I used to be open to the idea that the greater good existed: that theoretically, there was some course of action in any situation that would result in the greatest good for the greatest number. This is one key part of the theories of collectivism from Marxist states to global liberalism. The second lynchpin is, of course, that some person (or group of persons) can know what that collective good is, and implement it regardless of the will and desire and even good of any number of individuals. It was always this second assumption I found repulsive.
Consider the following. Under this theory, collectivists can justify any actions whatsoever by claiming that those actions saved (or will save) an even greater number of hypothetical people at the expense of some very real injury to some number of very real people. If the critic says ten thousand people will lose work, homes, and the very meaning in their lives; the collectivist points to the million hypothetical people whose lives have been improved. The misery always affects real people who can suffer, starve, and die, while the good always seems to turn out to be for people who will never exist. (Other than the collectivist leaders who always seem to make good like every communist dictator ever.)
The argument can always be made, and is indeed always made by those who advocate modern statism or fascism or communism, that those who made the decisions in the past just weren’t the right people. The idea is never wrong. This insistence leads me to think about the very idea of ‘the greater good’. What if there is no such thing. What if, ultimately, there are only ever individual goods, just as there are only individual rights, and individual responsibility.
And I guess this question hinges upon the very nature of man. If you believe that man is merely a fancy pack animal, then you might well agree that the nebulous ‘greater good’ exists, and it is worth looking for. If you believe that people are unique, whether due to creation by God in His image, or due to the humanist argument that man’s reason makes him unique, then it must be the case that the only good things are those done by individuals for individuals. Things done by people uncoerced by government or other people.
So why does this idea of the ‘greater good’ persist? It is recurs because the men in charge like being in charge, and the best excuse of onerous unpopular government laws, regulations, and wars is that such-and-so is for ‘the best’. (It also certainly has appeal to people who do not wish to be sovereign moral entities, and be therefore responsible for their own actions… another topic for another time. Today, we rant about government. 🙂 )
This is the talk of an oligarch: I am an American, how I feel about governing elites is somewhere between distrust and disgust. This is especially true when people with fancy degrees try to tell me what kind of toilet I can have, what kind of light bulbs I can buy, what the mileage of the car I drive has to be. What do they know about me, my needs, my life, my goals, my dreams, my family, my desires? Why should they be empowered to decide for everyone what is best for them? I believe than God made every man and woman unique and individual, that we form societies, not so that we can give up our God-given personhood to a collective whole, but so that we can interact and love other individuals. I think that as such, there is no ‘greater good’. There is no set of conditions that is good for me and the man down the street uniformly. It is the right of the individual (every human being) to pursue his own good as long as it does not harm another. It is also the right of the individual to sacrifice his own good for who and what he chooses, and no man or woman or government or council of academics has any authority or right to demand that an individual sacrifice his good, his rights or his individualism for anyone or anything. Otherwise they are enforcing their idea of morality on people. Otherwise, we are not free men, but slaves.
Note: For fun with ‘The Greater Good’, do watch Hot Fuzz a truly hilarious film with Simon Pegg…
Another Note: There is certainly one universal good for all mankind. It is from the outside, and only an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent God could know and do it… The redemption from sin brought about by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. As it turns out, this one universal good theologically belies all others. Everything people dub ‘the greater good’ actually takes away from the individual and thereby drains people of their personhood. The Cross restores every man, woman, and child’s personhood to them, each in an individual relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of the universe.