Authority and Democracy

There is an alleged paradox associated with the concept of majority rule as it is often understood in simplified versions of democratic systems, and in writing about the Present Crisis in Pittsburgh earlier today I got to thinking about that paradox. The way it is usually presented the paradox is not really all that paradoxical, but here it is anyway.

Let DP stand for the following "Democratic Principle":
[DP] The right thing to do is what the majority wills.
Now imagine an agent, A, who adheres very strictly to some principle, P. Suppose that A's adherence to P flows from a conscientious and well-reasoned examination of whatever evidence in favor of P happens to be available to A. So A forms the belief
[B1] The right thing to do is P.
Now, suppose further that A also adheres very strictly to [DP], so that he also holds the following belief:
[B2] The right thing to do is to accept [DP].
Now, imagine that the majority of the members of A's community hold a referendum, and they decide upon a policy of not-P. According to [DP], and consistent with [B2], the only rational course of action for A is to form the belief
[B3] The right thing to do is not-P.
And yet [B3] is clearly logically incompatible with [B1], and if A does, in fact, form this belief, he will be acting irrationally, not rationally. The paradox, then, is just this: [DP] sometimes entails that, in order to act rationally one must act irrationally.

That's an overly simplistic version of the paradox, of course, but it will serve to illustrate the point at issue: by submitting to [DP] we essentially defer our autonomy, but our intuitions suggest that it is not really possible to entirely defer our autonomy in this way, but rather we retain a certain autonomy when it comes to the matter of belief-formation. Now, we can all imagine situations under which we would reject [DP] as an absolute First Principle. If the majority voted to enslave all the people of a certain race, for example, the moral law would forbid us to defer our autonomy in that case, and we would necessarily reject [DP]. So the paradox is only really paradoxical for folks who regard [DP] as a First Principle rather than as a kind of utilitarian rule of thumb. Indeed, if you are a moral realist of a certain stripe, you will find it rather incomprehensible how "the right thing" could be determined by something so disconnected from the moral law as the collective whims and desires of a large group of people.

The way I have set up the paradox, however, [DP] is not merely an unreflective First Principle, but something that the agent accepts as a belief (here, [B2]) on the same level of autonomously accepted commitments as his other beliefs. So it is possible to tweak things in such a way as to have the problem come out as more or less paradoxical, depending upon the particular philosophical lesson one wants to draw from it.

In the case of the travails of the Episcopal Church of the United States, we find that the conflict between a principle along the lines of [DP] understood as an unreflective First Principle and other, more deeply help convictions, has been brought into particularly high relief by recent "majority" decisions. I write "majority" in quotation marks since the decisions of a few dioceses in the United States can hardly be counted as a majority of the entire Anglican Communion, but certainly the church polity that is widely accepted within the Anglican Communion itself permits local churches to make such decisions, and given that the (strangely unilateral) decisions of the local dioceses have been ratified at General Conventions it seems reasonable to infer that all is, in theory, in order.

Unless you happen to be in the minority. As in the case of the enslaved race that desires freedom, there is little that a minority can do to vindicate its rights in a regime driven by [DP]. Indeed, when the members of a community adopt [DP], there is literally no warrant for working to change the situation of a minority, since [DP] defines rightness in terms of the desires of the majority, hence it would actually be wrong to work for change. This is because [DP] is defined here in a fully materialist sense, that is, it is defined in terms of the desires of a majority of persons. These desires may reflect conscientious thinking, but they may not: they may reflect nothing beyond naked desire itself, driven by the passions and interests of the individual persons and their physical, material needs. This is why the Church adopts an ontologically very different principle, call it [CF]:
[CF] The right thing to do can be discerned only with the aid of grace, and this grace manifests itself in the consensus fidelium.
This principle is similar to [DP] in that it suggests that the right thing to do will, in some sense, be reflected in the choices made by a certain kind of majority, but the similarity is purely homonymous: ontologically the two principles could not be more different, and the difference lies in the ontological status of principle of majority that applies in each case. In the case of [DP] the majority is nothing more than the aggregate of desires of a large group of people; in the case of [CF] the majority is taken to reflect the guidance of something ontologically other than the physical, material drives and desires of the people expressing the view. In short, [CF] presupposes that the grace of God in some sense directs the majority, so that the "majority" in this case is not a mere aggregation of a large number of individuals and their own particular acts of private judgment as to what the correct course of action may be, but is rather a recognition by those individuals of a course of action directed by God himself. In the case of [CF], it is not the particular acts of private judgment exercised by a large number of individuals that determines what ought to be done. Rather, God himself determines that, and then inspires his people to hear his call to action. It is tempting for some to suggest that this is just wishful thinking, and of course, from the point of view of the non-believer the whole thing is merely a reverse-engineered excuse for claiming to be doing God's will. But it is a matter of faith that this mechanism is not merely a possible one but the actual one behind the teaching authority of the Church.

The situation in Pittsburgh is something of a mixed bag. Evidently, the ECUSA accepts [DP] rather than [CF], and many of the people who voted in the diocese of Pittsburgh probably accept [DP] rather than [CF], and yet the vote in Pittsburgh was the correct vote, insofar as it is consonant not merely with the majority of worldwide Anglicanism but, more importantly, it is consonant with the majority of worldwide Christendom itself, of which the Anglican Communion as a whole is but a tiny minority. What we have, then, is a vote that was not from [CF] but that was in accordance with [CF], and perhaps that is the most one can hope for at this juncture. It is, at the very least, a positive move in the right direction, regardless of the reasons for which it was taken.

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