Does Might Still Make Right?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Often historical figures are accused of having a “might makes right” attitude. The idea being that the one with superior military might is the one who is morally right. The Romans used the line “vae victus”, or “woe to the vanquished”. In moral philosophy, this is usually deemed a fallacy. Just because one is the stronger does not necessarily mean that one has ethical truth on one’s side. The strong have, throughout history, done many terrible things. However, I have begun to see a modern form of the same argument used in today’s society, and this I find very troubling.

Might makes right is derived from some level of moral scepticism and/or nihilism, which hold that moral truth is unknown and perhaps even unknowable. The logical derivation goes something like this:

  1. What is right is unknown.
  2. What the stronger desires will prevail.
  3. Therefore, the stronger might as well be right.

This argument rests on Hume’s is-ought fallacy, the notion that because a thing is, it ought to be that way. The is-ought fallacy is at the heart of many conservative arguments concerning the perpetuation of the status quo. Hume cautions his readers against the employment of this fallacy, and his efforts to distinguish and completely separate is’s from ought’s has come to be called “Hume’s Guillotine”, providing the image of the one being dramatically severed from the other.

How does this come into our modern society? Well, generally speaking, the side with greater might in a military conflict is the side with greater numbers. If the numbers are rather close or the technological gap rather distant, a smaller force may get the better of a larger force from time to time, but, on the whole, given equal technical ability and equal strategic command talent, the larger force will usually win. In modern politics, the “larger force” can be said to be the force that accumulates more votes, and so a very similar logical argument can be made in favour of the notion “majority makes right”:

  1. What is right is unknown.
  2. What the majority desires will prevail.
  3. Therefore, the majority might as well be right.

Increasingly, I am hearing it argued that policies should be implemented merely because they poll well or have received more votes, not for any actual moral reason. A moral reason might be, for instance, that the policy conforms with a deontology or produces good consequences. There is nothing inherent to the fact that a policy has majority support to make it conform with existing deontologies (be they religious or secular) or produce good consequences, just as there would be nothing inherent to the fact that the supporters of the given policy had superior force at hand.

Both policies derived from might and policies derived from majority could be very blatantly and obvious bad–both procedures for determining right could result in slavery, in segregation, in all kinds of injustices, and indeed have done so in the past and arguably continue to do so in less obvious ways now (the ways are of course less obvious because, in order to survive as policy in a might or majority society, the strong or the majority, usually synonymous, must remain in approval).

I argue that there is no essential moral difference between a society reliant upon might makes right and one reliant upon majority makes right. Now, not all supporters of democracy embrace the notion that whatever the democracy votes for is actually moral truth, as for instance Rousseau argues. Many of them argue that a democracy can and does make moral mistakes, but that it is still a good system of government either for non-moral procedural reasons (in which case, why not play rock, paper, scissors, for it is just as fair?) or on the basis that the majority is more likely to be right than any one individual (which assumes that the average person is right more than half the time, an assumption I would be more than a little reluctant to accept).

Often it is argued that because the system is considered fair, it eliminates political violence. Putting aside the notion that there are many fair systems that would seem obviously bad moral adjudicators (like the rock/paper/scissors example), what this argument is really saying when you get right down to it is that democracy is the same thing as might makes right, but that the actual violent conflict is avoided and replaced with a vote to estimate the outcome of the fight. Seeing that their chances of prevailing in a military confrontation are the lesser, the side with fewer votes capitulates. This is, I will admit, a wonderful improvement over might makes right in terms of reducing the number of people who have to fight and die as part of the political process, but it is still fundamentally precisely the same value upon which the decision is turning–who most likely has the greater capacity for violence.

It strikes me as not particularly moral to make decisions on the basis of who has more people willing to dish out violence on one’s side. Peaceful yes, but not moral. And so the lack of ambition of the political system is revealed–this is a system that settles for making decisions nonviolently, without so much as attempting to ensure that the decisions that are made are good decisions. Why not have both? Because devising such a system is difficult? Surely this is so, but since when are our moral duties no longer moral duties because they entail difficult work?

In the end, the supporter of the status quo must fall back upon the sceptical argument upon which the entire artifice is built, the argument that moral truths are unknown and unknowable, so any ethical system is as good (or as bad) as any other. We can concede that we cannot know with certainty what is good and what is bad, but by the same token, the sceptic cannot know with certainty that this places any moral obligation upon us. Just because we have epistemological uncertainty does not mean we are obliged to throw morality and ethics out the window and abandon them in their entirety. Uncertainty does not bind us upon any path. We may never know for certain if we tread rightly or wrongly, but that does not free us from treading. We must apply our reason as best we can to tread as best we can, wherever that takes us. Abandoning the enterprise, as the sceptic and the democracy enthusiast both ask us to do, leads only to what will appear to us, in our uncertainty, to be a very bleak and unpleasant world.