Self-Ownership and Majority Rule

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The right to self-ownership is a fundamental natural right. As philosopher John Locke writes, “Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person.’ This nobody has any right to but himself.”

What does this concept of self-ownership mean? Self-ownership means that an individual has the exclusive right to the control of his mind, body, and life. Continuing the logic of this concept, clearly, no person or group of people can rightfully claim ownership or control over other individuals.

“[Man] is, be it for good or evil,” writes English politician Auberon Herbert, “the owner and possessor of his own self, and he has to bear the responsibility of that ownership and possession to the full.”

Locke’s Argument for Majority Rule

Although he initially affirms the principle of self-ownership, Locke contradictorily applies the notion of self-ownership in the context of majority rule:

“The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community… When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest… And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation, to every one of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority.”

As can be seen in this quote, Locke believes that when individuals voluntarily form government, they relinquish a portion of their natural liberty and agree to live under the authority of the majority. In essence, Locke argues, individuals relinquish a portion of their natural liberty in order to protect their natural liberty.

But is this line of thinking correct? Is the concept of self-ownership reconcilable with majority rule?

Despite agreeing with Locke on the concept of self-ownership, Herbert argues that the idea of majority rule is completely incompatible with self-ownership. Furthermore, he states that majority rule thinking is based on mysticism, is morally unjustifiable, and leads to ridiculous conclusions.

The Incompatibility of Self-Ownership and Majority Rule

Herbert strongly opposed the validity of majority rule and begins his discussion through an example that reveals some of the inherent contradictions in majority rule thinking:

“I claim that [the individual] is by right the master of himself and of his own faculties and energies. If he is not, who is? Let us suppose that A having no rights over himself, B and C being in a majority, have rights over him. But we must assume an equality in these matters, and if A has no rights over himself, neither B and C have any rights over themselves. To what a ridiculous position are we then brought! B and C having no rights over themselves, have absolute rights over A; and we should have to suppose in this most topsy-turvy of worlds that men were walking about, not owning themselves, as any simple-minded person would naturally conclude that they did, but owning some others of their fellow-men; and presently in their turn perhaps to be themselves owned by some other… Either the will of the majority or the rights of the individuals are the highest law of our existence; one, whichever one it is to be, must yield in [the] presence of the other.”

Herbert clearly explains that one cannot advocate self-ownership and majority rule – these concepts are mutually exclusive. Either the individual owns himself or the majority owns the individual. When the decrees of the majority come into conflict with the desires of the individual, one set of preferences must defer to the other.

The Mysticism of Majority Rule

Continuing his critique of this notion, Herbert exposes the underlying motives of the majority rule philosophy:

“We still want to exercise power, we still want to drive men our own way, and to possess the mind and body of our brothers as well as our own selves. The only difference is that we do it in the name of a Majority instead of in the name of Divine Right… Your majority has no more rights over the body or mind of a man than either the bayonet-surrounded Emperor or the infallible Church.”

Herbert makes an excellent point here as he describes the mysticism with which we tend to treat majority rule. Although we generally discard notions such as the Divine Right of Kings, we accept an equally unverifiable, superstitious concept when we argue that the majority has some inherent right to rule the individual. And, although the form of government has changed, the underlying desire to control and suppress others remains the same.

Explaining the foolishness of this mystical view of majority rule, Herbert writes,”Five men are in a room. Because three men take one view and two another, have the three men any moral right to enforce their view on the other two men? What magical power comes over the three men that because they are one more in number than the two men, therefore they suddenly become possessors of the minds and bodies of these others?”

It seems that majority rule is basically a “might makes right” notion. If three of the five men are rapists, does a simple vote give them the moral right to assault the other two men? What a barbaric form of governance!

Convenience as a Justification for Majority Rule

Although many might agree with the philosophical problems inherent in majority rule thinking, these types of people might advocate this form of governance based on pragmatism. Employing a heavy dose of sarcasm, Herbert deals with this objection:

“Perhaps, however, you may say, ‘We do not pretend that a majority have any rights over their fellow-men. Still it is convenient to place power in their hands, and convenient not to define that power, but to leave the matter to be decided by their good sense.’ Well, I am glad we have brought it to that point. You think then that convenience is the highest law of life. You think it convenient that one part of men – if larger in number – should own the souls and bodies of the rest of men. You think it convenient that there should be slave-owning, and that there should be no attempt to say where this slave-owning begins and where it ends… We have plainly gone wrong in ever thinking that in the rights themselves there was anything sacred… There is nothing sacred except the convenience of the larger crowd dictating to the smaller crowd.”

In addition, the issue of convenience begs the question: convenient to whom? Sure majority rule is convenient for the majority, but it is quite inconvenient for the powerless, victimized minority. Historical systems like chattel slavery or totalitarian dictatorships have also been convenient for particular groups of people, but convenience does not prove morality. Just because something is easy does not make it right and majority rule certainly falls into this category of being a simple to implement, but disastrously inequitable towards the individual.

Implications of Majority Rule

Taking the argument for majority rule to its logical conclusion, Herbert explains that this concept could very readily be used to justify invasive imperialism:

“If the fact of being in a majority, if the fact of the larger number carries this extraordinary virtue with it, does a bigger nation possess the right to decide by a vote the destiny of a smaller nation? Such  an exceedingly artificial matter as an individual boundary line between two countries cannot suddenly deprive numbers of the sacred authority with which you have clothed them.”

According to the logic of majority rule thinking, then, what would prevent the most populous nation from systematically voting the entire earthly territory into its possession? To refute this conclusion would necessitate affirming the preeminence of some authority other than majority rule.

Conclusion

There are many other questions to which Locke’s view of self-ownership and majority rule directly leads. Can individuals relinquish inalienable rights, given by God, via compact? Since these rights are not derived from men, how can men rightfully take them away? Furthermore, is it not presumptuous to argue that individuals implicitly consent to rule by majority through the mere formation of governmental entities?1 Despite the intrigue and importance of these questions, touching on all of these issues would require more than this single post.

My main issue with John Locke’s line of reasoning in favor of majority rule is that he seems to argue that individuals can relinquish their natural rights in order to protect their natural rights. Locke argues that individuals consent to the formation of government in order to protect their life and property. However, if this consent implies submission to majority rule, then conceivably, the majority could easily vote to violate these individual rights, hijacking the entire supposed purpose of the original compact.

Which of these rights, then, is preeminent: the individual’s to self-ownership or the majority’s to rule the individual?

If self-ownership is a natural right, given by God, then it should rightfully be considered supreme over the supposed rights of the majority.

  1. Consider this post for more information on individual consent to governance.

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