When do the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few and the one, and when do the needs of the one and the few outweigh the needs of the many? This question had been always present when it comes to decision making that involves societal and organizational issues. However, a consensus regarding the matter cannot be achieved because of the differences not only in cultures and nations but in individual beliefs and experiences as well. Most believed that the decision whether to chose the needs of the many or the few depends on the circumstances and as well as the risk involved.
The answer to the question really does depend on several things. One of the major influences in answering the question is the belief system, values and experience of a person and as well as the position of the person who must make the decision. Since different societies and cultures have different views and beliefs, different individuals may have different stands and view even if the same situation was given.
This situation shows that we can never arrived at a consensus regarding the issue.
The answer also depends on the position of the individuals involved especially of the decision maker. Those who are part of the majority (or many) will want to address their needs, the needs of the many rather than the few and the one. If the decision has to be made through votes, the majority definitely has the advantage because everyone will try to protect their own interest.
On the other hand, if the decision maker is part of the few and one, they will most likely believe that their needs must be addressed even if it means forsaking the needs of the many. The points of views taken depends on the position of the person involved thus, the issue is really subjective in nature. If for example, a company needs to make a decision whether to increase the price of certain market products or not, doing so will greatly benefit the company along with its members but will surely be against the interest of the general public or the consumers of the product. Shareholders and workers of the company are likely to approve the increase since it will greatly be for their benefit. On the other, the consumers of the product will surely not approve the proposal. Thus, whether the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few or vice versa depends on the position of the decision maker that will greatly depend on which option is favorable on his or her part.
The position of the person involved is also an indicator on what side to choose, whether the many or the few. Every person in the society has different value to the people and to the society as a whole that depends on their role and position in the particular area. If society has to choose between the lives of 5 men against the life of the president, the president’s life will be valued more than the lives of the 5 men because of his position and role in the society. Thus, the life of the few or the one if favored sacrificing the life of the many.
Another import consideration in addressing the issue is the beliefs of a person or culture. We will address this issue in a utilitarian point of view or when do the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few and vice versa based on utilitarianism?
Theories of utilitarianism gave importance to actions rather than individuals and were basically concerned in the issue of morality; what actions are moral and what are not. In the utilitarian points of view, those who do moral actions that are based on the Principle of Utility are considered moral individuals and immoral otherwise. According to the principle of utility, an action is good when it was able to maximize utility. Thus, “an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness” (Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2007). In order to determine which action will maximize pleasure or will have the “greatest good for the greatest number” (Science for Human Good, 1999), the pleasure and pain associated with the actions must be calculated. According to Jeremy Bentham, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (Zunjic, No Date). Pain and pleasure calculations involves taking into account everyone that will be affected by those actions and every individual’s pain or pleasure are all counted as equal. No one’s pleasure or pain is greater than the other including the agent himself/herself. Basing from this principles one may eventually arrive at a conclusion that the needs of the many must always outweigh the needs of the few if utilitarianism was used as a basis. Still, although utilitarianism was used as a basis in answering this question, the answer will still depend on the form of utilitarianism used, either Quantitative, Qualitative, Act or rule utilitarianism.
Quantitative utilitarianism believed that the amount of pleasure and pain can objectively be measured by assigning numbers to pleasure and pain and then “calculating amounts, or quantities, of pleasure and pain” (Science for Human Good, 1999). Thus, in the Quantitative utilitarianism’s point of view, the moral action that must be taken is the action that will result in the greatest amount of pleasure and minimum amount of pain. Basing from this belief, it can be said that the majority or many will most likely have the advantage because the greater the number of individuals involved will mean greater quantitative value. Still, this will not always be the case since different pain and pleasures have different values. Given that the amounts of pain and pleasure that will be experienced by every individual involved are all equal in value, then the majority is given greater importance according to Quantitative utilitarianism. However, if those that are involved have different pain and pleasure to experience, then the few and one also has the possibility to outweigh the man. If for example, a certain punishment would involve having 10 persons to run 10 kilometers or to have 1 person’s leg be cut, the pain of cutting a leg is definitely more painful and thus given a greater value of pain that may exceed the amount accumulated by the other 10 persons. Thus, Quantitative Utilitarianism will favor the need of the one rather than the 10 persons.
Qualitative Utilitarianism focuses more on the quality of the pleasure and pain rather than the quantity since “some pleasures are more valuable (“higher”) than other pleasures (“lower”)” (Science for Human Good, 1999) thus, favoring the actions that will have the greatest impact. One of the bases in determining the value of a certain pleasure or pain is the time that the person involved will experience the pleasure or pain of that particular action. If for example you have to choose between reading a book and eating your favorite food. Both activities can be considered pleasurable but it can be said that the pleasure associated with eating a meal is short lived and thus, having limited impact. On the other hand, reading a book stimulates the brain and thought of the individual that can be used to alter the perceptions not only of the individual but of the society as a whole in the long run. The knowledge achieved through reading may change the person’s point of views for the rest of his or her life. Thus in the Qualitative Utilitarianism’s point of view, reading a book is the moral thing to do.
Act Utilitarianism on the other hand believes that every action is independent and thus, having different consequences, that “circumstances surrounding each action are different from any other action” (Science for Human Good, 1999). The morality of an action does not depend on any other actions or other actions that it can bring. Thus, Act Utilitarianism favors the action that will bring the greatest benefit or pleasure and less pain on the basis of present worth. When it comes on who to favor, Act Utilitarianism suggest that the moral thing to do is the one that will gain benefit in the shortest amount of time, whether the many or the few, and that particular action will not be associated with any other event. Thus, logging is not associated with floods and other events and if it is sure to benefit humanity in the present time, it is the moral thing to do even if it means forsaking the interest of the many.
On the other hand, Rule Utilitarianism believes that “there are types of actions which, over the long run, will maximize utility” (The Science of Human Good, 1999) and that general principles and rules can be established through time that will serve as the basis of morality. Morality involves obedience to those set of rules that had been proven, through time, to maximize utility. If for example, it had proven and tested through time that telling the truth maximizes utility, it is morally good to tell the truth in every situation. Telling a lie even if you intend to protect the interest and sake of the many people is immorally wrong based on Rule Utilitarianism. Thus, decisions on the basis of Rule Utilitarianism do not depend on the situation or motives of a person but rather on the actions themselves.
Although using a specific point of view and belief system, such as Utilitarianism, different answers to the question can be achieved. Take activism for example. Quantitative Utilitarianism is most likely to approve activism since it is concerned with the actions having the greatest quantity of benefit, the activist and the public. Qualitative Utilitarianism may also approve the act since the changes that it can bring can benefit future generations without basing on the number of persons that are likely to benefit in the given action. Act Utilitarianism may suggest that it will not maximize utility since every action has different effects and are independent of each other, thus the act will have no benefit on the part of the activist and of the other party. If time dictates that activism really does maximize utility, then Rule Utilitarianism suggests that it is the moral thing to do and vise versa without looking to the number of people involved. Thus, arriving at a consensus on when do the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few and one and voce versa is really an impossible thing to happen because of the differences in cultural, belief system and experiences of every individual and community.