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Saturday, July 22, 2006

The greatest good for the greatest number

The greatest good for the greatest number—this Enlightenment value is the goal that democracy itself was devised to achieve (if we allow for the existence of the “wisdom of the masses,” and presume that the individuals who comprise “the masses” possess an enlightened self-interest sufficient to motivate choices which will regularly produce good outcomes). The democratic solution, however, is based on an interpretation of this measure, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” that is too narrow and restrictive. Democracy is driven by the expressed will of the majority—calculated, at its simplest, at fifty-one percent. Since the minimum number that can qualify as “greatest” is fifty-one percent (when an issue is presented for selection as a binary option), under this interpretation majority rule—by catering to the greatest number it is possible to oblige in the resolution of a binary conflict—satisfies the requirements for producing the greatest possible good.

But is it imaginable that the greatest good can contain as much as forty-nine percent bad? This represents a level of unsatisfactoriness that is virtually identical to the fifty-fifty average of the completely random binary outcome, varying by just one percent! In many cases, of course, given larger majorities, this gap can widen considerably, but it remains an inescapable fact that a binary control structure—even under the fairest system, the self-governing democracy—will necessarily result in significant dissatisfaction among considerable numbers of those it constrains.

This “tyranny of the majority” is unavoidable so long as one takes this narrow view of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” in which the greatest number can be a simple majority. But surely all one has to do to burst the illusion that basic, unmitigated majority rule in fact provides the greatest good for the greatest number is to postulate a means by which a portion of those ill-served by majority rule (a number which can be as high as forty-nine percent in a single case and which is one hundred percent when all cases are aggregated) is satisfied in addition to that majority that already determined its own good through self-determination. If a fifty-one percent majority chooses a certain course on a binary issue and can refrain from imposing its preference upon that minority which it outweighs, then other, secondary and supplemental resolutions become possible for some or all of the minority and that portion need not be consigned to the status of “loser” within the context of the conflict, to have their will imposed upon and their autonomy curtailed. Adding their number to that of the majority would then allow their “good” to composite with that of the majority to create a higher overall value of “greatest good.”

Certainly some choices by their very nature are inherently and exclusively either/or and must apply to all or be invalidated for any, and these may not lend themselves to a more flexible (and equitable) resolution of this type. But it would seem that every case in which the majority could content themselves with choosing only for themselves would produce a greater good for a greater number than majority rule can produce alone. Given that the “greatest good” will always be subject to debate and disagreement, perhaps the key is to focus instead on the “greatest number,” not just as a simple majority but as the largest possible percentage of the population that can be accommodated and left free even of the tyranny of majority rule. A willingness to accept in others that which you don’t approve for yourself could go a long way toward overcoming the inherent injustice of democracy and toward increasing the practical liberty for all that is democracy’s goal.

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