“Thoreau’s Citizen: Moral Conscience or Majority Rule” by Maria Elena Ee Si Qian

The issue of minority rights versus the tyranny of the majority is a timeless one. Questions of justice arise when majority rule does seem to be the best way to accommodate the public will; however, it also seems unfair that some individuals will inevitably be disadvantaged by virtue of having to accept the decisions of the minority. Thoreau appears to side with the latter, as he pleads “can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience,” suggesting that following one’s moral conscience is more just than abiding by majority rule should the two come into conflict (Thoreau 2).

However, does this mean that the Thoreauvian individual must reject this democratic process based on its core principles? Leigh Kathryn Jenco, in her essay “Thoreau’s Critique on Democracy,” says yes. Jenco interprets Thoreau as wanting to “transcend” democracy for a better form of government because his criticisms of it are “grounded in a deontological moral philosophy that renders impossible the mediation of justice through democratic institutions” (Jenco 356). She believes that he views democracy as a sort of trick that “collapses” institutional obligations and moral obligations “into one,” as democratic procedures like voting are “meant to embody justice” but “do not actually result in justice” (Jenco 373). This masquerading of institutional obligations as moral obligations results in “moral damage” (Jenco 363), because these moral duties are only accessible to the individual.

Despite the notion that Thoreau may be fundamentally opposed to democracy and its processes on the surface, however, closer inspection reveals that he would not be against the notion of majority rule in principle but would choose to deviate from it only in the most severe of circumstances. Yes, he may state that “a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it” (Thoreau 2) but he concedes that majority rule has its place, and that majorities may “decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable” (Thoreau 2). Thoreau’s position is much more nuanced: he is not opposed to democracy in itself, but is simply giving a proviso for the situations where democracy may be insufficient. Thus, this paper disagrees with Jenco’s central idea that Thoreau’s “criticisms of the state are necessarily criticisms of democracy” (Jenco 357), as Thoreau only rejects majority rule in certain cases, namely those that are unjust. Instead, it will argue that Thoreau’s conscientious individual can accept majority rule in most cases, and therefore that the moral conscience of Thoreau’s citizen can coexist with process of majority rule in many aspects.

One of Jenco’s main arguments is that Thoreau cannot accept democratic principles since democracy fails to give primacy to the individual, instead favouring the group. She states that Thoreau is compelled to “challenge any political order in which moral authority is vested even partially in another group or individual,” which carries “especial weight for democracy, since the “decision-making prerogative and the moral authority” of Thoreau’s philosophy seem to “rest exclusively” in the individual. In turn, this “moral authority” of the individual must “give way to the expediency of voting and political representation” (Jenco 363), which is a moral hazard for Thoreau. The nature of democracy is that power is situated with the majority, giving it the power to overrule minorities, even though ethical legitimacy lies with the individual and not necessarily the greatest number of persons. All in all, this picture of democracy does ostensibly conflict with Thoreau’s individualistic ideal at its very foundations.

Yet, although moral knowledge rests with the individual and “is accessible only to an individual through her conscientious study of higher law” (Jenco 364), nowhere does Thoreau reject the idea of majority rule altogether. The two are not definitively painted as mutually exclusive; it seems that he just wants individuals who comprise the state to be “men first, and subjects afterward” (Thoreau 2). If these citizens can be “men” in the Thoreauvian sense, meaning conscientious, then this may be enough to satisfy Thoreau. He understands that “a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience” (Thoreau 2). Such a statement does not necessarily call for the abolition of group-situated power, but simply for each man to be more “conscientious,” so as to positively impact the justness of the outcome of decisions made by the majority.

If men were to act as per their consciences like Thoreau advocates, this action would not really be the individualistic, subjective chaos that some, like Hannah Arendt, may paint it out to be. In her essay titled “Civil Disobedience” Arendt claims that conscience “cannot be generalized; in order to keep its validity, it must remain subjective,” where “the result is that conscience will stand against conscience” without any way of resolving which is correct (Arendt 64). However, even Jenco herself reads Thoreau’s view of the individual’s moral conscience as one that does not “encourage arbitrary justification for any behaviour, but instead would present very strict ethical standards that, while accessible only to individuals, nevertheless could be expected to converge much the same way as he observed laws of nature to do” (Jenco 361). Morality may be available only to the individual alone through his conscience, but Thoreau concedes that groups of individuals can enforce morality; one that he suggests would actually coincide. This implies that those who do not adhere to the ethical standards mentioned above are likely not following their conscience. If these consciences were expected to unify, then Thoreau would likely not object to majority rule, since the individual shares his morality with the majority. Thoreau even proposes that he would “cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than” him (Thoreau 18), indicating that if a majority were just, he would gladly follow its lead. In the event that men “serve the state with their consciences also,” instead of “as machines, with their bodies” (Thoreau 3), then Thoreau would probably not take issue with majority rule. Overall, the individual is viewed by Thoreau to be more like the vessel through which a convergent morality is transmitted to the majority, and from there, it is only a matter of the majority following their consciences as well, with majority rule not being a real failing of democracy in itself.

Jenco furthermore proposes that Thoreau rejects majority rule as he sees the idea of accepting the outcome of a majority rule decision as inherently unjust. She interprets Thoreau as saying that in a democracy, “majority-determined outcomes wither the vitality of the private conscience,” inevitably disrupting an individual from “committing oneself to doing what is right” (Jenco 366). Instead of “private conscience” being the dominant force, so as to do “what is right,” “its influence is completely undermined when it agrees to abide by the outcome of a vote” (Jenco 366). The “individuals within the polity – whether they voted or not, whether their views won out or not – are then bound by the decisions made by the collective political body” (Jenco 371). Taken to its logical end, Jenco argues that Thoreau perceives voting, and consequently democracy, as the individual having no say in governance whatsoever – on the contrary, it is subsumed by the sector of society with the strongest numbers, and subject to “moral tyranny” (Jenco 366).

On the other hand, Thoreau does not say that majority rule is inherently unjust, but is only opposed to the use of majority rule to arbitrate every decision. He mentions Paley’s “Duty of Submission to Civil Government,” who says that “so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, and no longer” (Thoreau 4). Paley thinks it advantageous for citizens to follow the ruling government out of convenience, as it results in a boon for the whole of society. Because this “computation” (Thoreau 4) of costs and benefits is worthwhile for citizens to follow most of the time, to Thoreau, majorities should be able to “decide only those questions which the rule of expediency is applicable” (Thoreau 2). Granted, Thoreau’s chief argument is that “Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may” (Thoreau 4), and consequently does not fully agree with Paley. To Thoreau, expediency is not the be all and end all, and certainly needs checks and balances. Nevertheless, he implicitly concedes that the majority rule can be useful in certain circumstances out of the need for effectiveness. Otherwise, governance would be near-impossible, likely due to how the state would be politically paralysed because of the need for the consent of every citizen (Bahmueller, Johnston and Quigley 23), so this type of decision-making regarding matters of “expediency” is enough consent for Thoreau. Since Thoreau approves of majority rule in these instances, it seems that it is not an inherently unjust mechanism, even if it may have limitations in enforcing justice in all cases.

Thoreau even advises that a citizen should accept small injustices. He advocates that “if the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth, – certainly the machine will wear out,” or if “the injustice has some spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil” (Thoreau 8). Thoreau urges the individual to act only if the citizen becomes personally involved in the “injustice to another” (Thoreau 8). However, for the most part, perhaps he can agree to many of the problematic aspects of government, because they are simply not worth quibbling with. He expects some level of bureaucracy to be present, as it is an inevitable part of the government “machine” (Jenco 362); he understands that this makes life “less political” (Jenco 362), and hence easier for the citizen to attend to his “other affairs” (Thoreau 8). Therefore, majority rule is certainly an option for them to undertake. Thoreau does not assume majority rule to be intrinsically unjust; instead he generally supports the idea of majority rule and obeying the government that enforces laws based on the public will, with a caveat.

In fact, Thoreau seems to think that democracy should be overturned only as a last resort, those cases where “the rule of expediency does not apply” (Thoreau 4). These instances refer to when basic human rights are abrogated, which Thoreau finds to be an intolerable affront to justice. Only then does he advise “a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may” (Thoreau 4). This is corroborated by Ruth Lane’s view, where Thoreau “remains ‘aloof’” from government institutions “except when their activities pass his threshold of outrage, at which point he is able, as conventional citizens are not, to take independent action” (Lane 287). Only when a certain line of human decency is crossed, does Thoreau advocate his civil disobedience. In less serious cases, action is simply too costly or inconvenient for Thoreau to wholeheartedly endorse it. Thoreau “did not wish to overthrow the state” (Lane 287); he may have noted the inadequacies of democracy, but did not want to get rid of it altogether. He asks for “not at once no government, but at once a better government” (Thoreau 2). When Thoreau criticizes democracy’s weaknesses, he is merely discussing rare scenarios that need to be provided for. Hence, democracy is not unjust within itself, but where it is insufficient, Thoreau has a proviso to make up for it.

         According to Jenco, not only does Thoreau find majority rule unjust as a mechanism, but she believes that he takes issue with the collapse of institutional and moral duties, which entails obeying the law for the sake of it, rather than an individual’s moral obligation. Democracy is unable to “acquire anything more than the externals of consent, man’s ‘bodies,’” not “the noblest faculties of the mind, and the whole heart.” (Jenco 366). Any so-called consent it obtains is false, because it is not consent of the “mind” or “heart.” What occurs is that “majority-determined outcomes wither the vitality of the private conscience” (Jenco 365). This is because the “actual decision to fulfill the promise or not is derived from an external and independent moral obligation,” having the individual do what is “merely legal,” instead of uphold a moral duty out of their own volition (Jenco 365). As it is, representational democracy “presumes to represent that which can never be represented,” that is, the “moral part of ourselves” (Jenco 367), thereby creating “moral damage.” Jenco claims the majority cannot impose itself onto the individual without compromising the “private conscience” prized by Thoreau; that Thoreau finds this sort of reliance on external pressure to obey the law morally insufficient, as it dilutes the individual’s ability to uphold “action from principle” (Jenco 370). The implication is that this somehow cheapens the act of obeying the law, mostly because it pretends to be a consensual act that should be left up to the individual to decide what law he wants to obey, but is actually forced.

Ultimately, though, Jenco still fails to prove that Thoreau wants to do away with democracy altogether. Undoubtedly, Thoreau does agree with Jenco that the “State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses” (Thoreau 12). Yet, Thoreau does not say that majority rule by nature takes a toll on “the vitality of the private conscience;” the kind of collapse that engenders “moral damage” would only refer to the most contentious of cases. As previously quoted, Thoreau would “cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than” himself. Jenco’s point falls because Thoreau’s text displays the possibility of an overlap between the moral and positional duties, where the Thoreauvian citizen would obey the law if it harmonized with justice, not even merely his own version of justice, but one that is more comprehensive.

Moreover, Jenco’s point is not specific to democracy; assuming there was a problem with the collapse between obligations, then this is not a flaw of democracy but has to do with the nature of states in and of themselves. Any type of state, democratic or undemocratic, assuming they instituted laws, would arguably lead to this collapse between moral and positional duties. We must remember that Thoreau is not calling for “no government” but a “better government.” Jenco’s reading of Thoreau is that he wants to discard democracy in favour of a “neighbourliness ethic” (Jenco 378) to “stand in for legal obligations,” which seems tantamount to suggesting that Thoreau does not want a government at all. The assumption within Jenco’s argument is that Thoreau’s “vision of justice requires a decentralization of political commitments that they may no longer be recognizably political at all” (Jenco 377), which is not sufficiently supported by Thoreau’s text. Thoreau’s citizen would follow a government, as long as it acted justly.

What Thoreau really appears to be saying is that when participating in a democracy, individuals must augment their votes with actions instead of passively accepting the outcome of majority rule in those exceptional cases where injustice has occurred. Thoreau declares to men, “cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence” (Thoreau 9). It is a call for men to act on the vote that they have submitted, because “all voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions, and betting naturally accompanies it” (Thoreau 5). His problem with majority rule in those cases where “expediency does not apply” is that “even voting for the right is doing nothing for it” (Thoreau 9). Voting in itself is insufficient here, as the outcome is unjust. Consequently, taking “action from principle” to augment the voting process becomes important for Thoreau. He is hoping that men will focus on the “performance of right” to change “things and relations” (Thoreau 7), but this has nothing to do with a pretense of consent on the part of democracy. According to Lane, Thoreau concluded that “we must “mind our own business,” becoming self-governed individuals, where government implies neither absolute sovereignty nor autonomy but the affirmation of self-chosen principles in the face of whatever challenges the environment may impose” (Lane 286). The government has some measure of authority—that is not in question—however, it also does not exert complete sovereignty over the individual, giving a degree of freedom for Thoreau’s citizen to affirm his principles. This analysis could be applied to the exceptional cases where Thoreau’s citizen needs to fight against injustice because it has passed his “threshold of outrage.” Therefore, Thoreau does not want to do away with democracy altogether, but create an avenue for citizens to enforce just outcomes in the exceptional cases where wrong has been done.

In conclusion, Thoreau’s morally conscientious citizen would be able to accept the democratic process of majority rule in most instances. He does not have an issue with the concept itself, nor does he believe that democracy is a failure. On the contrary, Thoreau is sensitive to the utility of majority rule. It is only that Thoreau makes provisions for exceptional cases where majority rule will definitely violate basic human rights, which is not an inherent problem with democracy. Perhaps Thoreau saw fit to critique democracy not because he believed it was a failed system, but because he saw its potential; that by pointing out its shortcomings, citizens could advance closer towards his conscientious ideal.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. “Civil Disobedience.” Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harcourt

Brace & Company, 1972.

Bahmueller, Charles F., Michael Johnston, and Charles N. Quigley. Elements of      Democracy: The Fundamental Principles, Concepts, Social Foundations, and             Processes of Democracy. Calabasas: Center for Civic Education, 2007.

Jenco, Leigh Kathryn. “Thoreau’s Critique of Democracy.” The Review of Politics     65.3 (2003): 355-81.

Lane, Ruth. “Standing “Aloof” from the State: Thoreau on Self-Government.”     The Review of Politics 67.2 (2005): 283-310.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience and other Essays. Mineola: Dover

Publications, 1993.

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