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Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778) French philosopher and writer

Marquis de Condorcet (1743—1794)


social choice


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The view that legitimate political authority expresses the will of the majority of those subject to this authority (also known as the majority principle). Some commentators regard the majority principle as self‐evidently the appropriate way of determining law or policy where citizens disagree. According to John Locke: ‘when any number of Men have, by the consent of every individual, made a Community, they have thereby made that Community one Body, with a Power to Act as one Body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority. For that which acts any Community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the Body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority; or else it is impossible it should act or continue one Body…’. Others, such as Rousseau, claim that the majority will is more likely to be objectively correct in identifying what is in the common good than the minority's, a view that derives some support from Condorcet's jury theorem. This result depends, however, on whether the majority is indeed aiming at the common good, rather than its own sectional interests. Critics point out that since citizens need not aim for the common good, a simple majority will need not accord with what is objectively fair, leading to the view that there should be some constitutional limits on the majority's authority. The development of modern social choice theory has also raised awkward questions about the very idea of a ‘majority will’. Social choice theory suggests that where a group of people are choosing between more than two alternatives, the alternative that is selected as the winner can change depending on exactly which democratic institutions are used to aggregate individuals' preference orderings into a ‘social choice’. The majority will is not something which exists prior to the process of aggregation, and which is reflected by it; rather, it is something which exists only following the process of aggregation, and different, apparently reasonable processes of aggregation may produce different majority wills (see cycle). If, however, there is a potential plurality of majority wills for any given set of individuals' underlying preference orderings, it is less clear why any specific majority will has the special legitimacy assumed by majoritarianism.


Subjects: Politics.

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