A Matter of Respect. On the relation between the majority and minorities in a democracy

The relations between the majority and minorities in a democracy have been standardly viewed as the main subject matter of toleration: the majority should refrain from using its dominant position to interfere with some minorities’ practices or beliefs despite its dislike or disapproval of such practices or beliefs. Can the idea of toleration provide us with the necessary resources to understand and respond to the problems arising out of majority/minorities relations in a democracy? We reply in the negative and make two main claims: first, that resorting to toleration is not enough to make sense of the problems deriving from the unequal participation of minorities in society, and, second, that it risks sanctioning the asymmetric relation between the majority and minorities informed by the negative judgement of the former towards some belief or practice of the latter. We suggest resorting instead to the idea of equal opacity respect for persons: all persons should be treated equally as moral agents, in accordance with their equally possessing the capacity for self-legislation, and as if they were opaque to our judgement for all those properties of theirs which exceed moral agency. Looking at the majority/minorities relations through such a lens enables us to understand (and appropriately respond to) what is problematic in such relations: the majority often fails to treat minorities as moral agents by failing to take their voices into account on an equal footing, by seeing them merely as recipients of certain provisions affecting them rather than their authors, and by considering them as legitimately exposed to the majority’s (negative) judgment. The purchase of our argument is illustrated by reference to two minorities whose treatment is paradigmatic of the problematic nature of majority/minorities relations across Europe: Muslims and Roma.
Keywords Toleration  Respect  Democracy
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