ICYMI: Is Spock right? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

Photo via Unsplash

Is it true that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Or the one”?

Is this even a precisely framed question? Who is the one deciding what weights what? What is the standard of measurement? Are we playing God in some sense, deciding the fate of others?

There are contexts in which it is necessary and appropriate for a man to “play judge.” For instance, the captain of ship is responsible for law and order aboard the ship. If the ship is in danger, a captain (especially a military captain) may order men to their death in order to help stop the disaster.

From these cases we get phrases such as the “Lifeboat problem” — a moral thought experiment that asks what you could morally do if you were stuck in a lifeboat with others. You may also hear the catchphrase: “We’re all in the same boat.” (Typically it is spoken by the someone who wants to declare what kind of sacrifice we all must make toward his chosen goal.) Is it ever true that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Certainly, in some sense. A ship captain or a firefighter or a soldier must think in such terms. They must do so sometimes, because the nature of their work includes handling emergencies. That’s what captains, firefighters, and soldiers have in common.

If you find yourself in an emergency and you have time to save only one group or another, it typically would be morally praiseworthy to save the many, not the few. But collectivists and statists seek to apply that paradigm to human life as such and to society — society under normal circumstances. That is where the analogy to “life boat problems” or “emergency situations” breaks down. It is one thing to “play judge” and send a fighter fighter into danger, or a soldier, especially a soldier who voluntarily enlisted. It is another thing to “play judge” or “play God” by commanding businessmen to charge “X” price or to serve “X” client, or to demand tribute and tax from the wealthy simply for the purpose of handing that money to the poor via entitlement programs.

In the welfare state and in collectivistic government policy, we see the kind of power accorded the ship captain or the military commander applied in a new context: the “Command Economy.” The President, the Congress, or the local bureaucrat use force (or the threat of force) not merely to put an end to some state of emergency — but to direct human life as such.

Collectivism is the view that says “We are all in one boat” even when we aren’t all in one boat. It is the view that says “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and from this point forward, I will be the judge of who needs what, and who has to pay what to whom.”

Unlike the volunteer soldier or sailor or firefighter, the citizen living in a collectivist society is permanently and involuntarily burdened with unchosen duties to his society. He must pay a progressive income tax not because he chose to participate in some project and counted the cost, but because “Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society.” Under collectivism, there is no room for the idea that Civilization is the process of setting man free from men — that Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. (An idea put forth by Ayn Rand).

Instead, under collectivism, the group is treated as the entity of main importance. The group is more important than the individuals that compose it. Collectivists give primacy to the collective. In strong expressions of such systems, individuals are treated as if they are cogs in a machine. What matters most is not the individual cogs but the working of the machine. If a cog breaks or needs to be sacrificed, that’s fine, because what matters is that the machine works. That is the collectivist approach strongly expressed.

As we discuss collectivism in our video presentation (see below), we focus on the strong, consistent application of the principle of collectivism. Strong collectivism was expressed in Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and Nazi Germany. It was expressed in ancient Egypt. And it is expressed in present-day Venezuela. To the extent that collectivism is applied with something you could call “consistency,” it results in death.

You would think that this consistent pattern — collectivism leading to destruction — would be something today’s intellectuals would desire to understand. Precious few do; most do not.

The nature of collectivism is a truth that today’s intellectuals do not want to understand. They are too enchanted by its power. Our work is to make it harder for them to remain blind, and to make it more costly for them remain blind until there comes the day when new Christian intellectuals come to dominate, and the old intellectuals feel the need to compromise with us, and not with Karl Marx or his ideological offspring.

When thinking in principle, it matters that we be willing to think about the most extreme (consistent) version of the principle in question. Once we understand where a full application of a principle leads, then we can also begin to understand where a partial application of it leads. Societies such as Great Britain and the United States, once relatively free economically, have compromised the principle of economic liberty in order to partially replace it. Now we have collectivized science and art, collectivized schooling, collectivized housing, collectivized healthcare. More and more, the government takes the position of “playing judge” like a military general — deciding who will be a winner and who will be sacrificed for the good of the collective.

To the extent that such societies operate on collectivism, we see rising costs, diminishing production, diminishing innovation, lower quality, less variety of options, longer lines, less chance to “keep your doctor,” — and all of this for the mere cost of higher taxes. Why not make every experience into a DMV experience? The Department of Motor Vehicles is the archetypical example of the quality of service that comes to those living in collectivist societies. How much of your society do you want to look like the DMV? That is what collectivizing does. To the extent that you apply the principle, you get its fruit.

As we look at the principle of collectivism, or the principle that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” we are looking at it as a principle — in its full implementation. But what about compromising between individualism and collectivism? Maybe this is a goldilocks situation, where Daddy Bear’s bed is too hard, and Mamma Bear’s bed is too soft, but Baby Bear’s bed is “just right,” — and just right means right in the middle between the two extremes — of strong collectivism and strong individualism. After all, isn’t strong (so-called “rugged”) individualism just as unhinged as strong collectivism? Isn’t there some kind of optimum middle position? That’s the question we cover in our video presentation, along with the following:

  • What is individualism?
  • Why is it better than collectivism?
  • Why are these the only two options?
  • Why is it necessary to be an extreme, radical, principled individualist in your understanding of society and government?

Our positions on individualism in society and government do not arise in a vacuum. They are the outgrowth of our position on moral philosophy. We advocate rational egoism, which cherishes the role of the mind in human life and the importance of the individual mind in identifying and seeking self-interested values — with the prospering life of man, the rational being, as the standard for one’s moral code.

In the discussion today, we will trace the connections from our reason-based approach to moral philosophy (and even to Epistemology itself) to the application in our theory of society and of government. In a name, the theoretical structure we are here explaining could be called an “ideology” or a “philosophy.” We believe it is the rational philosophy — the appropriate philosophy for Christians living on earth.

Watch the Presentation Here:

Click here for the Study Guide and Recommended Reading