What does Thoreau mean in "Civil Disobedience" when he says, "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide...

What does Thoreau mean in "Civil Disobedience" when he says, "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?  Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?”

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teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this quotation from "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau questions the benefit of the "majority rule" system of government and asks whether or not the human conscience can be the barometer by which we as a people decide on matters of law and justice.  Thoreau believes that citizens should not be required by a matter of legal course to submit themselves to the whims of elected legislators who claim to have their best interests at heart.  He believes that the majority rule system allows for the voices of many underrepresented citizens to go unheard and that a true, better government would rule through acts of conscience, not through acts based on the ideas of the majority.  He goes on in the essay to address the institution of slavery that is supported by a majority rule system and argues that the human conscience would (or should) rule that such a system of slavery is morally denigrating to slaves and slave owners.  Thoreau challenges people to look at the ethical underpinnings of our system of government to decide whether or not a majority rule system really supports and calls for justice.

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Civil Disobedience

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