Assent, The Fallacy of

The fallacy that an argument is correct because it is approved by the majority, or by the authorities.

The power of the majority has been recognised, from Aristotle onwards, as a potential form of tyranny. It is capable of “the most cruel oppression and injustice” (Edmund Burke); “The tyranny of the majority is among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard” (John Stuart Mill).A47 And, for Alexis de Tocqueville,

No monarch is so absolute that he can gather all the forces of society into his own hands and overcome resistance as can a majority endowed with the right of enacting laws and executing them.A48

And the risk is real, because populist views, whether in the majority or not, are biased towards reductionism and memory fillers, such as fixation on recent symbolic events without context. Received opinion can quickly calibrate to a new idea of what is normal, or the discovery of someone new to blame.

This was demonstrated by intended and unintended experiments in the twentieth century. They are probably the most famous experiments ever done in sociology, so there is nothing new here, but they deserve reflection. Solomon Asch showed the extent to which people will go along with a consensus view even if this means refusing to believe the clear—and, in other circumstances undeniable—evidence of their eyes. In the figure, which line—B, C or D—is the same length as line A? What about C? Not in the eyes of a person (with a few heroic exceptions) who finds himself in a minority of one in a group which (in collusion with the experimenter) insists otherwise. In another experiment, by Stanley Milgram, subjects were willing to torture others with powerful electric shocks “for research purposes” if instructed to do so by a person with apparent authority in a laboratory setting with the trappings of official endorsement.A49

In the same tradition, Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set out to discover what would happen if college students were placed in positions of near-absolute power as prison warders over (fellow-student) prisoners. The rules were that there was to be no physical or sexual assault; otherwise, this was an “anything goes” regime. The experiment was flawed, with the experimenters getting close to encouraging the guards to make life hard for the prisoners; nonetheless, the “guards” played their part with enthusiasm, and the experiment was terminated prematurely on account of their cruelty: they had their cowed victims in a state of advanced depression, with crying, rage, helplessness and loss of identity; they simply gave up and “stopped behaving”. The guards’ behaviour was conscientious and dutiful; it was their ethic; they worked diligently, putting in overtime without pay. The most hostile and tyrannical of the guards set the ethical standard for the rest, and there was “tyranny creep”, as each new level of hostility became the baseline from which further hostility and harassment would begin.A50

Yet not all the people involved in these experiments submitted to the pressure of group or official assent to the same extent. In the Asch and Milgram experiments, some refused to submit at all—having confidence in their own judgment and being able to engage with a subject on its own terms rather than in terms of winning approval.

From the point of view of life after oil, perhaps the most significant aspect of these make-believe experiments is the law-abiding normality of the subjects in their real lives. The breakdowns of normality when oil outages begin will be seen by many as a licence to flip into a different ethical code which, from where we stand, will be hard to recognise or believe. A well-behaved society is contained in a thin membrane which has been assumed to be a given. But it is not a given: it has to be slowly constructed, intelligently maintained, understood and not undermined. Its significance and the consequences of breakage may escape attention until the early stages of the coming energy-famine place them under pressure.


Related entries:

Metamorphosis, Humility, Character, Anarchism, Constructivism, Democracy, Ideology.

« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: