Myth Of The Greater Good

Originally Posted At Laissez Faire Today
By Wendy McElroy
August 11, 2012

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.”


Add a comment


Urgent Petition

Sign the petition to stop Social Security Cuts and send a fax to every Member of Congress demanding they cut other spending, NOT SOCIAL SECURITY.
First Name

Last Name

Phone Number


Recent News

Reid Lets Obama, Holder Cover Up IRS Scandal

Sunday, March 23, 2014
An independent prosecutor — with no political agenda — is truly needed to uncover the origin and depth of the IRS's unconstitutional targeting scheme. By rejecting this request, the Justice Department puts politics ahead of the rule of law.
Read Full Story

A Special Prosecutor for the IRS

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
A special prosecutor, uncompromised by partisan political winds, is necessary to uncover what's going on at the IRS.
Read Full Story

President Obama's Growth Gap Hits $1.31 Trillion

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Stagnation: With fourth-quarter GDP growth downgraded in the latest government report, President Obama's anemic economy stretches on. If this had been only an average recovery, we'd be $1.31 trillion richer.
Read Full Story

Michigan Township To Put Cameras ‘In Every Neighborhood’

Tuesday, March 4, 2014
“We are recording images that a police officer would see if he or she were standing in the same place”: Officials in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan are working with police to put surveillance cameras in every single neighborhood.
Read Full Story

SSI Candidate Questionnaire Responses

Monday, February 24, 2014
Candidates respond to the Questionaire SSI issued.
Read Full Story

Reasor Response To SSI Questionaire

Monday, February 24, 2014
Social Security Even though the latest Social Security Annual Trustees Reports states that Social Security can pay 100% of benefits until the year 2033, many members of Congress and policymakers still want to reduce the cost of the program now by various options.
Read Full Story

What ever happened to the Administrative Procedures Act?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
For the second time in a year, the Obama administration is giving certain employers extra time before they must offer health insurance to almost all their full-time workers. Under new rules announced Monday by Treasury Department officials, employers with 50 to 99 workers will be given until 2016 — two years longer than originally envisioned under the Affordable Care Act — before they risk a federal penalty for not complying.
Read Full Story

SSI's Congressional Candidate Questionnaire

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
The Social Security Institute is sending out a questionaire to all Federal Candidates. Here is the content of the letter.
Read Full Story

Is GOP Sen. John Cornyn a Liberal?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014
“John Cornyn consistently doles out corporate welfare, supports the government snooping in our emails and phone calls, and supports cutting Social Security benefits for Republican grandparents and veterans across Texas,” said Green. “If that outrages Republican voters, they should by all means vote against him. And Steve Stockman should feel free to liberally use this quote in campaign materials.”
Read Full Story

Famous Republican faces primary challenge

Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Veteran Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is seeking re-election as a “strong conservative” in a state known to dislike Washington and to be heavily dominated by the Republican Party. But observers say he is facing headwinds of his own making this election year.
Read Full Story
Read All Recent News

Get in the Know Now
Get SSI Email Alerts

Zip Code

Social Networks


Action Center