This is the newest essay on the final version of my recent book “In Pursuit of What is Right: The Progress of Moral Thinking (An Introduction)“. The book is available on Amazon.com, and hopefully is a help for students in college or high school who wish to know more about moral philosophy.
The small town of Earthbridge was by no means a good place for living. It was a remote town, between the deserts of Sahra and the mountains of Kalimanjoor. The closest town to Earthbridge was at least seven days of hard riding through the desert, and people had to work hard for their livelihood. Even then most people had to live day by day with a small ration, through the hard years of labour.
Then one day, at the beginning of the harvest season, a man who called himself “The Wizard” came to town. He appeared suddenly from the desert, riding an old but still intact horse wagon. He set up shop on the main square, and claimed to have a solution for every problem that the good people of Earthbridge may have.
Curiosity made people gather around him, and each started shouting their desires and pains to the man. The Wizard raised his hands, and with the silence that followed he spoke: “Good people of Earthbridge! I can see now that you have many problems, and although I can make each go away, this may take a long time. Time which I do not have.” He paused and looked at the people around him, “Instead, I can make all your problems vanish with one sweeping motion of my wand. And in fact, not only that, but also I can make each of you much happier than you already are. I can make your crops grow each year without effort, and put you and your town on the path of becoming richer and richer every year.”
A smart man from the crowd shouted “But surely you will not do this for free! And you can see that we do not have much to give.”
“Yes, I can see that” said the Wizard “But my price is not as high as you may think. I simply require a small sacrifice”. The crowd was suddenly silent. “A sacrifice from one of your own, one of your children”, continued the Wizard, “one child, no older than five years of age, must be put in the deepest well in town, and I will seal it with my magic. The child will not die, but he or she will suffer for each of the days she spends in that darkness. The magic will preserve her life, and as long as she suffers, you shall prosper.”
“Remember that in return for such a sacrifice, you will be rewarded with happiness and prosperity for yourselves and your town. You will be rich, healthy and happy.”
Silence followed. Many people had no doubt that this stranger was the devil himself, disguised as a man of magic. Others who were more affected by the hardship of living in such state believed otherwise, and thought of the man as a saviour. After all, this sacrifice was only a small price to pay for a greater good and happiness for all.
Suddenly, everyone started talking at the same time. Heated arguments followed, and the crowd became an unrecognizable mass of people who moved and argued.
The man raised his hands one more time, and silence followed again. “My good people”, he said, “this will get us nowhere. The time that you may wish to spend arguing with each other is more than one lifetime.”
“But why not like any other civilized society put this motion to vote? You can easily decide what you can do this way, in a much shorter time. And before voting you may wish to have as much arguing as you wish.”
People of Earthbridge looked at each other. Surely, this was a wise suggestion, was it not?
The Value of Democracy: The conflict seems to be clearly between Utilitarianism (in particular act Utilitarianism) and rights based ethics. Many of the decisions we make in politics and policy making are not one-sidedly good for everyone, or make all people happy equally. Sometimes our decisions produce the overall best possible scenario, making “most” people happy, despite hurting or putting pressure on a minority.
Choosing what the majority wants seems to be a great way of finding out solutions to our problems. However, this immediately begs the question: “Can we decide for everything in the society by means of democracy?”
In the above example, most of us may think that torturing a child in such a way is unjustified, exactly because she has every right to not be tortured. Also, following the same rights based ethics type of reasoning, a voting on such a matter is simply irrelevant. Even if all people in Earthbridge agree that the child has to be sacrificed and tortured in such a way, still this would not make the action right, nor would it justify it in any way.
But on the other hand, we need to remind ourselves that people of Earthbridge are indeed under extreme pressure. What if the decision was about a special ration, or a new method of harvest, which despite making some people uncomfortable, would improve the town’s quality of life without taking someone else’s life?
Democracy is a good way of understanding what makes most of us happy. But it is not always in the right direction. We must tread very carefully when we argue a democratic voting justifies a specific notion. Sometimes the worst ideas have been chosen by people who did not realize the full force of their choices. For example the Russian revolution which ended in decades of suffering and loss of essential rights in the Soviet Union.
This is why the ability to make a distinction between our essential rights and “the good of all” becomes essential. We need to remember that we may not be able to make an absolute rule of this distinction, but knowing it, knowing the conflict between what we have as a “right” and what could be good for most of us while in expense of some others, can enable us understand the debates around political issues far better.