“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” Mr Spok, dying heroically in a Star Trek film and reducing my child self to tears.
It’s a powerful thought, this. How do we measure the importance of our own needs, even our own lives, against the needs of the many? For the rich and the powerful, it is pretty much taken for granted that the needs of the few (ie them) outweigh the needs of everyone else. The poor are statistics, collateral damage, their deaths and suffering an unfortunate cost that history will soon forget. Western culture tends not to give a shit about the needs of the many, and the quality of life experienced by the many. The needs of the few, or the one are only an issue if you are the right one, part of the important few. As ethical approaches go… it isn’t one.
The needs of the many can be a great silencer. I wonder how many people turned a blind eye to child abuse in the Catholic church, and amongst the powerful in other places because preserving the reputation of church, government, institution seemed more important than the needs of the few. How often are the needs of the few the needs of minorities, victims, outsiders? How often are the few vulnerable and lacking in power and not making the choice that they are expendable because the grand plan is more important than them?
But of course what underlies all this is the importance of who gets to choose. When the state decides that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and leaves some of its people to die in hunger and misery (as in modern austerity Britain) this is very different from one person deciding that the bigger picture is more important than them. It’s still worth being wary. Most of us are not Mr Spok facing the melt down of a ship and the imminent deaths of everyone on it. Mostly the needs of the many are not as immediate or powerful. Mostly there is more room for negotiation. The many are all individuals too, and if we can only value people as a block vote, anyone may find themselves on the outside of that, othered and irrelevant.
Better on the whole to live in a culture where everyone matters and you start from that premise to do the best you can with whatever you’ve got.