Good Debates 2: Appeal to Majority

There are many arguments that pro-abortion advocates like to use to argue their point. One argument is the appeal to the majority, often used to argue for legal abortion, and sounding something like this: “80% of Americans support abortion.” In America, this seems like a strong argument, as the democratic process is built into our political system, and many abortion-related bills have been rejected or made law by majority votes.

The hidden premise of the appeal to majority is that the majority is correct. We know that premise is wrong, but it doesn’t do to say, “You’re wrong!” and downgrade the discussion to the level of kindergarten playground fights. There is a second hidden premise in the majority appeal, but we’ll come to that in a moment. First, what does a conversation look like where this majority appeal is used?

Prolife debater: “Abortion should be illegal because it always results in the death of an unborn child.”

Proabortion debater: “No, abortion should be legal because the majority of Americans are pro-abortion.”

As it turns out, the argument is not really about abortion. The fundamental disagreement here is about the purpose of the law applied to abortion.

Americans tend to have a democratic view of the world. We vote on millage, on school boards, on governors, on senators, on presidents, on whether to approve the minutes of the local country club board meeting. Both extremely important and ridiculously pedantic things are determined by a majority rule. This leads to a cultural belief that the majority vote is the moral vote. This belief adds a layer of nuance to the majority argument, as it drags the purpose of the law into the question.

Most people would agree that the law should always protect good and punish bad. So if the law is determined by majority vote, then we have to ask if the majority always wants to protect good and punish bad. There are numerous examples from history which show that the majority was in the moral wrong. The French Revolution saw most of the population of France call for the deaths of the entire aristocratic class based on the gluttony and greed of only a few rulers. The popular opinion of France was wrong.

A few centuries later, the American Civil War was sparked out of the popular belief that the states had the right to secede, and that Whites had the right to own Black slaves. Legally, they did, though it was a grossly immoral law. The popular opinion of the Confederate States of America was morally wrong, and slavery was tossed into the dust bin of history, along with its cousin, segregation, a century later. Here the law and the majority do not conflict, but morality and the majority do. Segregation was legal, and was a popular opinion held by many states in America, yet it was morally wrong.

When engaging this majority argument determine first if the fundamental disagreement is about the law or morality. Ask:

“Why do you think that the majority opinion should be enshrined in the law?”

“What happens if the majority opinion changes? Should the law change too?”

“Are there laws which should never ever change, no matter how unpopular they become?”

This last question is the key to the whole argument. In American culture, the majority argument’s second hidden premise is that the majority opinion ought to be reflected in the law.

However, the prolife argument also has a hidden premise which can help take down the appeal to the American democratic majority. That hidden premise is that the law should prioritize morality above majority. The conversation at the beginning of this article results in conflict because the prolife person believes the law should reflect the immorality of the intentional killing of a living and unborn child, while the proabortion person believes the law should reflect the beliefs of the American majority.

To avoid pointless arguing, and to find out more about what your opponent believes, here’s some questions you can ask them.

“Do you think the majority can be wrong?” This forces acknowledgement of a moral authority superior to the majority opinion. However, this is a yes or no question, which can make your opponent defensive, thinking they are being backed into a corner.

“Do you think the law can be wrong?” Same question as before, but regarding the law.

“What do you do if the law bans something you think should be legal?” This question will help you to discover what your opponent believes the law’s function in society is, and it gives them a chance to explain why they are advocating for abortion.

“What do you do if the law allows something you think should be illegal?” In addition to accomplishing the same thing as the previous question this can help them to empathize with the prolife position

“Sometimes the majority opinion and the law disagree. Which one do you think is more important?” This can be a reference to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade through the Dobbs ruling if you want it to be. You can also use this to illustrate that when the two conflict, there is often a morally right answer and a legally right answer, and one must be prioritized over the other (e.g. slavery/segregation in the south).

Always ask a lot of “Why…?” questions in response to statements.

It’s likely your opponent will mention something about reproductive rights, women dying from botched abortions or from pregnancies gone wrong, and other issues that they believe supersede the unborn baby’s right to live, either because they don’t believe the fetus is a human, or because they believe that the law should follow the majority before it reflects a moral objective – if they believe in a moral objective at all. But those are arguments for other articles.

 

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