The Greater Good
“The Greater Good” is a ubiquitous statement, but is it as harmless as its triteness would suggest? “Might makes right” is equally short and familiar, but few people consider it moral. Ultimately, I intend to demonstrate that both amount to the same thing, namely the pernicious subjugation of the individual to the tyranny of the mob. Thus, the concept of “the greater good” will be exposed as an insidious euphemism for “might makes right”.
Reflection upon the idea of a “greater good” inevitably educes two questions – “What is the good?” and “Why is it greater?” Ignoring these questions has given “the greater good” a shiny, veneer of noble morality. In answering them I hope to remove it. Contemplation of the first question leads one to realise that the concept “good” is a value judgement. But who is the valuer and judge? It would appear to be whoever makes the statement. Consequently, our inquiry must start with an examination of the individual who proclaims the idea.
What does a person mean when they invoke “the greater good”? Normally it is used to advocate a particular course of action being taken, despite it causing some inimical consequences, because the benefits will outweigh these “unfortunate” costs. Maximising satisfaction or “utility” might seem perfectly sensible to you, when thinking of personal decisions which are yours alone. An individual who weighs up the costs and benefits of an action, and upon considering the benefits to be greater, proceeds with the action, is unremarkable. There is little need to justify the decision by calling upon the concept of a “greater good”. Who does one have to justify themselves to anyway?
Hence, we are inclined to consider the use of the “greater good” concept superfluous to any decisions relating solely to an individual. This being true, when is it used? Evidently, when the proponent is not referring to a decision pertaining only to themselves, but to others as well. The subject is always the group or society, of which the proponent is a member, and therefore entitled to an opinion.
We now have an answer to the supposed identity of the ostensible valuer of the “good” – that being the social group. The qualification is entirely necessary, as this is the critical error made by advocates of “the greater good”, either unintentionally, or deliberately. Although the social group is identified as the valuer, the “good” being valued is never in the interests of all the members of the group. Remember, the “greater good” is always used to justify an action which causes harm to some, but is believed to be beneficial overall. In other words, some members suffer loss, but the majority are better off. The answer to the second question – “Why is it greater?”, is now clear.
For the majority the action is “good”, and this fact overrides the loss suffered by the minority. Therefore, the concept of a “greater good” is thoroughly misleading. Unlike the situation facing an individual, this is not a choice between two goods, of which one is superior. Nor is it a choice between two alternatives, whose outcomes benefit everyone. No justification would ever be needed for a decision which benefited every member of society. The “greater good” is purely the justification for the majority to benefit at the expense of the minority.
This point demands reiteration. The proposition of “the greater good” is never, ever “good” for everyone. It simply represents the utilitarian rationale for inflicting loss on some members, to achieve “greater” gain for others. The specious nature of this utilitarian argument is now transparent. Though advocates invoke “the greater good” in the name of society, they are guilty of a mendacious fraud. Society is only a collection of individuals, and an action is only good for society, if it is good for every individual in society. Supporters of “the greater good” use “society” as a cover for their unjustifiable and unprincipled attempt to sacrifice others to augment their interests. What makes them truly evil, is that they have the effrontery to call this a moral concept.
The “moral majority” now takes on a new meaning, under utilitarian ethics. It does not mean that the majority of members of society are moral, but that whatever opinion is in the majority, becomes moral! People’s actions and values are not evaluated as moral or immoral, instead it is morality which is evaluated on the basis of the actions and values of the majority of the people. Under utilitarian ethics, there is no objective, absolute code of morality. In fact, no action or value is ever moral or immoral for everybody, regardless of time or circumstance. Morality follows the whim of the majority. If the majority stand to gain from murder, theft and slavery, then these actions are defined as moral.
The promised conjugation of “the greater good” and “might makes right” is now possible. The “greater good” has been exposed as effectively meaning – “the majority defines morality”. And who possesses the “might” if not the majority? You might protest that the majority may not use force to achieve their ends, but you would have no foundation for that hope. After all, if the action proposed by the majority is moral, then they have every right to pursue it. For the same reason that I am entitled to use force to defend my property, if your possessions are allocated to me for the “greater good”, I would be entitled to use force to claim them. Thus, both concepts amount to the same thing, the moral legitimacy of the majority imposing their will, at the expense of the minority.
We are ultimately presented with the conclusion that the ethics of “the greater good” amount to a blank check given to the mob to extract maximum gain, by sacrificing the powerless and disenfranchised to their interests. Unfortunately, most people are characteristically short-sighted and rosy-eyed, and dismiss the thought that they could ever be part of the persecuted minority. As such, I will give the final word to a survivor of the Holocaust who famously warned – “When they came for the Gipsies, I did nothing. When they came for the disabled, I did nothing. When they came for the homosexuals, I did nothing. When they came for me, there was no-one left to do anything.”
- Adrian Lobo