Tyranny of the Majority
Posted by Michael Dickens on August 24, 2011
Can the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number” be used to justify tyranny of the majority? Can the majority taking advantage of the minority ever be a good thing?
Yes, but only in rare circumstances. In most real-world cases of many people oppressing a few, the suffering of the minority greatly outweighs the benefits to the majority.
Take slavery in the United States. African Americans were enslaved to make life easier for the European colonists, inflicting significant pain on the slaves. But the benefits the white Europeans received were marginal: they were not significantly happier for having slaves. Maybe their lives were somewhat easier, but they were not significantly happier. It is hard to conceive of a circumstance in which oppressing the minority could bring about sufficient happiness for the majority so as to outweigh the suffering created. However, such circumstances may exist.
There is one minority that is oppressed in virtually every society, has been oppressed since the dawn of civilization (and maybe even before), and no one seems to care: criminals. Criminals (and felons in particular) are forced to live in captivity and their rights are limited. This is a case where most people actually support tyranny of the majority (I happen to disagree).
An oppressive majority is only a problem where the suffering of the few exceeds the happiness of the many, and such circumstances are rare–if they even exist at all.