The Myth of the Greater Good

In entry-level philosophy class, a professor will often present a scenario that seems to challenge the students’ perspective on morality.

The argument runs something as follows: “The entire nation of France will drop dead tomorrow unless you kill your neighbor who has only one day to live. What do you do?”

Or “You could eliminate cancer by pressing a button that also kills one healthy person. Do you do so?”

The purpose is to create a moral dilemma. The questions pit your moral rejection of murder against your moral guilt for not acting to save millions of lives.

In reality, the questions are a sham that cannot be honestly answered. They postulate a parallel world in which the rules of reality, like cause and effect, have been dramatically changed so that pushing a button cures cancer. The postulated world seems to operate more on magic than reality.

Because my moral code is based on the reality of the existing world, I don’t know what I would do if those rules no longer operated. I presume my morality would be different, so my actions would be as well.

As absurd as they are, these are considered to be the “tough” moral questions. In grappling with them, some students come to believe that being true to morality requires the violation of morality in a profound manner; after all, there is no greater violation than the deliberate murder of another human being.

But how can the life of one outweigh those of millions in your hands? At this point, morality becomes a numbers game, a matter of cost-benefit analysis, rather than of principle. This is not an expansion of morality, as the professor claims, but the manufacture of a conflict that destroys morality. In its place is left a moral gray zone, a vacuum into which utilitarianism rushes.

Suddenly, it becomes obvious that the good of the many outweighs the murder of the one. The collective outweighs the individual. The majority outranks the minority. Hard “factual” utilitarianism is preferable to gray, inconsistent morality.

The philosophical questions lead directly into politics because murdering a person for the greater good is not merely a moral question, but also one of individual rights. If you accept the morality of doing so, you have also accepted the political propriety of murdering an innocent human being.

Phrased in political terms, nonhypothetical versions of the philosophy question come up often. For example, “Should the rich or businessmen (the few) be heavily taxed to provide national health care (for the many)?” Here, a greater good is pitted against individual rights. But more than this, individual rights of two groups conflict, with the rights of a resisting minority viewed as a barrier to the “rights” or entitlements of “the others.” Businessmen are deemed to have no right to their earnings if it prevents the majority from having health care.

This politically manufactured conflict is as absurd as the philosophically manufactured one.

The 19th-century British individualist Auberon Herbert addressed the issue of the “good of the greatest number.” He stated, “There never was invented a more specious and misleading phrase. The Devil was in his most subtle and ingenious mood when he slipped this phrase into the brains of men. I hold it to be utterly false in essentials.”

Why is it false? Because the phrase assumes as a given that a higher morality requires the violation of individual rights. Or in Herbert’s words, “It assumes that there are two opposed ‘goods,’ and that the one good is to be sacrificed to the other good — but in the first place, this is not true, for liberty is the one good, open to all, and requiring no sacrifice of others, and secondly, this false opposition (where no real opposition exists) of two different goods means perpetual war between men.” [Emphasis added.]

Herbert is relying on two intimately related theories: first, “the universality of rights”; and, second, “a natural harmony of interests.” The universality of rights means that every individual has the same natural rights to an equal degree.

Race, gender, religion or other secondary characteristics do not matter; only the primary characteristic of being human is important. A natural harmony of interests means that the peaceful exercise of one person’s individual rights does not harm the similar exercise by any other person.

My freedom of conscience or speech does not negate my neighbor’s. The peaceful jurisdiction I claim over my own body does not diminish anyone else’s claim of self-ownership. Indeed, the more I assert the principle of self-ownership, the stronger and more secure that principle becomes for everyone.

Only in a world where rights are not universal, where people’s peaceful behavior conflicts, does it make sense to accept the need to sacrifice individuals to a greater good. This is not the real world, but one that has been manufactured for political purposes.

Herbert explained a key assumption that underlies this faux world: the acceptance of the “greater good” itself. He asked, “Why are two men to be sacrificed to three men? We all agree that the three men are not to be sacrificed to the two men; but why — as a matter of moral right — are we to do what is almost as bad and immoral and shortsighted — sacrifice the two men to the three men? Why sacrifice any one… when liberty does away with all necessity of sacrifice?”

Herbert denied the validity of “this law of numbers, which… is what we really mean when we speak of State authority…under which three men are made absolutely supreme, and two men are made absolutely dependent.” Instead of accepting the law of numbers as an expression of greater good, Herbert viewed it as a convenient social construct, calling it “a purely conventional law, a mere rude, half-savage expedient, which cannot stand the criticism of reason, or be defended… by considerations of universal justice. You can only plead expediency of it.”

To whom was the social construct of conflict convenient? Why would a faux world of inherent conflict be created? By solving the manufactured problems, a great deal of power was transferred from individuals to a ruling class.

Herbert wrote, “The tendency of all great complicated machines is to make a ruling class, for they alone understand the machine, and they alone are skilled in the habit of guiding it; and the tendency of a ruling expert class, when once established, is that at critical moments they do pretty nearly what they like with the nation…”

Rather than solve a social problem, the ruling class had a devastating effect on the welfare of common people, who became “a puzzled flock of sheep waiting for the sheepdog to drive us through the gate.” Ironically, by claiming the collective was greater, the few were able to assume control over the many. The “greater good” devolved to whatever served the interests of the ruling class.

But the process can be reversed. It requires “individualizing” the collective and the nation so that “will, conscience and judgment” can return to every person.

At that point, society offers people “the noblest present” and the greatest benefit possible — “their own personal responsibility.”