Populism and ad populum

Rather paradoxically the phrase, “because it is majority’s view”, has no place amongst reasoning within a democratic process. Nonetheless, the phrase tends to pop up now and then in politics. Let us, therefore, recount the most important problem: to use the phrase is, basically, to grossly misinterpret what democracy is about.

Democratic process is about making best possible decisions with limited information while facing staggering uncertainty. The process, to put it as simply as should be possible, consists of public presentations of arguments for several different viewpoints, and public discussion of reasons and justifications, pros and cons, for all these views. After the arguments and viewpoints have been assessed, the democratic vote takes place deciding majority for some view. We hope, in democracy, that, although some might be wrong, it is less likely that many would be wrong, at least when they have faced and discussed a good number of well reasoned arguments.

Now, a careful reader would have noted that the process starts with viewpoints and arguments, and ends with deciding the popular view. Thus, if one of the arguments has as its sole reason that the viewpoint presented is the most popular, i.e., that it is the majority’s view, we are heading into trouble. The plow is pulling the horse: if majority is given to a view because it is majority’s view, no democratic decision making takes place. No reasons are given for the people to vote for the view above the ludicrous “vote like this, most will vote so anyway.” Instead of democracy, this would be, to use controversial language, “a tyranny of majority”.

After the decision has been reached with a democratic process, of course, we must accept that something was the majority’s view. But this acceptance is different from mere populism, and it has justification beyond the ad populum fallacy: the majority was reached through a democratic decision process. The horse has returned back in front and some plowing on the common field can now commence.

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