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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Ultimately, Thoreau believes that sheer weight of numbers does not sanctify the will of the majority. In other words, just because a majority of people believe something, that doesn't necessarily make it right. A pertinent example here would be the overwhelming support among white Southerners for the institution of slavery.

Thoreau is a radical individualist, and his whole way of thinking is concerned with protecting the rights of the individual from encroachment by the potentially tyrannical forces of government and society. The individual is unique; the individual is precious. Majority rule undermines that special status by establishing weight of numbers as the key determinant of what governments should and should not do. If governments are only concerned with satisfying the will of the majority, then inevitably, thinks Thoreau, the rights of the individual are in serious danger of being compromised.

However, there's one aspect of individuality that not even the most powerful, tyrannical government can touch, and that's the individual conscience. The conscience stands as a bulwark against the depredations of a government based on the principle of majority rule. It alone supplies the moral impulse necessary to establish a just system of government. Thoreau's privileging of the individual conscience, though seemingly radical, is quite traditional, perfectly in keeping with a fundamental principle of representative democracy: legislators must always act on their own best understanding of the matters before them instead of blindly following what the majority wants. In other words, elected politicians are representatives, not delegates.

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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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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.

 

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