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Advantages and Disadvantages of Individual Rights vs. Public Order

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Human societies have long been faced with the dilemma of considering public order and individual rights in the course of societal change and dynamics of governance. Governments are caught in the middle of considering the welfare of the population in general and individual rights which would be inevitably suppressed in some ways and severity so that a harmony of all the elements of the society can be reconciled. Social studies have dwelled in finding ways to mend the gap between the affairs concerned with the interests of the individual and the consequences of these considerations to the society at large. This dilemma has provided the basis for antagonisms and these antagonisms in the end were to be settled by a confrontation among contending parties, some times subtle and at some point, bloody (Baier, 1988, p. 324).

Historically, public order and individual rights did not have contentions towards each other. In fact, the order of things was in orderly chaos. One which is characterized by the absence of any entity or establishment that would impose what is right or what is wrong; what is socially acceptable and what is not. Hence man lived with sole understanding of the environment which is completely survival of his kind. In a sense, there were no concepts of society, politics, order, morality, and right or wrong. Man acted according to his thoughts as a response dictated by external factors. Individual freedom was secured that is through the absence of any coercive apparatus to impose any belief system or interest against anyone (Gauthier, 1990, p. 31).

When societies evolved, an order was established with respect to the existing economic system which was dominant in the society. During the slave system, an order was established to protect and maintain the characteristics and pervading norms of that period and any idea and action that would challenge the harmony of the society was suppressed. In that case, a government, an army, and other institutions that would preserve the system were created.

Individual rights are often equated with the person’s human rights which were guaranteed by the constitution of a particular state where the person is a citizen of.  These are what set the parameters of distinction between human and other living entity because with individual rights, man is secured that he would have certain capabilities or actions which he could perform in a society. It is through these that man discovers himself as something different among other things or creatures (Baier, 1988, p. 320).

Man had the right to develop himself through activities and other actions which would ensure that his humanity will be developed. With these, he had the access to things that would keep him alive like food, shelter and clothing. Modern societies recognize these needs and such recognition has given these things their high position in the hierarchy of things that are most important to human survival. Individual rights are not confided to these things. Aside from the basic necessities of man, there are also the rights to think freely, to express oneself in his society, to determine his becoming, to decide on what is good for him and what is not and to believe what he wants to believe especially on concepts that would contribute to his development.

Although individual rights secure what man has to have, it also sets the line of what man can and cannot do in certain society. Such rights were paid for with man’s obedience or compliance with the socially set norms and way of life (Gauthier, 1990, p. 16). This compliance with the values set by the society would also, theoretically, make certain that the right of man to life will be observed in every circumstance. No man can be punished without due process and executed without any opportunity to defend himself. Hence Man’s right to defend himself emanates side by side with this. The government has to make sure that the rights of man are exercised without any precondition except in cases wherein the good of the general public is at the verge of imminent danger and order has to be established so a systematic conduct of societal affairs can continue.

Public order on the other hand is the systematization of the individual rights so that there would a harmonious co-existence within a society. Governments set this order based on the values that the people in the society share, the common interests of the individuals in the collective and on the traditions that bind the individuals into a universal interaction. The binding concept in the society emanated from the contract which the individuals had been accustomed with and preserved certain ideas which are deemed necessary for a harmonious concordance between and among the individuals within that particular society.

The principal machinery which ensures this order is the state through its apparatuses, the government and institutions for culture such as education and religion. The government conceptualized the laws which are the guidelines for the proper conduct of each individual and protects the society against threats to the existing order like external enemies, dissent within the population or other events or phenomena which may disrupt the everyday demeanor of the individuals. In order to maintain that decisive position, the government has to maintain an armed section of the population so it could defend the society and impose the order in every means possible. Courts are also created to serve as arbitrator on issues which involve individuals so that a uniform observance of what is right and what is wrong can be maintained. Religion and education are the state’s machineries to mold the individual’s mind into submission or compliance with the established order. Through religious activities, the spiritual foundations of morality are handed over to the individuals. Education trains the system of thought which would be in accordance with the interests of the society and parallel to the shared beliefs of the members of the society (Sanders, 1982, p. 90).

The necessity to reconcile these two concepts materialized when the societies have evolved and technological and cultural sophistications were reached. Certain economic system may not allow the presence of individual rights which were characteristic of the past. A herdsman for example cannot exercise his right to freely go about a certain territory and allow his cattle graze over parcels of land intended for agricultural production. In any court of law, civilized or uncivilized society, the case would still judge against the herdsman. Eventualities like this made the emergence of state authorities possible by delegating to their rulers the task of determining what is good for the society and what should be accepted in the society

At present, the interests of the state to maintain a public order and the individual’s exercise of his rights were often antagonistic of each other. Some individuals feel that their rights are suppressed by certain laws passed and imposed by the state through the government machineries. While the state argued that the suppression of certain rights was necessary for the continuity of the social relations which are dominant in a particular society. With these clashing points of view, absolute existence of individual rights is not possible when a social order is present and on the contrary there could be no social order if the individual is left to do anything he wants on the premise that he had the inherent rights to exercise those (Gauthier, 1990, p. 21). Taking into consideration if the individual right is superior to the notion of public order there will be advantages and disadvantages to both parties. If the individual right reigned supreme then man will not be experiencing the prison, no restrictions on what he would want to do. Man is completely detached from the obligations of his societies and no law enforcement agency could inflict harm upon men. There would be no cases of torture or abuses perpetrated by the state.

However, the absence of the state as a regulatory body would result to graver concerns. The threat of abuse of authority may have been eliminated but the harm which could be inflicted by man against man would still continue. There would be chaos in the society. By putting the prime on individual rights, other person’s rights could be abused in cases when other individuals also exercise their individual rights. Hence, an absence of authority which would determine the boundaries of the individual’s rights would result to another violation of individual rights (Nozick, 1974, p. 12).

Analytically discussing this comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of individual rights versus public order we could conclude that the issue at hand is quite relativistic. If the existing public order is beneficial for the individuals and was able to deliver the greatest good for the members of the society then the existence of a public order will be justified. Therefore the importance of public order over individual rights can be stressed but if the public order was an instrument to impose upon the will of the ruling elite for their own benefits and to the detriment of the individual members of the society, then the individual’s right to defend himself and to determine his being will become first and foremost his obligation to exercise. Even though the exercise of those individual rights would transgress other individual’s rights, it would still be socially accepted as the only means to liberate the individual from the inhuman conditions. Hence the right of the individual and the people as a whole to rise against their rulers to create another public order wherein the interests and the collective will of the members of the society can be secured (Nozick, 1974, p. 12).

In the end, the individual will still be included in the new public order that would be considerate of the individual rights and create a society which would take into consideration how society’s interest would be in accord with the individuals. This may be far fetched or impossible to attain but given the right conditions, man as a superior being, societies would evolve into that preferable order of things and just relations among the elements of the society.


Baier, A. (1988). Pilgrim’s Progress: Review of David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18(2), 315-330.

Gauthier, D. (1990). Moral Dealing: Contract, Ethics, and Reason. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Sanders, M. (1982). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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