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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When I saw Nates response to this question - I thought, ohhhh thats the way it supposed to be discussed.

I don't know about that, but it's easier to participate if you have a basic idea of the terminology, which sometimes doesn't mean quite the same thing as it does in everyday language. Example: in philosophy a materialist is someone who believes that all that exists is matter and phenomena related to matter. By contrast, an idealist would say that everything is mental, a product of mind or ideas. Now, those are very broad examples, and particular materialists or idealists would define them somewhat differently, but you can see how those terms mean something different in philosophy than in the conversation of people without a philosophy education.

Do you mean "incompatibe" rather than "incoherent"? Incoherent would mean hard to understand.

meant incompatible/ not contradictory. Thanks for the correction

The Churchill example shows how murky ethical choices can be in extreme situations, and how difficult it can be to be sure which choice will achieve the best result. And Rawls' theory is so focused on individual rights that it's inapplicable to some of the harder real decisions our leaders and military people have to make, which are often of the "damned if I do, damned if I don't" variety.

Kant's categorical imperative ("Do only what you could will everyone else do under sufficiently similar circumstances") doesn't work, either. It all depends upon what one counts as sufficiently similar and one can tailor a description to allow or disallow an action. 

Which decisions have an ethical dimension that needs to be considered? Can I collect rare stamps only if I can will that everyone in circumstances similar to mine should collect stamps? Does that mean they should be collecting stamps?

Ethical choices are largely examined in retrospect. In the moment, people normally don't have time to give a choice a truly sufficient ethical consideration. Someone's breaking into my house. "Now what would Bentham say? But how about Rawls? Maybe Peirce or Kant should be considered as well. 

Normally our acts don't reflect ethical consideration. Rather, they flow out of and reflect who we are. Our nature. Ethics doesn't even come into it.


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