Should the needs of society (the common good, majority rule, minority rights) take precedence over rights, desires, needs and values of the individual?   

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question is a sticky one that has occupied political theorists for centuries. Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls are just three philosophers who feared that a balance between individual rights and the good of the whole would be difficult, if not impossible, to strike. The answer to this question, really, is that it if governments are to undertake actions that are good for society as a whole, then there really is no choice--they have to act in ways that compromise on individual rights. On a theoretical level, this is because the absolute exercise of liberty by one individual will sometimes infringe on the exercise of liberties on the other individuals around them. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "My right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." That said, democratic governments have the responsibility to do the following:

  • carry out policies that are, in fact, best for the majority of people.
  • establish legal boundaries on their own actions. In the United States, for example, a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution to stake out certain rights.
  • protect minority rights. Minority rights to participate in politics and in society is essential to democracy.
  • minimize transgressions on individual liberty. It is a basic principle of democracy that individual liberties should only be restricted to the extent that is absolutely essential. 

So in short, there really is no debating that sometimes individual desires and even rights must be restricted. This, in fact, is the basis for government. But the relationship between rights and the needs of society need not be a zero sum game.

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I also think that to some degree, one's thoughts on this are likely to be strongly influenced by the cultural values of the society in which one is raised.  There are societies that value the common good more than the individual good, communitarian societies, and societies that value individual rights more than the good of the society as a whole.  From what I have read, many Asian cultures tend to be communitarian, while my own experience is that American culture is highly individualistic.  This is playing out right now, in fact, in the tension between those who want to insist on their right to guns and those who are concerned about general societal safety.  It is to some degree the "rugged individualism" of the United States culture that has allowed the former to prevail.  In a communitarian society, this would probably not be the case.  What makes societies communitarian or highly individualistic makes for an interesting question that I do not have an answer to, but I suspect that more homogeneous cultures are more likely to be communitarian, since there is going to be more agreement on what is a societal good.