Greater good or individual right (Bentham or Rawls)?

Bentham posited that: 

"It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong."

(More commonly, in the parlance of Star Trek: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.")

On the other hand, Rawls has posited that:

"Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests."

Which of these philosophers do you agree with, and why?

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I gave you an answer: appropriation without consent is wrong.

The either/or individual or society IS a dichotomy.  I maintain that is a false one as, apparently, do you (from your last reply, anyway).

Ideology is the problem, IMHO.  Practicality is the key.

I have rules of thumb to help me determine my actions.  I have never found an ideal that had a chance of becoming a reality.

I distrust any position that calls for an unalterable ideal, just as I distrust anyone who manifests certainty about anything.

It's been a stimulating debate.  Have a good evening.


In his 1974 book The Ultra Secret, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham asserted that the British government had advance warning of the attack from Ultra: intercepted German radio messages encrypted with the Enigma cipher machine and decoded by British cryptoanalysts at Bletchley Park. He further claimed that Winston Churchill ordered that no defensive measures should be taken to protect Coventry, lest the Germans suspect that their cipher had been broken.

Now, the claims made in this book have been disputed and are quite suspect, but let's suspend our judgment for a bit and do a "what if?"

What if Churchill had left Coventry exposed to an air raid that killed thousands of his fellow countrymen, but in doing so he kept the the fact that they had cracked the Enigma code a secret, shortening the war and perhaps saving hundreds of thousands of other countrymen? Who knows? Perhaps without keeping Enigma secret the war might have been lost and perhaps we in the West would be living under Nazi rule. 

Now, I think that choice would have made Bentham's and Rawls's heads explode. 

Me, I'd go with a pragmatist, not a utilitarian or Rawlsian.

The 'what-if' scenario you've described is just the kind of thought experiment that tests ethical theories.  In this case, without being able to read the future, you (or Churchill) would have to go with the best information you had.  You would be condemning many people to death for sure, but you'd only have a guess as to how many lives keeping the secret of the cracking of the Enigma cipher would save.

Churchill might well have taken the gamble, I wouldn't have.  Again, it's about choice.  I might suggest a third option (assuming there would be time).  Ask the natives of Coventry.


"Citizens of Coventry, would you liked to be bombed?" ~Churchill

My guess is that the answer would be no. 

I think you would be surprised at how many would choose to make that kind of sacrifice for their fellow Britons.


No one can "read" the future. That's an irrational expectation. However, a leader often has to make choices based on reasonable expectations and information at hand. In war, that's especially so. How could anyone conduct a war (or any policy) if they had could only do so by reading the future.

Don't be ridiculous. 

Once again, I go back to a third choice. Bentham or Rawls is a false dilemma.

But losing the advantage England had over the Nazis could have lost them the war. Of course, you come to a fork in the road and choose one over the other and you'll never know whether the other fork would have been better or worse, but if I were Churchill, I'd look at the fact that we had cracked their code and that they didn't know it, and suddenly I could see how the war could be winnable. 

I don't think it would make their heads explode, Bentham would say unequivocally yes and Rawls no. 

I get the impression you haven't done a lot of philosophical speculating.


And I get the impression you're not aware that your name is written at the top of every post already. You don't have to slap it at the end of every post to make it look as if you just quoted a famous philosopher.

A legend in his own mind?

Well, their lack of equivocation would make me worry about both their theories.


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