Tyranny of the One and the Many

As the last act of “Tears from Iron” gains momentum into the climax, the Empress Kayrstana worries about the undercurrents of the Syraestari imperial court.  From these concerns, she makes a choice which raises the question, what is the value of a life?

This prompts the quote:

“What is the value of a life?  Of lives?  There are some who say that no end is worth the price of a single life.  There are others who pour out lives like rain from the heavens for some perceived good.  Both are right and both are wrong.  Those who forget this truth fall prey to the tyranny of the one or to the tyranny of the many.”

–Jhoacen, the Philosopher-King of Rynaeca

The origins of this quote were inspired by my study of military history.  Our attitudes toward war and its cost to combatants and its non-combatants have varied heavily over time and can change quite quickly.  These views can drive us to extremes.  Slide too far either way and we find tyranny. 

The specific inspiration was the philosophies regarding aerial bombing in World War II versus modern times.  During World War II, bombing took on a whole new level of intensity and devastation as each side sought to destroy the other’s will to fight, combat capability, and industrial capacity.  In such ‘total war’, the idea of the non-combatant virtually disappeared.  Perhaps the most severe of numerous possible examples from all sides, was the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 in which an estimated 100,000 civilians lost their lives and ten times that were made homeless.  This is the “Tyranny of the Many” and it personifies the ultimate indifference to the value of human life.

In contrast, modern attitudes toward warfare have shifted more toward the opposite extreme.  For example, if, in the efforts to destroy a terrorist cell before they can murder hundreds or even thousands of civilians, a single non-combatant is injured or killed, we are engulfed in outrage.  The desire to not only minimize but eliminate even the remotest possibility of such an occurrence risks paralyzing military action which may result in even more civilian deaths.  This is the “Tyranny of the One.”  I think it is natural and right for us to sway somewhat in this direction.  All life is valuable and we should desire its preservation, but this philosophy can be taken too far.

Between paralysis and indifference, surely there must be a middle path.  Human life is absolutely precious, but must the slightest risk to it prohibit all endeavor?

Looking back on it, the observation of the two tyrannies strikes me as a sort of negative reflection of the Star Trek II adage of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one” and Star Trek III’s “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”  However, this isn’t entirely true as the two tyrannies aren’t actually opposites.  “The Tyranny of the Many” is indifference to the many, not the desire to save many.  “The Tyranny of the One” is the very opposite of indifference to the one.  Indeed, it is possible for one person to ascribe to both tyrannies if they don’t care how many lives are lost so long as another particular life or set of lives are preserved.

The thing is, I think it extends beyond the military sphere and, as in the bombing example, the “Tyranny of the One” is currently in apogee.  In modern debate, the surest way to debunk a program, project, law, system, etc. that does good for millions of people is to find the one person that it failed to help or even hurt.  The attitude apparently being that if everyone can’t be helped then no one should be helped.  I’m sure this isn’t the root intention, but in our litigious society it can sometimes be the net result.

The irony is that both ‘Tyrannies’ are based on a pursuit of good.  Whether such good is real, perceived, or delusional may be a matter for debate, but regardless that is generally how the ‘Tyrant’ sees such choices.  Indeed both the Nazis and the Soviets provide extreme examples of seeking a perceived (delusional) good.  The problem (or, to be more precise, but one problem of many) was that both proceeded from a path of inherent selfishness and hate.  The Nazis only cared for the interests of a single race/nation at the expense of all others.  Likewise, the Soviets only sought the interests of a single economic ‘class’ at the expense of all others.  Thus both groups acted to the greater detriment of humanity (including, ironically, the groups they were trying to help as well).

My thoughts on all of this aren’t yet completely formed, but it strikes me that over the course of human existence, we have seen a diminishing of the “Tyranny of the Many” while the “Tyranny of the One” may be growing more frequent.  After all, the absolute rulers of the past, had little care of the peasants, serfs, and slaves they ruled.  But even as this tyranny diminishes, society still is fraught with challenges, especially when care for the ‘many’ is selective rather than universal (the aforementioned Nazi and Soviet regimes providing examples).

Almost inevitably, this selfishness seems to be the corruption of nearly every cause because we tend to form divisions using any and all of those perilous terms that divide us.  As we approach Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it is appropriate to observe that he is one of the few who rose above this intrinsically selfish methodology.  First of all, he realized that only peaceful opposition can change hearts and minds whereas violence only intensifies hatred.  It may hide it, for a time, but that doesn’t mean it ceases to exist.  It merely lurks, seething until it has time to explode again.  A prime example of this is the old enmities of the Yugoslav state that erupted again after the fall of Communism.

Second, while his cause was the rights and freedoms of black Americans, if you listen to his rhetoric, he wasn’t only seeking the good of a single group, but of all groups.  Such an approach can only unify and uplift.  “…And when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.’”