. However, as demonstrated throughout history, this isn't always the case. It is for this reason that Plato envisioned in The Republic a utopia lead by philosopher-kings. He asserted that rather than leave the morality of decisions to the possibly uneducated masses, a philosopher-king who makes executive decisions for the utopia would be better suited to lead a community to make wiser decisions. But for obvious reasons, Plato's solution is of little practicality in the modern society.

So rather than try to be content with either of those, I think we should attempt to strike a perfect balance. While giving the ruling power to the masses, we need to ensure that they are "in the right" and "fairest to the minority" as Thoreau wrote, so that democracy can exist as not merely a form of achieving political stability, but a means to make better decisions. In other words, democracy is at its best when paired with a strong basis of education and a healthy dose of rebellion. Education of the masses can, to an extent, ensure that the decision of the majority is more likely to be an educated and morally right decision, but far too often, education imposes the current beliefs of the majority onto the future majority. In other words, there is a limit to what an educated decision can be under an established set of beliefs. So a morally good democracy should not only ensure that its population is educated, but also pay attention to the occasional "civil disobedience" to give them a didactic wake-up call.

I think it's a critical observation to make that democracy alone, by being fair to all, does not automatically preserve the values that are central to a morally right society. Any government that strives to become something more than just stable and stationary is obligated to understand this and work continually to find the faults of the majority.

In modern art, "Avant-Garde" refers to an artist or an art form that challenges the status quo, pushing the boundaries of what can be considered art. It's often not accepted by the mainstream and considered to be separate from the tradition, but they manage to raise important questions and achieve their ends nonetheless. Perhaps for a democratic society to become not only stable, but good, we need a political avant-garde now and then to challenge the Immoral Democracies.