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The Needs of the Many
aka: Utilitarianism
...outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

Chloe Sullivan: Thanks for not giving up on me... I just hope that if it turned out that there was no other choice, you would choose to do the right thing... To do what's best for the world... and not for me. Know that I'd understand.

Sometimes, there is no easy choice to make. No matter what you do, something is going to go badly for someone. The choice of who to save and who to let die often falls on The Hero, and when it does, there's only one choice to make. Whether he has to save the world, the country, or the city, he almost always has to let go of his best friend or Love Interest in the process. However, this trope is averted nearly as often as it's played straight, especially among Anti Heroes who are willing to screw over the whole world for the ones they love.

Of course, it isn't always The Hero who has to make the decision. Monarchs or generals may be forced to sacrifice large numbers of troops or citizens For The Greater Good (former trope name). Well Intentioned Extremists and Knight Templars often use this as a justification for their actions; they're more than willing to kill dozens if they think it will save thousands.

In ethical philosophy, this is also known as Utilitarianism, of which Ethical Hedonism is one of the most common and basic forms.

Keep in mind, "many" and "few" are relative. The most important part is just that someone has to be sacrificed to save significantly more. And although it is an old concept, the phrase itself is much Newer Than They Think, the Trope Namer being The Wrath of Khan.

Compare Heroic Sacrifice, Cold Equation and Sadistic Choice. If the protagonist is being asked to sacrifice themselves, this is likely to be What Is One Man's Life in Comparison?. For the more morally gray versions, compare Utopia Justifies the Means, Totalitarian Utilitarian and A Million Is a Statistic. A catchphrase of every other Hive Mind.

The Small Steps Hero either doesn't believe in this or finds it inseparable from everyday acts of kindness. An Ideal Hero will Take a Third Option. See also Friend or Idol Decision. When the sacrifice turns out to have been inadequate, or the wrong people are sacrificed through misunderstanding or inadequate information, "What Have I Done?" is the usual reaction. A possible heroic rejoinder would be: "So the few don't matter to you?"

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Sailor Moon's refusal to do this in the S series is what enraged Uranus and Neptune near the end, as Sailor Moon couldn't stand sacrificing Hotaru to save the world (she didn't have to, but the conflict of one person vs. the world was brought up at least somewhat).
  • In Gurren Lagann using this trope as a mantra is why Simon is happy with the series ending despite the heart-rendingly painful price he had to pay to save the universe. It perfectly shows how strong and heroic Simon has become. It's also extremely Japanese.
  • Shirou Emiya's father, Kiritsugu, possessed this principle and we get to see it in action in the prequel, Fate/Zero. The contradiction in this ideal is also exposed by the corrupted Grail when he gets shown an illusion where he has to save either the many or the few until he has killed 498 people for his two most beloved people. His alternate solution was to get access to a perfect, omnipotent Reality Warper wish-granting artifact to save everyone. If the Grail hadn't been corrupted, then likely everything would have turned out much better.
    • He is noted to have gone soft after joining the Einzbern family. Early in the War he bombs a hotel to kill an enemy Master but calls in a bomb threat first. In the past he would have just killed everyone in the building to be absolutely certain his target died too. Civilian casualties weren't a concern for him, because so long as he killed his target he was saving more people in the long term.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is capped off by Zechs Merquise and Treize Khushrenada trying to bring world peace by starting a war so utterly horrifying and pointless that humanity will gladly move to the negotiating table. Both are perfectly fine with being Silent Scapegoats for this cause, but it still weighs on them; at one point Treize utterly averts A Million Is a Statistic by giving the exact number of people who have died so far. Unfortunately, the lesson doesn't quite take until The Movie, where Relena (and, in the Special Edition, Dorothy) finally get the civilians to realize that they can't just Hold Out for a Hero forever.
  • In One Piece, this is the philosophy of the Marines who pursue Absolute Justice.
  • Rentaro Satomi's For Happiness ethics have an interesting variation of "The happiness for others outweigh the happiness of myself." Apparently, this bites him in the ass when he was accused of murder in volumes 5 and 6.

    Comic Books 
  • In Watchmen, Veidt's final plan is to kill millions of people in order to trick everyone else into world peace.
  • The League of Shadows, led by Ra's Al Ghul, has been around for centuries wiping out any civilizations that they think have become too corrupt, in order to stop them from spreading their corruption to the rest of the world.
  • In Gold Digger, almost all of the atrocities Dreadwing has committed (mass murder, torture, rape, enslavement, etc.) can be placed directly at the feet of Ancient Gina. She needed a pawn to help her build the Infinity Engine, a machine that will assist in stopping the undead previous universe from wiping out the current one. Therefore, she indirectly gave Dreadwing the Time Raft to take revenge on T'Mat and her council and his obsession over the device would be his undoing as he eventually was blasted millions of years into the past where Ancient Gina had him work on the Infinity Engine.
  • Parodied in Runaways, where a villain is trying to justify an attempt to exterminate the entire human race "for the greater good," and quotes the Star Trek example as "proof." The heroine is not impressed and says "You're Insane!."

    Fan Works 
  • Troller!: The human inspired form of Reproduction that the Cybertronians are seen to be adopting produces young which are unable to transform (Sorry, Transmute). It will eventually breed out their transforming abilities, but it is the only way the Species can survive.
  • Passionate Pragmatism: Erwin and Hange feel that making sacrifices is sometimes necessary in order to maximizing happiness.
  • Kyoshi Rising; this is essentially Yangchen's philosophy; the Avatar must place the safety and balance of the world before their personal beliefs and desires (in her case, killing potential threats despite being raised in a society that was built upon non-violence). Kyoshi agrees with her to some extent, but vows not to lose herself in the way Yangchen did.

    Film 
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the Trope Namer, specifically the scene where Spock explains his Heroic Sacrifice.
    • Ironically inverted in Insurrection where Picard argues against relocating 600 people from a planet so the Federation can analyse the planet's immortality-granting radiation to save billions of lives.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. As the damaged Nautilus is sinking to the bottom of the ocean, Captain Nemo must make a decision.
    Ishmael: Aft bulkhead open. Pump valves jammed!
    Nemo: Seal it off!
    Ishmael: There are men in there!
    Nemo: For the greater good, we must seal it!
  • The antagonist in 2012 does this. It turns into Strawman Has a Point, considering that he believes some (or many) people can be sacrificed to save the human race.
  • The Matrix sequel has Neo forced to make the choice of returning to The Source, and allowing the Matrix to be re-booted, saving the lives of everyone still jacked in, or leave and save Trinity from the Agent she's fighting while letting the Matrix crash, killing pretty much all that's left of humanity. He decides to Take a Third Option.
  • The Polish short film Most (which means "Bridge"), in which a man ends up sacrificing his son by lowering a drawbridge to prevent a train crash.
  • Averted in Johnny Mnemonic. The data Johnny is carrying inside his head can save millions of lives. However, Johnny spends a significant portion of the movie putting his own life ahead of everybody else, as well as initially rejecting every proposal to retrieve the data because there is a chance that doing so could kill him or leave him with significant brain damage (even though he would die if he doesn't get the data out of his head, anyway). In the end, Johnny is convinced to go through with an attempt at removing the data from his head NOT because he'd be helping millions of other lives but because it's pointed out to him that that there being a chance that retrieving the data would kill him would also mean there is a chance he'd survive, whereas Johnny's other possible fate leaves him no such chance.
  • Spoken word for word by Sentinel Prime in Transformers: The Dark of the Moon. This time, though, it's in a much more sinister context. Essentially, Sentinel uses this as justification for enslaving mankind to rebuild Cybertron (by "the many" he means all Cybertronians; he couldn't care less about humanity). Doubles also as an Actor Allusion, as Sentinel is voiced by Leonard Nimoy.
  • In Star Trek Into Darkness, Spock, The Trope Namer, tells the Enterprise to leave him to die in order to protect the Enterprise and uphold the Prime Directive during the prologue. Kirk later sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise.
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire: There's a short scene where the Ulysses has a hole blown in it and the Engineers are seen scrambling to escape. Audrey closes the section off when there's at least one more guy stuck in there and he presumably drowned. More of the sub would have been flooded with water if she hadn't done it, and a good portion of the staff there, like the gunners, had already died when the blast hit.
  • Part of HYDRA's doctrine in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, culminating in a plan to institute world peace at the barrel of a gun...with twenty million lives as the first cost.

    Literature 
  • Deconstructed in Atlas Shrugged, due to Ayn Rand's Author Tract. Examples of altruistic ideals turning into spectacular failures abound, but a special mention goes to the 20th Century Motor Company of Starnesville. After the company passed from the founder to his children and they reorganized the plant to a pay system of "from each according to ability, to each according to need," it turned into a nightmare trainwreck for the employees before collapsing in on itself. This inspired John Galt to abandon his revolutionary electro-static motor and begin his quest to spur "the men of the mind" all over the world to strike and bring the end of the world ruled by altruist, Collectivist morality.
  • The Dresden Files gives us at least two subversions where the main protagonist refuses to put the many ahead of the few. First in Grave Peril Harry rescues Susan from Red Court vampires, even knowing that his actions will trigger a war with the Red Court. He does it again in Changes when his daughter is kidnapped by the Red Court during a cease-fire. This time around someone directly asks him to consider the needs of the many, but Harry makes it clear he'll let the entire world burn before letting the vamps hurt his daughter.
  • From The Bible, John 11:49-50: "And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."
    • Similarly, in The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 4:2: "It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief."
  • In the third Pendragon novel, Bobby has to choose between letting the Hindenburg burn, killing a few dozen people, or saving it and letting Germany win WWII. He almost makes the wrong choice, sending him into a temporary Heroic BSOD.
  • In Crown of Slaves Berry Zilwicki risks her life to save the occupants of a captured slave ship, reasoning that one life against several thousand is "no contest, the way I see things."
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas almost poses this as a question: If you lived in a Utopia that bought the happiness of the Many with the utter suffering of one child, would you accept it, or walk away?

    Live Action TV 
  • Another example from the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The City On The Edge of Forever." In it, Kirk had to let Edith Keeler die to save his own timeline, because her peace efforts would have prevented the US from entering what would be World War II when they needed to, and cause Hitler and Nazism to conquer the world by developing the atomic bomb first. To save all those of their future, Kirk must stop Dr. McCoy from saving Edith from getting killed in a car accident. Kirk can't speak when Bones exclaims: "Jim! I could have saved her...do you know what you just did." Spock can only reply: "He knows, Doctor. Soon you will too. For what once was...now IS again." In James Blish's transcript in "The Star Trek Reader" Spock also comes across as trying to help Kirk rectify this. "No, you acted. Because no woman was ever loved so much, Jim. Because no woman was ever offered the universe for love."
    • A rather nasty version in "In The Pale Moonlight", when Sisko enlists Garak in coming up with a scheme to draw the Romulans into the Dominion War on the side of the Federation. Garak succeeds, but has to assassinate a Romulan official in the process, along with the criminal who forged the recording they are using to fool the Romulans into thinking the Dominion was planning to attack them. When Sisko confronts him over this, Garak points out that they might have just secured a Federation victory in the war — "and all it cost was the life of one Romulan Senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don't know about you, but I'd call that a bargain."
  • This occurs in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the season 2 finale "Becoming part 2". The Big Bad, Angelus opens a "swallow the Earth into Hell" vortex. The only way to close it is with the lifeblood of the one who opened it. Just before Buffy is about to deliver the needed deathblow. Plan B is executed by Willow too late, returning his soul and reverting him back to good-natured Angel. After delivering an "I love you" speech, Buffy thrusts a sword in him anyway for the greater good, tossing his into said vortex to close it. She then sends herself on a bus between seasons and the first episode of season 3.
    • Giles attempts to invoke this trope but Buffy defies it at the end of Season 5, when Giles tries to persuade Buffy to go along with this trope and kill her not-really-sister Dawn if that's what it takes to save the world. Buffy is completely unwilling and threatens anyone who attempts it that she will kill them. It was a very compelling case, because if the world ended Dawn would have died anyway. In the end it does come down to that, but Buffy finds a way to Take a Third Option. Discussing her previous actions a couple of seasons later, Buffy tells Giles she feels differently and probably would be willing to kill any one person to save the world at that point.
  • Once on Angel when the gang was on Pylea and making battle plans to free the downtrodden humans.
    Gunn: Those men you sent to create a diversion are going to get killed.
    Wesley: Yes, they are. (beat) You try not to get anybody killed, you wind up getting everybody killed.
  • In Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue an early episode has Carter, the Red Ranger, forced to put out a fire instead of saving a child from getting injured by falling debris, under orders from his superior. At first he is angry, but eventually it is revealed that if the fire had not been put out, it would've reached a flammable liquid, causing an explosion that would kill everyone in the area rather than injuring just one person.
  • In Torchwood, Jack (under emotional stress) agrees to sacrifice his grandson to save the 10% of Earth's children who would be subject to a Fate Worse than Death otherwise.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In The Evil of the Daleks the Second Doctor is willing to sacrifice himself, his companion and a few others in his plan to stop the Daleks infecting humanity with the Dalek Factor. Jamie calls him out on this.
    • The Doctor has had to deal with this decision quite a few times. Typically, for the Doctor it's "the needs of the entire planet/universe outweigh the needs of the many", though:
      • Detonating Vesuvius and destroying Pompeii to stop the Pyroviles from taking over the world.
      • Ending the Time War by destroying the Daleks and the Time Lords, to prevent the use of the Final Sanction which would destroy all of creation.
    • In The Day of the Doctor, Kate Stewart (daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and new holder of the title) is prepared to destroy London to prevent the Zygons from using the technology in the Black Archive to take over the world.
    • Sometimes, though, the Doctor doesn't do this - more than once he's passed up the chance to stop the Daleks once and for all because it was between that and saving the world. It's eventually revealed, though, that some of his darker actions are because of his guilt over the things villains he didn't stop by any means necessary went on to do.
  • In Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, the team finds out that they can use the Greatest Treasure in the Universe to Ret Gone the Zangyack Empire, but doing so will also Ret Gone the Super Sentai. After debating whether they have the right to make that kind of decision (incluing one former Ranger encouraging them to do it), the team eventually decides that the Super Sentai's legacy of inspiring hope, courage, and strength in humanity is too important to throw away.
  • In Babylon 5, Delenn admits to G'Kar that she more or less pulled this with regard to the Narn; she could have confirmed G'Kar's story about the Shadows and probably saved his world from invasion, but had she done so, the Shadow War would have started before the younger races were ready to fight it.
    Delenn: We had to choose between the deaths of millions and the deaths of billions—of entire planets.
    • In a previous episode, G'Kar had received a similar lesson from Kosh, posing as the image of his father, or possibly G'Quan. Not long after Delenn's revelation here, he proceeds to quote it:
      G'Kar: 'Some must be sacrificed if all are to be saved.'
  • In the second season finale of Primeval, Lester is just about to bring Leek's plans to a stop. Leek however still has Cutter catured and threatens to have him killed if Lester does not back down. Lester refuses but does show some regret over it.

    Theatre 
  • In the musical Starship by Starkids, this is a major philosophy on the Bug homeworld. Bug also sacrifices his human body in the end to save the rest of the Starship rangers, finally understanding what it means.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000: This trope is played straight by various factions...
    • Imperium of Man: Sacrifice plenty of Imperial Guard to win back a planet or successfully defending one. In some cases sacrifice the planet for the millions of other planets...ok lets just say sacrifice a few billion for even more trillions.
    • Eldar: They flip this trope, sacrifice the billions of non-eldar for the few eldar.
    • Tyranids: Subvert this by a longshot, lose billions but in the end they win and eat the planet dead and all. And those they lose? They just eat their corpses and recycle the biomass.
    • Tau: Their main philosophy, the so-called "Greater Good", is essentially this. All Tau are expected to act in benefit to as many of their kind as possible, and screwing over others to benefit yourself is seen as one of the greatest sins you could commit. While personal ambition is a sin, ambition on a galaxy-wide scale is considered a virtue.

    Video Games 
  • Mass Effect 2's Arrival DLC has Commander Shepard ram an asteroid into a Mass Relay. The resultant explosion wipes out the entire system it's in, obliterating 305,000 colonists and Shepard will be put on trial for his/her actions. Justification? It delays a Reaper invasion, which would have wiped out all sentient life in the entire galaxy.
    • A recurring theme in Mass Effect 3: If the galaxy is to survive, nobody can afford to stand by their own grudges (and there are many grudges, going back a thousand years or more) Also subverted multiple times: several leaders are forced to flee from battle, often leaving their own troops to die without them, because their leadership is needed by their people as a whole. At one point Shepard can be forced to choose which of two entire alien races is more worth saving. (Though if a save from the previous games in which certain choices were made is imported Shepard can convince both sides to lay down their arms and make peace.)
      • The same reveals that this is the ultimate "logic" behind the Reaper cycle. The Catalyst eventually decided that, since organics and synthetics cannot be made to get along, it is better to harvest all sufficiently intelligent species every 50000 years to prevent a Robot War that could result in destruction so great that no life would survive it.
    • This is also Shepard's logic for saving Admiral Koris over his men, arguing that Koris's survival is the only hope to get the quarian fleet out intact.
  • In inFAMOUS Cole is faced with the sadists choice of saving the one or the many; his girlfriend Trish or half a dozen doctors who could save many lives themselves. It's a Karma-Moment, so the player gets to decide and is rewarded good or evil karma for a selfless or selfish decision respectively.
    • Of course, it's programmed so she's doomed no matter what you choose, to prove a lesson either way. If you go after the doctors, which brings good karma, then it turns out Kessler told the truth and Trish really is the girl in the opposite tower, and she dies. Kessler congratulates you for making the selfless choice. But if you choose to save Trish and earn evil karma, then it turns out Kessler lied and the girl you save was just some random civilian; Trish was actually was actually one of the doctors, and they all die. Then Kessler berates you for being selfish and putting your happiness above potentially several lives.
  • In Alpha Protocol, choosing to save either Madison St. James or a whole room full of innocent people, and the choice between saving Ronald Sung by giving him the assassination plans or saving hundreds of people by foiling a plot to incite nation-wide riots.
  • A major theme of Dragon Age: Origins; it shows up in the Redcliffe and Circle quests, the whole concept of the Grey Wardens, and the endgame. The Qun (not so much a race as a "religion" / philosophical movement) is also built on this, to the point where its adherents give up personal names and refer to each other by their role in society. They view their society as a single creature that they must all work to strengthen and protect.
  • A recurring theme in Battlefield 3. In one level the player plays a member of a Russian special forces team trying to prevent a nuclear attack in Paris. The team at the beginning discuss that they may come into a firefight with French police, but that it's far more important to stop the nuclear attack than worry about the fate of a few police. Later playing as an American forces they come under fire by Russian military who are basically after the same thing but fight back due to no other choice, the player character later says he held nothing against the Russians and doesn't consider them his enemy despite them killing much of his squad. Near the end of the game it comes in full force when the player character guns down his commanding officer to allow a Russian special forces soldier to escape as the only hope of preventing a nuclear attack.
  • The Trope Namer phrase is quoted word for word in the scrolling text on the intro screen to Lemmings. Rather appropriate, as the gameplay involves sacrificing the smallest number of Lemmings as possible so the rest can reach the exit.
  • The Conquest Ending of Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 deals with the CPUs, humanized goddesses of various consoles and handhelds, trying to stop The End of the World as We Know It. To do such, they find a sword that can slay a God of Evil before she awakens and kickstarts said apocalypse, however the sword itself needs the soul of a CPU to be effective. Because of this Nepgear, the protagonist, decides against killing her friends to use the sword, and suggested that everyone pools their shares into one nation, (Planeptune, the nation where she and her sister are the CPUs of) so that she and Neptune can defeat the Deity of Sin. Nobody else goes along with this plan because it could destroy their nations in the process (and also because at least one of them wants the shares funneled to their nation instead). The resulting conflicts leads Neptune and Nepgear to kill the CPUs of Lastation and Lowee, as well as their sisters in their I Cant Self Terminate moments while Vert, the CPU of Leanbox, attempts to invert this trope by taking the sword and the lives of its wielders so that she may live for her sister figure, but ultimately dies when one of the villains kill her after her fight with the protagonists.

    Visual Novels 
  • This is a recurring theme in Fate/stay night, where the Arc Words appears to be "a hero must choose the people he saves". Shirou's personal conflict in each route involves him finding an answer to the conflict between his ideal of saving everyone and the reality of it being impossible.
    • The actions of Counter Guardians fall under this. They are deployed by Alaya to prevent disasters that would threaten the continued survival of humanity by destroying everything involved in the danger. More often than not the danger is human in origin, so the Counter Guardian will destroy every human even tangentially connected to the threat. Alaya views destroying entire nations as an acceptable loss if it ensures humanity's survival.
    • Choosing to obey or defy the trope is a key decision in the "Heaven's Feel" scenario. Sakura has the potential to become a mindless monster that would kill hundreds, but can easily be stopped if killed before that happens, while she is in fact innocent of any crime. Playing the trope straight leads to a Bad End where Shirou follows his father's path and becomes a miserable murderer, killing innocents and even his friends to protect as many people as possible. Attempting to Take a Third Option and save everyone (which results in hundreds of deaths) allows him to earn a life with his loved ones.

    Webcomics 
  • In Freefall strip 2162, Florence says, "There are over 450 million robots. There are only fourteen Bowman's wolves. If I have to choose, I have to go with the robots." Florence is a Bowman's wolf and would sacrifice her own race to save the robots. Later another character argues against sacrificing Florence because this sounds all very well until you're designated the few.
  • Deconstructed by implication in Paranatural. The spirit Forge goes on a rant against this sort of behavior, making it clear he had this mindset in the past.
    Forge: We burn the present for the sake of a brighter future and act surprised when all it holds is ash!

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Antz, with numerous references to (often morally dubious) actions being made "for the good of the Colony". This eventually gets thrown back in the villain's face when he tries to claim that drowning the entire colony and murdering the Queen is for the good of the colony.
  • On South Park, Stan quotes it to his father, claiming it's "from a little book called The Bible." Kyle then corrects him and tells him it's from Wrath of Khan.
  • This was Aang's final dilemma in the last episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, when Aang was distraught over the thought of having to kill Fire Lord Ozai in order to save the world, even though his upbringing as an Air Nomad and monk taught him to hold all life as sacred, even the lives of people who might be morally evil. His friends try to brace him for this as best they can, while his past incarnations either agree with them or just say he'll have to stop agonizing and make a decision no matter what. He might have gone through with it if there was NO other choice, but the Lion Turtle gave him a third option.

    Real Life 
  • Communist countries would often use this. They would export most of their crop rather than use it to feed their own people. In their defense they would say "a few must starve for the sake of the many", and by few they mean a few million people will starve, for the sake of the many billions more who will starve later.
  • On a more positive note, this is part of the logic behind assassinating a tyrant - kill one obviously evil person (and those loyal to him) so that thousands or even millions may live free of his oppression.
    • Terry Pratchett noted that there's a flaw in this logic: "Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of social pus from which dictators emerge; shoot him and there'll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland?"
  • This trope is the rationale behind most, if not all, Heroic Sacrifices.
  • This is, in a few cases, the rationale behind war itself. Better for a (relatively) few soldiers to die than for an entire civilization to be wiped out. This applies primarily to war acts of defense, or on rare occasions perhaps preemptive war. It is extremely rare, that a purely offensive war could be justified by this trope: If it were, it would have to be to save people from a mass-murdering dictator or the like.

Naughty Is GoodMorality TropesNeutrality Backlash
Messianic ArchetypeSelflessness TropesNeutral Good

alternative title(s): The Utilitarian; For The Greater Good; Utilitarianism
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