Explain what Thoreau thinks is wrong with majority rule in "Civil Disobedience." What does he say is the only obligation he has a right to assume?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau argues that majority rule is not a moral form of government. He says that majority rule is not any more likely to bring about justice than another form of government. The reason for this is that, in his mind, the majority does not necessarily have the best answers to the questions that societies face.  Instead, what they have is superior numbers and superior power.  As Thoreau says, when a majority rules for a long time, it is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.

Thus, Thoreau thinks that majority rule is based only on might, not right.  This is what is wrong with this form of government.

Instead of having majority rule, Thoreau thinks that everyone should follow their own conscience.  He says that we should not respect the law because the law can be wrong. Instead, we should respect “the right.” We should care about what is right, not what is legal.  Thoreau believed that

"The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."

In this way, Thoreau thinks that majority rule is bad because it is based on brute force and that the only obligation that he, and all people, have the right to assume is the right do follow their own conscience.


jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau writes that the majority is able to rule only because it is the strongest group. However, the ruling power of the majority is not based on justice, only on its power. He writes that a government based on majority rule can never be just. Instead, a just government is based on individuals' consciences, not on majority rule or expediency.

Thoreau believes that his only obligation is to his conscience. He writes, "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." He does not think that he should relegate his obligation to do what he feels is right to a legislature, and he writes that an institution, such as a government or corporation, can only be just because it is made up of just members who follow their conscience. Law, he believes, does not in itself make people more just, but following their sense of what is right creates justice. 

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Civil Disobedience

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