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pathways (essays)

Alan Bradnam

Truth and the Majority View

The majority view occurs in a wide range of judgments from a few friends arguing over a football game to worldwide opinion of global ecology. The purpose of this essay is to explore the formation of a majority view and test the validity of its judgment using the reality principle.

The reality principle

Wittgenstein's private language argument attacks the idea of the private object. Essentially, his claim is that if I cannot be wrong about 'the colour blue looks to me' then I cannot be right either. His reasoning is that no one else can see what is in my mind, therefore, there can be no objective corroboration of that which is my subjective judgment. The prime target for the reality principle is also the private object. In Dr G. Klempner's Pathways to Philosophy — Metaphysics 2/23 the reality principle is used as a tool to test whether a judgment is genuine or not. Our judgments are statements about how things seem to be to us, but we must accept the possibility that our judgments may be false. However, my beliefs about the world can be false only if there are possible circumstances that would lead me to override my conviction that I am right. The point of using the reality principle is that if we do not accept the possibility of our own judgment being wrong then there can be no distinction between truth and falseness.

By applying the reality principle to a majority view definition of truth we can say that it must be possible for the majority view to be false. If this definition of truth produces judgments that cannot be wrong, then they cannot be right either. However, the judgments of the majority can be false only if there are possible circumstances that would lead them to override their conviction that they were right.

Forms of majority view

The term majority is imprecise and simply means the major part of a population. The part may be anything between fifty and one hundred per cent, and the population may be any number. We need to consider the way a majority is formed before we can value the majority view as a genuine judgment.

(i) A majority view may form where individuals do not know what judgments are being made by others. Suppose a canvasser stops passers-by at random and asks each one 'How many times did Bjorn Borg win the Wimbledon men's single's tennis championship?' A summary of the results shows that 60% said five times, 15 per cent said six times, 15 per cent said four times, and 10 per cent said three times. Thus, the majority view of people think that Borg won the title five times. The majority view in this case is no more than a classification of groups, with the group containing the most votes termed the majority. Consequently, the majority view can not be known until after the poll has been conducted. In secret polls such as this the majority view can not influence individual judgment. It is possible then that the majority view may be false because it is possible for the judgment of the individuals who constitute the majority to be false.

(ii) Consider an example where individuals may be influenced by the majority view. At an exhibition of modern art, I was already aware that the majority judged modern art to be not great art. Typical of the works on display were, a painting of the stars and stripes of the American flag, another painting of repetitive images of a Coca-Cola bottle, and one canvas painted completely black. These three works generated much discussion in the gallery's cafe. At one table a group of art students was of the view that it is great art. At another table a group of tourists judged modern art as not great art. As a whole the majority of the people in the cafe judged modern art to have little merit. Those in the minority were experts and art students who seemed to have a greater knowledge of the subject.

Why do the majority hold their view? The main argument seems to be that anyone, including them, could paint an American flag, a black square, or duplicate images of a bottle. That in itself is true but it is not a justified reason to say that these three paintings are not great art. In the first place, the majority have not looked at these works as art but as images. That is, they only see an American flag. They have not noticed that the painting is also made from collage and that each star is different. With the black square, they have failed to see the variety of brush marks that form part of the artwork. The second point is that they have not considered how art was viewed when these works were executed and what a radical departure from established art they were. The point is that these artists created an artwork that had never been conceived before. I believe these works to be great art but I also recognise that my judgement may be wrong. The majority believe otherwise but I am not swayed by their judgement. I am firm in my belief because I have looked at the artwork. I have read art books to learn about the subject and I have tried painting. I know how difficult it is. The fact that I have experienced what for me is a truth, means that I have a conviction about my belief that cannot be swayed by a majority who do not share that same experience. The judgment of the majority may therefore be false, because it is based on limited information and experience.

(iii) Deferring to the judgment of experts is another way a majority may form. Suppose my car breaks down. I could try to fix it myself but my judgment of what is wrong is prone to error as I know little about the mechanics of a car. I should let an expert repair it, but how do I decide which one I can trust. There is a neighbour who always seems to be fixing cars in his back yard. In the local newspaper the small ads list many car repair garages. The dealers who sold me the car also carry out repairs. They may all be proficient in repairing cars but each one gives me a different level of confidence that is based on their qualifications and experience. The neighbour is always repairing his car but it also seems to break down more often. His expertise may lean more towards cheap short term solutions. The small ads do not show any one repairer to be any different from another. If I visit one of the garages I find a ramshackle outfit with old car parts and grease everywhere. Others have left their cars to be repaired so they must know what they are doing, but will they know enough about the make of car I have? The dealership specialises in that make of car, have their own trained mechanics and give me more confidence that their judgment will be correct. There are many experts with differing levels of expertise, but their fields of expertise also vary. There is no guarantee that an expert will be correct all the time. All I can do is find those whose fields of specialisation suit my needs and then choose the one who has the highest level of expertise. The danger in deferring to the judgement of experts is that while they may be expert in their own field a problem may require consideration of a number of fields in order to make the correct judgment.

(iv) A majority view may also be formed as the result of open discussion with equal knowledge of evidence. The most obvious example is when members of a jury make a judgment of a court trial. The jury all hear the same evidence presented in court and then retire to the juror's room to reach a majority decision. Before discussing the case the foreman asks for a show of hands. Six say guilty and six say not guilty. Why should there be a split decision when they have all been listening to the same evidence? As they discuss the evidence it is clear to the foreman that some have made their judgement not on the evidence presented but on what they think is true. The foreman reminds them that they must make their judgment on whether there is sufficient evidence to prove guilt. After further discussion nine say not guilty and three say guilty. Still they do not have a unanimous decision. This is because there is no magic rule to measure whether evidence is sufficient to prove guilt. At the extreme ends of the scale of evidence it will be clear that evidence is sufficient or not sufficient. For example, when thousands of spectators saw Eric Cantona karate kick one of the fans, it is clear that there is sufficient evidence of that action. Suppose a descendant of Caesar accused one of his neighbours of killing him. There simply is not sufficient evidence to prove guilt. There is no clear dividing line between what is sufficient and what is not sufficient. It is then up to the jurors to make a subjective judgment on the sufficiency of proof. In such cases it is still possible for the majority to make a false judgment.

Categories of judgments

From the examples above it seems that a majority view has greatest value when it is formed from personal experience or when it is formed from an open discussion of relevant evidence. Does this apply to all judgments though? We can divide judgments into four general categories dealing with objective things, subjective things, sensory perception, and reasoning. The four categories can then be classified as, objective sensory judgments, objective reasoning judgments, subjective sensory judgements, and reasoning based on subjective judgments.

(i) A simple example of an objective sensory judgment is in response to a question such as, 'is this essay typed on paper'. Your answer will be an objective sensory judgment because the paper is an objective thing and you will use your senses to perceive the paper. The possibility of error in such a judgment will depend on your experience and recognition of the object. With ordinary objects we experience daily the probability of an error in our judgment is low, whereas if I had to make a judgment about a part from inside a computer the probability of error would be much higher.

(ii) An objective reasoning judgment would result from a question such as, 'how many rolls of wallpaper do I need to decorate this room'. The objects in this case are the walls of the room and the rolls of wallpaper. The reasoning part of the judgment involves the calculations based on the measurement of the walls and the wallpaper. The probability of an error in judgment will increase according to the complexity of the measurements and calculations. It would seem that there is a higher probability of error with objective reasoning judgments than with objective sensory judgments.

(iii) With a subjective sensory judgment we make a subjective judgment about things perceived via the senses. For example, we could judge whether Celine Dion is more attractive than Madonna. The answer is not contained within the objects themselves but are subjective judgments following our perception of the objects. If I judge Celine more attractive and you judge Madonna more attractive, simple logic would say that one of us must be wrong. Beauty may exist in the physical form of an object even when unobserved, but attraction exists only when one is consciously aware of another. Although many women may be equally beautiful, not all will be equally attractive to any one individual. This is because each individual must make a subjective judgment about those whom he finds attractive. Therefore, when I say I find Celine more attractive, I am not only saying that is how it appears to me, but that that is the only way it can appear to me. Each of us is correct in our judgment because we can only make such a judgment from our own viewpoint. Because attraction is subjective and not objective, it seems that the probability of error in my judgment is low. An error could occur if for some reason, such as a memory lapse, I found Celine attractive yesterday, but today I say that yesterday I found Madonna more attractive.

(iv) Reasoning based on subjective judgment results from questions such as, 'is capital punishment morally wrong'. There is nothing in capital punishment itself that contains the answer to the moral question. Different moral theories may give opposing views on the moral justification of capital punishment. The moral stance of the individual is a subjective decision. The individual will then use reason to justify capital punsihment from the basis of his moral belief. A strict utilitarian ethics may justify executing a serial killer because taking that one life prevents greater pain caused by further murders by the serial killer. A majority may be swayed by this argument, but if the ethics is false then any judgments made from that basis may be false.

Strength of majority judgment

From the above arguments it seems that the form of majority that shows the most favourable chance of being correct is the one of open discussion with equal knowledge of evidence. The majority view would also have greater value if the participants have direct experience of the thing being judged. The question then is, if a majority view is formed in such a way would all categories of judgment stand the greatest chance of being correct?

Consider the first category of objective sensory judgments. Suppose a hundred people were given an apple and asked what the object was. All in the group have eaten apples in the past. With personal experience of the object and equal evidence before them, it seems unlikely that their judgment would be false. In fact it seems more likely that an open discussion would lead to a unanimously correct judgment. How would this work with an object which most people have not experienced directly, such as a UFO. Suppose we ask the question, 'do UFOs exist?' In some American states a majority would say yes because those people have personally seen a UFO. Would their judgment sway those who have not seen a UFO? The majority could discuss openly with others all the evidence and their own experiences. Others would not necessarily be swayed by their argument because the evidence is not so clear cut as in the case of the apple. The experience of those who have seen a UFO is also limited. With an apple you can see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, and even hear it crunch as you bite into it. UFO's are experienced only via sight and from a longer distance than most objects observed. The majority view then will have the greatest value when experience of the object is most complete.

A mathematical question is a good example for giving an objective reasoning judgment. Suppose we ask the question, 'is three to the power of fifteen equal to 14,348,907'. If I try to calculate this problem alone, it is possible that my judgment may be false. If fifteen people calculate the problem through an open dialogue their judgment stands a greater chance of being correct. Each person can stand for a power of three and calculate their part of the problem. Thus person 1 (p1) calculates three to the power of one equals three; p2 calculates nine; p3 equals 27 and so on. Others in the group validate each stage of the calculation through discussion and agree the result before passing on to the next stage. With this type of judgment there seems a greater chance of a majority judgment being correct through open discussion than if the majority were asked the question through a secret poll.

Consider a subjective sensory judgment such as whether the music of Strauss sounds more beautiful than the music of Mozart. My judgment may be for Strauss while another may prefer Mozart's music. The majority may say Mozart's music is more beautiful to listen to but that does not make me doubt my judgment. Would an open discussion reveal the correct judgment? The majority could explain why they believe Mozart's compositions are great or how they give rise to the best feelings in them, but that can also be argued for Strauss' music. There is nothing in the music itself that determines where it would fall on a scale of beauty. I could agree that Mozart's work is beautiful, but for me Strauss' music is more so. The point is that I can only judge what I hear and if Strauss' music strikes me as more beautiful then that is a genuine judgment from my viewpoint. There is no general correct judgment because the individual can only make a subjective judgment. The majority view then is correct for those who constitute the majority, but the judgment of the minority is also correct. It seems then that an open discussion would make little or no difference to an individual judgment.

Reasoning based on subjective judgment results from questions that require individuals to use their own reasoning to arrive at what they believe to be the case. This leaves room for error, first in the reasoning itself, and second in forming a judgment from that reasoning. Consider the moral question of justifying capital punishment. The arguments for and against are based on moral or religious beliefs. A strict utilitarian ethics may justify executing a serial killer to prevent further murders. A religious person may take the biblical phrase 'a life for a life' as a literal command of God, but then be faced with a dilemma in justifying that against the commandment 'thou shalt not kill'. A person's reasoning of these arguments will be influenced by their own moral beliefs. As there are different moral theories so people will form different reasoning on which to base their judgment. Would an open discussion enhance the majority view? As there is no definitive answer as to which moral theories are correct, there is a possibility that an open dialogue could sway someone if the moral arguments are stronger than the individual's own moral basis. However, there is no guarantee that the best moral argument at the time is the correct one.

Although an open debate may maximise the chances of a judgment's being correct for objective sensory judgments and objective reasoning judgments, this does not seem to be true of subjective based judgments. Judgments such as how a thing looks, sounds, or tastes to us cannot be right or wrong because there are no circumstances that would make us change our judgment. The subjective sensory judgments are all based on the private object and cannot be right or wrong even if it is the majority view.

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Klempner, G. The Ultimate Nature of Things

Sprigge, T.L.S. Theories of Existence (Penguin 1985)

Hamlyn, D. Metaphysics (CUP 1984)