Philosophical Majoritarianism

When I was growing up, I loved Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons. One of my favorites was when they introduced a character with the name of 5. 5 explains that his father changed the family’s names to numbers in response to the growing use of numbers in society. “This is his way of protesting, huh?” he is asked. “No,” 5 explains. “This is his way of giving in.”

Faced with the inescapable reality of human bias, overconfidence, and error, I am responding the same way as 5’s father. I am giving in. I admit and accept that my judgments are fundamentally flawed and my ability to correct and even perceive my own bias is highly questionable. And like a follower of 12-step programs, after admitting my flaws and that I am powerless to correct them, I turn to a higher power. Since as discussed recently I don’t have a religious faith, my higher power is secular. It is in fact the collective wisdom of the entire human race.

I choose to adopt the view that in general, on most issues, the average opinion of humanity will be a better and less biased guide to the truth than my own judgment. I will refer to this doctrine as “philosophical majoritarianism”. “Majoritarianism” normally means the political doctrine that the majority should rule over the minority, so I am trying to distinguish my usage with the adjective “philosophical”. But for convenience, throughout this essay I will just call it “majoritarianism” with the understanding that I mean the usage defined in this paragraph.

On first exposure, most people find the majoritarian doctrine to be implausible and objectionable. It is easy to recall facts where the majority opinion has been verifiably wrong in the past. And some observers have even argued that majoritarianism is self-contradictory, since most people don’t believe in it.

Here is a way of thinking of majoritarianism that I find helpful. Imagine that the bell curve below represents the range of human opinion on some issue. The vertical line labeled T represents the truth on that matter. Now, the average opinion, the peak of the bell curve, is not exactly correct. In fact, there are people who would be more accurate to hold to their own personal opinion than to adopt that of the majority. These people are identified by the shaded area in the diagram.


We can make a few observations:

  1. The shaded area is always less than half the curve. That means that on the average, people will improve their estimates by adopting majoritarianism.
  2. For a given width of the curve, the closer the average opinion is to the truth, the smaller the gray area would be.
  3. For a given degree of closeness to the truth of the average opinion, the broader and wider the range of opinions, the smaller the gray area.

The latter two points mean that majoritarianism will do best on issues where there is a range of opinions and biases, so that they largely cancel out. However as noted in point 1, in general, majoritarianism will improve the average opinion on the average question.

Therefore I would suggest that although one might not always want to defer to the majority opinion, it should be the default position. Rather than starting with the assumption that one’s own opinion is right, and then looking to see if the majority has good reasons for holding some other view, one should instead start off by following the majority opinion; and then only adopt a different view for good and convincing reasons. On most issues, the default of deferring to the majority will be the best approach. If we accept the principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, we should demand a high degree of justification for departing from the majority view. The mere fact that our own opinion seems sound would not be enough.

This caution is especially important given that one of the strongest and most universal biases is overconfidence, causing us to be inherently likely to evaluate our own opinion as better justified than it is, compared to the majority opinion. Indeed, there are likely to be a number of biases which conspire together to warp our judgment on this matter. Giving in to the majority opinion goes against much of our training. From childhood we are taught to think for ourselves and not to follow the crowd. Accepting majoritarianism can feel like an abdication of responsibility, even of humanity. If we are reduced to following the crowd, it may raise questions of what the point is of living, or whether we can make a contribution to society.

All these factors must be interpreted as arguments in favor of majoritarianism and against valuing our personal opinions above the majority. Given that we have so many intellectual and emotional biases pushing us towards overconfidence in our opinions, compensating for these biases requires that we give substantial preference to majoritarianism and only depart from it for very strong reasons.

As a final point, I have a few thoughts on the paradoxical and perhaps contradictory nature of majoritarianism. We all have emotional needs to distinguish ourselves from others, which may lead the majority to view majoritarianism with skepticism. However, on many issues, including survival-critical factual matters, I think that most people do in fact defer to the majority. In fact part of the reason why we have to have individualism drummed into us from childhood is precisely because of this instinct in the opposite direction. Majoritarianism is not as self-contradictory as it may seem at first, if you consider the totality of human experience and see how often people do in fact follow the crowd.

The other argument I can offer in response to this criticism is the possibility that this may indeed be an issue where I have a justifiable basis for putting my own opinion above the majority. Despite all the cautions and caveats I laid out above, on this particular issue I don’t think there is much danger of overconfidence biasing me to prefer my opinion, simply because my position fundamentally undercuts the operation of the overconfidence bias. I argue in favor of abandoning personal judgment on most matters in favor of the majority view, and if I were motivated by overconfidence bias then I would think this is the last position I would want to support. So on this narrow doctrinal question I think that to the extent that the crowd disagrees with philosophical majoritarianism, accepting the principle may nevertheless be justified.

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