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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What makes it an either/or proposition?

That you may either prioritize the greater good over individual rights or individual rights over the greater good.

The two positions are not incompatible.  The first statement is of utilitarian ethics.  No one can be forced to give up their rights under this system.  A utilitarian would consider it unethical to remove rights from individuals without their consent.  Mind you, the electoral process by which we pick the people who make these choices for us could constitute consent.

It is well to remember that the first statement has an important corollary: "The least harm for the least number of people."


Of course they can be forced to give up their rights. If the greater good demands it, their rights are null and void. If your house is in the way of a highway bypass, your land is expropriated. 

What you say is true, but that is NOT Utilitarianism.


Then how do you define utilitarianism? Surely, the foundational problem with it is the issue of justice?

The right to confiscate land is called "Eminent Domain".  There are three things to say about it: 1) it is very rarely used (an offer for the land—usually very generous—would be made before recourse to it); 2) the government must give fair market value in compensation, if ED is invoked; 3) participation in the electoral process (some might say citizenship alone) constitutes de facto consent in any case.

The first statement, above, defines Utilitarianism quite well, I think.  The corollary I added must not be forgotten, either. Sometimes everyone loses, in which case, the goal is to minimize the loss to as many people as possible.  

Justice is a goal, an abstract.  It is not a method.  All systems of ethics aim for it.  The path of Utilitarianism is the least encumbered with idealism, IMO.  It seeks the practical best in each situation.  It is justice, of a sort.


So your argument is that since utilitarianism isn't followed to it's logical conclusion in the US as it comes to expropriation, individual rights don't matter in the grand scheme of things..? 

I'm quite sure the first proposition is the definition of utilitarianism, seeing as Bentham is its father. :)

Rawls would disagree on your latter statement, justice is both the process and goal. An injust process cannot produce a just end by his definition. For instance, lets say the Steubenville rapists were acquitted because if they were condemned it would discourage millions of young men from producing great good for society. From the utilitarian view point, that would be a defensible  position.

The individual does not exist in isolation from the culture she or he is a part of.  What does this individual owe to the society that afforded her or him the great benefits that such structures bestow? (shelter, sustenance, protection, the opportunity for growth personal and professional).

One cannot talk of the justice owed the individual unless it be in the same sense that laboratory results are spoken of: that is, in isolation from their native environment.

I cannot call it 'justice' when an individual refuses to contribute to the greater good for fear of losing some much treasured thing, whatever it be.  This is my opinion only, FWIW.

Time and again, top-down enforcement of "national priorities" such as compulsory military service, have been struck down.  The state's assertion of the right to demand of an individual more than she or he is willing to give has been denied (eventually) consistently.

Justice, in the context of a society, entails obligation as well as right, remember. To say that an individual has the right to refuse a loss of freedom so that others may enjoy more freedom, seems to me to be beside the point.

The only freedom worth talking about is choice.  The courts have ruled consistently that robbing someone of choice is a violation individual rights.  Incarceration for criminal offenses is nothing more than the curtailing of freedom, of choice.  Again, ED seems to be just such a violation, but I don't think it is, for the above stated reasons.

The Utilitarian point of view requires that each individual be allowed informed choice.  Take that away and you have nothing, no rights, no obligations, no justice.

Rawls and I disagree on the matter of justice.  Plato and I are another story: justice is a goal to be striven for, the process, so-called, is nothing more than a debate over the word's meaning.  Again, this is just my opinion.


I don't think the fact that the individual's connection to his culture has been drawn into question, thus it is a moot point. However, you seem to be arguing that it is the great good that is important, unless it conflict with individual rights, whereupon individual rights are important. Unfortunately, this is a "Winnie the Pooh" position. Winnie was asked whether he wanted milk or honey, Winnie answered "yes please, both".

There's a reason for the 'or' in the question, it's not that it's impossible to pragmatic, but at some point you need to weigh the two positions, which is what the question is about.

Assuming there is no strong ED law, should the government be allowed to expropriate without compensation? Or is the individual's property rights more important than thousands of people shaving half an hour off their commute?

If I am robbed of choice, that is neither justice nor a manifestation of Utilitarianism.  So, in answer to your question: appropriation without consent is wrong.

Justice, in isolation from the culture in which it manifests, is nothing more than a word.

This 'individual vs. society' dichotomy is false.  The two are mutually dependent.  You cannot violate the rights of one without—in the same act—violating the rights of the other.


It is neither a robbing of choice nor a dichotomy  it is a question of ideological position. Either you agree more with the needs of the many should take priority or you agree more with that individual rights need to be respected. Pragmatism is allowed, and in my opinion encouraged, but that doesn't imply there is no room for ideology. 

So if made to choose your choice would be neither. How Ibsenesque of you, but a lack of choice is actually not a choice, it is merely avoidance.


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