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Greater good

(57 Posts)
MiceElf Mon 01-Sep-14 13:52:29

Is 'the greatest possible good for greatest number of people' a guide to moral behaviour?

petallus Mon 01-Sep-14 13:58:18

I remember having to consider this one in a philosophy course I was doing some years ago.

If you say yes to the question it justifies doing medical experiments on people awaiting execution, for instance.

So much of what we think is good moral behaviour is not logical.

I never did arrive at any kind of conclusion.

suebailey1 Mon 01-Sep-14 14:06:06

I suppose I wouldn't support a blanket policy on anything really - each must be judged on its merits.

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 14:14:15


Mishap Mon 01-Sep-14 14:37:00

The problem with philosophy is that it raises more questions than it answers; and requires proper definitions.

The first definition needed in the original question is "which people"? If we are just talking about those alive now then maybe we should eat, drink and be merry and consume as we are doing and let the planet go to hell. That would result in the greatest good for the greatest number now, but not for the trillions of people to come.

janerowena Mon 01-Sep-14 14:40:59

jbf your teachers must have thought it was like wringing blood from a stone.

One of those problems that has kept me awake over the years. Especially in this age of Health and Safety and ridiculous rules that anyone with common sense would apply anyway.

I was told years ago that it's something most people believe in (hence communism) until it directly affects them, and something they love is taken away from them to be shared amongst others less fortunate. Then they change their minds pdq.

So I'm with suebailey1, each case should be judged individually. I know the UK isn't perfect, but I think we do strive to do just that.

annodomini Mon 01-Sep-14 15:26:52

I had to do a Moral Phil course in my second year at University and Mill's Utilitarianism was a big part of it. At the time (aged 19 - 20) I thought it sounded an attractive guide to living, though now I'm not so sure. If I had to write an essay on it now, I wouldn't be seeing things in black an white as I did 64 years ago. I would be looking at it in the light of subsequent history and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

annodomini Mon 01-Sep-14 15:28:24

I seem to have made myself older than I am. I was doing that course 54 years ago - not 64!

MiceElf Mon 01-Sep-14 15:49:07

Let me pose a hypothetical scenario.

There are ten people on a desert island. There is sufficient food and water to keep eight of them alive until rescue.

If the food is shared equally then all will die.

The group consisted of a 40 year old male doctor, a mother of 29 and her two children, 6 and 3, one of the world's greatest scientists, a woman of 68, a very distinguished world famous musician of 51, a director of an effective humanitarian project, a philosopher of 30, and teenager with great intellectual promise.

What do you do?

whitewave Mon 01-Sep-14 15:55:07

Completely off the top of my head and without any thought - kill off the scientist and the philosopher. Well a tiny bit of thought naturally!

janerowena Mon 01-Sep-14 16:07:16

I would draw lots.

janerowena Mon 01-Sep-14 16:09:31

Because I don't feel that I can play at being a god.

Looking at it from the male perspective, I know it used to be said, men and women first, but Ex always told me that males would bump off the children first because they always feel they can make more. It would be interesting to find a representative from each of those groups, and obtain their honest ideas.

Eloethan Mon 01-Sep-14 17:21:40

If you look at it in purely practical terms, you may come up with a number of answers, depending on who you thought would be the most/least "useful".

Some people may be willing to deny themselves food (or kill themselves) in order to save others.

My feeling is that the food should be shared amongst all until it has gone. We are all going to die one day anyway, and who would want to survive at the expense of someone else who has done them no harm? (That's not to say that I would be that principled if the situation was real rather than hypothetical - the survival instinct is very strong and I don't think anyone knows how they will behave in a life or death situation).

Alternatively, the food could be shared equally until it had all gone and then the first two that died could possibly be eaten by the others (ghoulish I know, but there have been cases of this).

Mishap Mon 01-Sep-14 18:00:15

I too was going to suggest that the food should be shared equally until one died - then eat that one - then another dies - then eat that one.

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 18:10:12

Is eventual rescue a definite thing?

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 18:11:52

Because if it is, then the youngest - the children and the teenager - should be given the lion's share of the food.

If no rescue is possible, then they might as well all die at about the same time.

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 18:14:39

I don't think you need to know what the jobs of the grown-ups do. Or what talents they may have.

There will always be clever scientists and distinguished musicians, or whatever, to replace them.

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 18:15:45

Definitely let the sodding philosopher go first.

Eloethan Mon 01-Sep-14 18:20:08

The original hypothesis said "until rescue", so if two people didn't share the food, the other eight could survive.

jings Are you saying give the children/teenager more food because they are not fully developed and need more food to survive, or because they are likely to have more years left to live?

Gracesgran Mon 01-Sep-14 18:26:01

The first problem with doing things "for the greater good" is who defines what that is. You may think that this could be democratically decided but people can be persuaded by fear or need. You only have to look at pre-war Germany to see that many were sure that what was being done was, at the very least, for the greater good of the nation.

So my answer the miceelf's original question "Is 'the greatest possible good for greatest number of people' a guide to moral behaviour?" would be no; morality must always be guided by one's own conscience. (That is until you all convince me otherwise smile)

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 18:35:35

Because they should be given chance of some life. The others have had their share, even it is/was not as they would have liked.

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 18:36:26

should have been "not as much"

jinglbellsfrocks Mon 01-Sep-14 18:39:21

Quite apart from the desert island scenario, if you said the greater good of all is more important than an individual, then you would have gone along with ancient man's habit of sacrificing people to appease the gods. Wouldn't you?

HollyDaze Mon 01-Sep-14 19:10:57

Is 'the greatest possible good for greatest number of people' a guide to moral behaviour?

IMO no, it isn't but it is sometimes essential for survival.

There are ten people on a desert island. There is sufficient food and water to keep eight of them alive until rescue.

If the possibility of rescue is imminent, then sharing food would be the moral thing to do. If rescue could be years away, then I would vote for dispatching the director of an effective humanitarian project (how effective would he be without money and the organisation behind him?) and then it would be between the 68 year old woman (no mention of any skill base and she could be a valuable resource for survival but I'm assuming she doesn't have any or it would have been mentioned and if that is the case then it would be her) or the philosopher.

Elegran Mon 01-Sep-14 19:14:11

It doesn't say which of them would be most useful at all the things (besides food) that are needed to survive on a desert island - the ability to build a shelter, make fire, find water and purify it, plan the best place for the latrines and rubbish dumps and dig them, and keep all the rest living and working in harmony until the rescue. If they let that one die first (because she is 68 and has had a longer life than the others?) they will not get the advantage of all that knowledge.