Choosing between Competing Visions of the Good—the Case of Necessity

  • George C. Christie
Part of the Law and Philosophy Library book series (LAPS, volume 45)


There are many subtle ways that the choice between competing visions of the composition of the public good will affect the arguments that we put forth to secure the assent of an ideal or universal audience. Even an audience that accepts what Jean Dabin called the “prevalence of the individual human person over every collective”1 is forced to recognize that there are times when every society feels obliged to accept, and indeed even require, the sacrifice of some individuals for the greater good of society. Times of war and natural disaster immediately come to mind. It probably takes no greater feat of imagination than is necessary to envision a world organized around the hypothetical agreement that Rawls uses to construct his just society to assert that the members of any society who accept its legitimacy implicitly promise to preserve that society in the face of its enemies or of natural disasters. As Aristotle said, man is by nature a political animal for whom life in an organized political community is the natural condition.2 Certainly, in most societies, most people seem to have acknowledged an obligation to preserve their society even if, unlike professional soldiers, they have made no express promise to do so. Whether one tries to explain that sense of obligation on the basis of an implied promise or of a moral duty to make some return for the benefits bestowed by society on the individuals who constitute that society, the empirical reality is that people do, in fact, by and large accept these obligations and, more importantly, they are expected by their fellow members of society to do so.3 What justice as personified in the universal audience requires is that the individual should not be sacrificed, except in the most exigent circumstances, and that the choice of the individual to be sacrificed should be based on the most neutral criteria possible. To choose a particular military unit to be left as a hopeless rear guard, because it is the most readily available or the most able to accomplish the mission assigned to it, might be acceptable. It would not be acceptable to choose the unit to be sacrificed based on its racial composition or on the fact that it includes a large percentage of opponents of the political faction currently in control of the government. Indeed, not merely in these extreme cases, but in the allocation of all social burdens and benefits, most societies that purport to be just societies believe that benefits and burdens should not be allocated arbitrarily.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • George C. Christie
    • 1
  1. 1.Duke UniversityDurhamUSA

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