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Socrates Exchange: Are individual rights more important than the common good?

Are we an excessively individualistic- and even selfish- culture? Does New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" ethos place too much emphasis on the rights of the individuals and not enough on the well-being of our communities? Is it ever justified to sacrifice an individual's rights for the sake of the collective? What are the dangers of valuing the collective more than the community? Post your thoughts below and respond to other postings.


  • Nick Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, Advisor to the Socratic Society at UNH and Project Advisor to the Socrates Exchange

Background Reading

The opposition between individual rights and the common good is particularly relevant to the Granite State. With the large migration of Massachusetts residents every year, some feel the face of New Hampshire is being irreversibly changed. Certain born and bred residents of New Hampshire look to their state motto, “Live Free or Die”, which wholeheartedly supports the freedoms and rights of individuals, and worry if it may come under fire from the Bay State influence. Will New Hampshire soon see an influx of social interest and welfare programs such as those in place south of the border? Would such programs be detrimental to New Hampshire’s ideology of individual freedom or is it the way New Hampshire should be? Could sacrificing the rights and liberties of individuals in the interest of improving the common good in the state decrease poverty levels and give more people health care?

Also, with the large amounts of migrants coming into the state (about 18% higher than the national average) small towns are forced to grow and with growth comes a need for more infrastructure. As New Hampshire grows it may find itself struggling with the issue of eminent domain. What happens to the family who has lived in a New Hampshire farmhouse for 8 generations when they are forced off their land by the public need for a highway? Which is more important in this case: the individual’s right to own property or the good a highway would bring to a community?

With the flu season swiftly approaching and the H1N1 already affecting large numbers across the world, New Hampshire faces the possibility of a flu epidemic. In such an instance, what action would the state or federal government take? The possibility of a massive quarantine gets thrown around every time a flu epidemic exists, but is such an action an infringement of the rights of individuals living in a free nation? Or is the common good of preventing the spread of infection more important?

Even the current health care debate reflects the tension between individual rights and the common good. Over the past months New Hampshire town halls have been crowded with individuals taking a side in the individual rights/common good debate. Some have expressed the view that health care initiatives are in the interest of a healthier state and nation. Others claim that compulsory health insurance impedes individuals’ right to the best health care money can buy. Can the individual rights vs. common good debate help us understand some of the ideological tension behind the current health care discussion?

As many of these examples show, this month’s question is largely political, but it can also flow into other areas of thought. There’s the philosophical and moral question of the Donner Party; if you and five others were stranded and starving, and your only hope of getting out alive is to eat the first member who passed away, would you do it to save the rest of the group? There is the question that comes up around the disabled. Do you build special infrastructure to accommodate the few who are disabled even if that meant the cost to do this would jack up prices. Then there is the commercial/environmental side. What is more important, buying a cheaper car that fits your personal budget and your personal tastes or a more expensive and efficient auto that would help save the environment? What do you think?

Recommended Reading

For Individual Rights:
The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights
The classic document explaining the "inalienable" rights of each citizen. What exactly are rights? Are they as absolute as the constitution makes them out to be or are there situations in which it is appropriate to take away these rights in the service of a greater good?

John Hospers - The Libertarian Manifesto or Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow
The first libertarian candidate on a presidential ballot, John Hospers is one of the foremost advocates of individual rights. For Hospers and other Libertarians, an individuals property is equivalent to his or her own person and possesses most if not all of the same rights. Is this correct?

Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged
A fictional glorification of individuality. In Rand's magnum opus, talented and powerful workers refuse to be dragged down by the demands of their society and calls for the common good.

For the Common Good:

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - The Communist Manifesto
One of the most revolutionary and important books ever written, the Manifesto explains clearly and concisely what communism is, its goals, and its methods. The Manifesto contains one of the favorite rallying cries in the service of the common good: "Working men of all countries unite!"

John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism
If one says the common good may take preference over individual rights a tool is needed to figure out when. Utilitarian calculation is one of the most popular tools historically for doing so. Based on the principle "the greatest good for the greatest number" utilitarianism offers an almost scientific method for making ethical decisions. 

Laura is well known in New Hampshire for her in-depth coverage of important issues and is widely regarded for her interviews with presidential hopefuls. Laura is a graduate of Keene High School in New Hampshire. Prior to hosting The Exchange, Laura worked in public radio in Washington, D.C. as a local reporter and announcer for WAMU and as a newscaster for NPR. Before her radio career, she was a researcher for USA Today's "Money" section, and a research assistant at the Institute for International Economics. Laura occasionally guest hosts national programs such as The Diane Rehm Show and Here and Now. In 2007 Laura was named New Hampshire Broadcaster of the Year by the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters.
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