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?

Tags: bentham, rawls, rawlsianism, spock, utilitarianism

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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

Neither. 'Greater good' is difficult to define owing to limitations in human knowledge and differing perspectives and preferences. It's not necessarily a reliable standard. It cannot always be reliably and objectively determined. Also, the many are not necessarily more -- for lack of a better word -- 'deserving' than the few where specific needs are considered. I know I am not commenting on the principle itself, but I don't see the point in deeply considering such a grossly impractical principle.

Inviolability sounds nice, but it can only ever apply to a limited set of rights for people living in a community. The very ability to set limits on rights as necessary seems to imply that a right is only inviolable provided there is no need to violate it, which is nonsensical. Need will change with time. The inability to set limits will result in scenarios where we must accept dysfunction on the basis of principle, but then it becomes a question of what that principle was truly set to protect. And what about the instances where rights collide?

It becomes a matter of why certain rights can be established or violated, and a simplistic 'priority to the collective' or 'priority to the individual' won't cut it. Collectives are made of individuals and individuals are supported by collectives. It cannot reasonably be one or the other.

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.

Heck, even if I receive junk mail in my mailbox is a bit of a thorny issue.

Companies and organizations feel their free speech entitles them to send me unsolicited mail. I feel I have the right to not be disturbed with certain types of unsolicited messages at my residence. In some cases the law sides with me, and in others it does not.

But once we factor in the 'greater good', it becomes a problem. Canada Post relies on the revenue from things like ad mail to keep up the less profitable aspects of the operation which are provided largely as a public service (which I would rather not see privatized). Also, the production of such materials employs a number of people in different fields. On the other hand, from an environmental perspective, it's just not practical to produce and dispose of these materials. Also, it pisses lots of people off.

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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