Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

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.

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4 Responses to “Tyranny of the Majority”

  1. phynnboi said

    How do you know the colonists weren’t happier for having slaves? Also, what was the ratio of slaves to folks who benefited from the slaves’ labor (a number that could include the slaves themselves)? If it’s something like 1:100, that’s quite a margin! The slaves could suffer immensely for just a tiny increase everyone else’s utility.

    Also, do we know what percentage of slaves weren’t just as happy being slaves as non-slaves? I mean, we hear stories of horrible treatment of certain slaves because–well, because people love drama–but it’s worth pointing out that rational owners would not generally mistreat their slaves, since that’d 1) decrease their productivity (particularly in the case of injury or incapacitation), and 2) decrease their lifespan, meaning that more would have to be bought, meaning less profit.

    Speaking of tyranny of the majority: There’s a certain minority of folks who think it’d be best for the rest of the organisms on this planet if all humans immediately perished. Think about that ratio! There’s, what, 6.5 billion people on the planet? Is it up to 7 billion yet? Versus how many non-humans? We’re vastly outnumbered–a tiny minority vs. an overwhelming majority. One could argue that there are a lot of domesticated animals that’d suffer as a result of our deaths, although many of the same folks who argue for the extermination of humans would also argue that those domesticated animals (particularly cows, pigs, and fowl) tend to lead miserable lives at our hands, anyway, so their deaths would also be for the best. They might also add that we’d leave behind a lot of food (including our corpses), drink, and other objects of interest (such as our houses, which certain invasive species already enjoy) that could increase the utility of the remaining organisms on the planet. Honestly, it seems like a very difficult argument to counter from within a strictly utilitarian frame, particularly without descending into speciesism (i.e., arguing that the utility of humans is inherently much greater than the utility of other species) or wild speculation (e.g., “Well, it’s possible that humans could eventually do something that vastly increases the utility of all species”).

    • The colonists who had slaves were probably happier sometimes, but only marginally. Studies show that happiness does not increase with income after a certain point, and if that’s true now I would expect it to be true 200 years ago as well; and people who owned slaves were fairly wealthy to begin with. The average slaveholder had 10 slaves [source] while only 1 in 70 people were slaveholders. Since there were more slaves than there were slaveholders, it is clear that the benefit those slaveholders received was far less than the suffering the slaves felt.

      Maybe the slaves were just as happy as free people. But if we really believed that, we wouldn’t have a problem with slavery at all, would we?

      Regarding killing all humans: Unfortunately, right now it is probably true that it would increase utility if all humans immediately vanished. However, humans have more potential to increase utility than any other animal.

      The natural world is filled with immense suffering. One obvious example is the predator/prey relationship: either someone is getting hunted down an eaten, or someone is starving to death. Humans are capable of fixing this problem. We are not that far from being able to mass-produce synthetic meat. We could feed synthetic meat to predators and put birth controls on prey so the population doesn’t spin out of control. If you want to go further than that, since predators enjoy hunting, we could attach synthetic meat to little robots for predators to chase.

  2. phynnboi said

    If owning slaves afforded only a marginal (unnoticeable?) increase in utility, why did anyone bother investing the time and effort into feeding, sheltering, and supervising them? Even typical, not-all-that-rational people would not continue that kind of investment unless there was a significant payoff.

    My thinking here is that slave owners are basically buyers in the labor market, and the slaves sellers. It’s well-known that buyers want the most bang for the littlest buck, and sellers want the opposite. Slavery is the optimal low-tech solution for the buyer. So, by that model, the buyers–the slave owners–are getting high utility. Also, assuming they able to parlay their low overhead into low prices for their goods, everyone who buys from them also gets a boost in utility. The slaves are getting low utility. The question is how it all calculates out. I admit, I have no idea, partly because I don’t know the numbers, partly because I wasn’t around back then to see the average face of slavery, and partly because I have no idea how to calculate “utility.”

    Do we have a problem with slavery? Some argue that we still practice slavery of a sort, we’ve just off-shored it to China so we don’t have to look at it. It’s well-known that many Chinese factory workers work long hours in–well, let’s say “low-utility environments”–for a pittance so that we in the West can have cheap stuff. Not exactly the same as the plantation slavery of yore (the workers have more freedom, if not terribly much more utility), and I don’t completely buy the argument, but I also can’t completely deny it. That is to say, there does seem to be some truth to it.

    The “meat robot” idea made me laugh. Last I heard, current synthetic meat is basically like fibroid tumors. So, I’m imagining a horrifically gristley, gross-looking meatball affixed atop a chrome, robotic skeleton, running away from a lion. Then after the lion gets the meatball and goes away, I guess the skeleton gets up and returns to the charging station for a replacement? Not poking fun at you, that’s just the image that popped into mind. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I would highly question the wisdom in that level of interference with nature. Arguably, the whole reason it’d be a boon to everything else if we all evaporated is because we’re so darn good at interfering with nature, but so darn bad at predicting the future consequences of our interference! The meat-robot/contraception idea is a level of interference unprecedented in the history of humanity, and the risk of it massively backfiring and causing a correspondingly unprecedented drop in utility seems pretty high.

    Besides, seems it be a lot easier to just hook all the animals up to IVs that provide sustenance and feel-good chemicals. Also likely to be a disaster, but it’s a disaster we can do today! 🙂

    • If owning slaves afforded only a marginal (unnoticeable?) increase in utility, why did anyone bother investing the time and effort into feeding, sheltering, and supervising them?

      Why do people go to so much effort to try to increase their income, even though studies have shown that having more money won’t make them any happier?

      Even if slave owners did get a significant benefit from owning slaves, the slave’s misery would easily outweigh the slave owner’s suffering. Consider this thought experiment: Would you want to own a slave for a year if it meant you had to be a slave for a year after that? Would you want to own ten slaves for a year if it meant you had to be a slave for ten years after that?

      I like your IV idea. That is much more practical than my robotic meat idea.

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