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Majority Rules

Thomas Whitley

I am often the first one to speak up when something is being applied anachronistically. Thus, I proceed with care. Even carefully going forward, though, will not allow me to unsee what I have already seen. In reading Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience I came across his section on slavery that had not previously caught my attention. It stopped me dead in my tracks last night though, as I was reading through it again.

When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.

Thoreau was quite underwhelmed with allowing the masses to determine what is "right." My experience as a student of history has caused me to come to the firm conviction that it is never right to allow a majority to determine the rights, or lack thereof, of a minority. The most obvious contemporary parallel is same-sex marriages. A few states have put this to vote (the most notable being Prop 8 in California) and allowed the majority to determine what rights a minority (homosexuals) were allowed to have. That is, the majority was allowed certain rights simply because there were more of them, but the minority were not allowed these rights due to the relative lack of them.

Try as I may, I continue to fail to be able to see how this system is "right" or "just." The majority has almost never chosen to allow a minority to have rights equal to theirs. Think of blacks in America gaining their rights. Think of women gaining theirs. Both of these fights were long and hard and while they may have had some supporters who were part of the majority, the majority never supported their fight for equal rights.

What do you think? Should the majority be allowed to determine the rights of minorities?