This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.


← To name the unnameable

Rational Ape's Avatar Jump to comment 6 by Rational Ape

Comment 3 by Cartomancer :

Yes, pure democracy leads to "the tyranny of the majority"; not a new idea.

Straight out of Aristotle indeed. But the terminology used both there and in general should probably be spelled out.

"Democracy" does not mean "rule by the majority". It means "rule by the people" or more accurately "rule by the entire citizen body". It is not rule by the majority on behalf of everyone, it is rule by everyone on behalf of everyone. If a minority group within the citizen body does not have its needs met, and doesn't have access to rule (by virtue of having its voices drowned out) then that isn't true democracy in the classical sense.

"Ochlocracy", literally "mob rule" was Aristotle's term for what happens when democracy goes bad and what it turns into. In maritime Athens the "ochlos" generally meant a mob of sailors, but it has wider application.

Aristotle himself was no fan of democracy of course, largely because he thought it almost always degenerated into ochlocracy. But he was enough of a scholar to document it and give it its due anyway.

The word "democracy" is used in so many different ways it's difficult to untangle it. I would hope that we can all agree that the sort of mob rule described by Cartomancer here is bad. Many people today refer to that as "pure democracy" (everyone votes on every issues, and there are no restrictions on what the government is allowed to do so long as it is voted on) and correctly identify that no country actually works that way today. The closest approaches are "representative democracies" where people vote for representatives who in turn do the voting, and/or systems where the government's powers are explicitly limited. These are often also called democracies today, even though I cannot think of any of them that approach the level of popular participation (and lack of restraint) seen in ancient Athens.

But what should and should not be referred to as "democracy" is beside the point I was trying to make--unless somehow "democracy" is defined to mean "government that respects and enforces rights" (which would be quite an etymological reach) (checks to make sure he didn't accidentally say "entomological" which would certainly be an interesting mistake to make on a biologist's website).

I merely wished to point out that "rights upholding" is the ideal one should push for in a government, not the level of popular participation. If a government will do this, and only this, I really don't care how it is organized or how many people participate in it, and "democracy" is simply a word used to describing some subset of those schema. So, I don't give a damn if it's a "democracy," does it uphold rights? Including the freedom of conscience that the US First Amendment attempts to codify? And does it do so correctly or does it misunderstand and invent new rights (such as the so-called "right" not to have someone slander your religion, or the so-called "right" to get your government to put a prayer for your religion on its buildings)?

(That having been said, I cannot imagine an absolute monarchy or other form of one man rule ever turning out to suit me, but some form of non-mob-rule democracy might.)

Mon, 23 Jan 2012 16:28:21 UTC | #910921