Julius CaesarIs it right to sacrifice the rights of  an individual for the good of many?

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enotechris eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an excellent question!  However, it's important to be precisely clear about what the terms truly mean.  If you're defining "rights" as "human rights," or "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" along with others, then your question becomes a bit of a red herring -- an individual's rights are innate, are acquired by being human, and can not be altered, rationed, or modified by any one,  any power, or any government.  "Sacrifice" means giving over something of higher value for lesser value, but common understanding of the term means just the opposite, giving something of lesser value to gain something of higher.  What's missing in your question is the concept of "freedom." Properly understood, one has the right to do anything one wishes, as long as it does not impact the rights of another.  One has a right to freedom, but freedom is not a right; freedom is the exercise of one's rights.

Certainly, society sees the imprisonment of a murderer as "good," protecting the many from the deadly actions of an individual.  By imprisonment, have you sacrified the murderer's rights? No -- you have restricted the murderer's freedom.  This is an important distinction to make -- freedoms can be lost or earned, rights are inviolate.

To answer strictly your question, nothing can sacrifice the rights of an individual, for whatever reasons, "good of the many" or otherwise.  Government can force an individual to be restricted in the exercise of freedoms; however, this must be done with the utmost care, and is why in developed countries juries, or the members of society at large, determine if a given individual's freedoms should be restricted. The "good of the many" or the exercise of everyone's rights is only preserved if the culture allows the full expression and exercise of individual's rights.

Should Caesar, Hitler, Saddam or other miscreants throughout history have been killed?  If they're impacting individual's rights and there's no mechanism for justice, like a jury, what options are left?  "Where ballots fail bullets follow." This is, sadly, why we have war.


afi80fl eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm surprised that no one has quoted Spock from Star Trek II: "The Good of the Many outweigh the good of the few, or the one".  Of course, not everyone who is faced with this question is on the verge of plunging themselves into toxic radiation to save a starship.  However, this is excellent food for thought.

I think about the Patriot Act and the freedoms that are sacrificed due to the passing of this legislation.  The idea that our individual phone calls can be tapped is alarming to some, while it is considered a necessary means of combating terrorism by others.  Some say that if you're doing nothing wrong, then you've nothing to fear in terms of this legislation, but wasn't our nation founded on individual rights?

There is no clear cut answer to this question, but personally, I think I side with Spock... the good of the many outweigh the good of the few, or the one.

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let's define what we mean by sacrificing the rights of an individual. I'll use an example: Charles Manson has been imprisoned since 1970 for the murders of Sharon Tate and six other people. However, he did not kill any of those people himself; his influence over his followers was so strong that they were willing to kill for him. So is it right to sacrifice Manson's right to freedom for the good of society? Yes! Who knows how many other followers he might gathered?

Is it right to assassinate a leader for "the good of many," as in the case of Caesar? That I have trouble with. Who decides what is good for the many?

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with linda-allen's example of Charles Manson's imprisonment. However, I do not have trouble with the concept of assassinating a leader for "the good of the many." An example is Hitler. Had the Valkyrie conspiracy succeeded, many lives might have been saved. Another example is Osama bin Laden. If the United States is successful in assassinating him, the supreme head of world terrorism will be gone and a fearful example will be set for those who would follow in his footsteps. While some fanatics will never be deterred, at least a proven, admitted terrorist mastermind will have been eliminated from action.

enotechris eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let freedom ring.........:)


dancer7 | Student


Wow! Your answer just made my mind chime like a cleanly struck bell! :-) Thank you for your clarity and knowledge!

dancer7 | Student

The assassination of an unpopular leader seems a tempting move. And, in isolation, it can look justifiable and practical. But it isn't acceptable, morally or practically, and can have disastorous results.

Once you introduce political assassination as a means of gaining your objectives, your political rivals will feel justified in using political assassination to gain their objectives. Pretty soon, everyone is assassinating anybody who looks likely to achieve an unwanted political objective. Leaders start to become paranoid frightened men, which affects their ability to rule. Criminals and killers start to rise up the political ladder. Then Journalists, Judges, Bishops, Protestors soon start getting whacked and chaos ensues.

For a brief period the awful Bush administration openly toyed with the idea of assassinating people like Robert Mugabe or Saddam Hussein. Such a short-sighted and immature solution to a political problem shows how inexperienced his administration was in foriegn politics.

Practicalities aside, morally it is murder. Outside of a 'total war' situation, it is murder and a capital offence.

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Julius Caesar

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