Monday, November 25, 2013

The Many v. The Few

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

While it's hard to trace this particular phrase back any further than The Wrath of Khan, it's something of a common trope, because the utilitarian idea of "the greater good" is a very old concept. This occurs to me in the context of charges being filed against some of the adults connected to the infamous 2012 rape case in Steubenville, Ohio.

While it's easy to become caught up in idea that what was done is self-evidently a "failure of humanity" or otherwise an act of irrationality and/or evil, it occurs to me that we rarely, if ever talk about a rather simple subject: Under what circumstances do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many, and where is that line drawn?

As usual, hard cases, which tend to come down squarely on one side of the issue or the other, are of little use in helping us work this out. But it seems to me that in this case, there were a number of people who weighed the harm that would come to their town, the local football program, or what have you against the harm to the young woman in question, and decided that she was an acceptable sacrifice. And while the widespread outrage over the case demonstrates people's disagreement with that choice, there are plenty of cases in which people have made similar decisions. And I suspect that it won't be long before we hear of another case in which people decide that in order to protect themselves what what seems like a trivial harm, it's worthwhile to inflict a much greater harm on someone else.

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