Greater Good, Lesser Evil

Often, when justifying someone’s action, you hear the phrase, “for the greater good.”

It took awhile for me to realize that the proper question isn’t “greater than what?”  The proper question is, “greater for whom?”

The phrase is used as an unanswerable justification for an action that would otherwise be judged as bad or evil.  It’s as though if something is done “for the greater good,” it is unquestionably virtuous.

Think of the alms for the poor that religions have demanded from their congregations for hundreds of years, threatening hellfire for disobedience.

Or, consider the justification given for funding welfare programs through taxation.  There are people in need; those who are meeting their own needs must provide for them.  If your question about the good is, “greater for whom?” the answer comes easily; at least, it does if you’ve read Ayn Rand on altruism.  The “greater good” means what’s good for other people, as opposed to what is good for an individual.

The “greater good” is given as a Christian way of dealing with the “problem of evil”.  This latter is often raised in discussions about the existence of God.  How can the Christian god exist when there is so much obvious evil in the world?  Evil becomes less problematic — it can even be seen as necessary —  if it contributes to bringing about the “greater good” of fulfilling God’s wishes.

What unites the religious “greater good” with the political “public interest”?  They both based on the premise that sacrifice is good.

“The greater good” fits right in with the Christian duty to self-sacrifice.  It also fits in with the political Left’s maxim that the good is whatever benefits the most people.  Thus we get “the public interest”, which is said to justify the sacrifice of the productive to the “needy”.  So, what might be thought of as “bad” or “evil” for some thus becomes a “greater good” for other people.

In essence, sacrifice is the giving up of something you value for something you value less or not at all.  Christianity expects you to do so in order to have any chance of reaching Heaven.   Leftist politicians exhort you to forego your own interests for:  future generations, or the poor, or the environment, or health care for everyone or — fill in the blank with whatever goals they may currently specify.  (Conservative politicians agree with most of their goals, but differ in their methods.)

The flip side of the “greater good” is the “lesser evil”.  Lesser evil is necessary for there to be a greater good.  (That’s what it’s greater than.)

The sacrifice entailed by the “greater good”, then, turns out to be the standard of morality. But how can something that’s admittedly evil — sacrifice of your values — be a moral standard?  There is a contradiction here.

As always when encountering a contradiction, the principle is: check your premises.  The premise that sacrifice is good contradicts the premise that values are good.

The alternative to the Christian/Leftist call for self-sacrifice?  Rational egoism.  Your responsibility is to yourself; not to any god nor to everyone else.

–Ken

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Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life

Several years ago, I tried to order this Oscar-nominated documentary on the life and career of Ayn Rand. Barnes & Noble disappointed me, saying that they did not have the movie, and were taking it off their website. Now, through the wonder of Netflix, I’ve finally had a chance to see it.

This film is very well put together; it’s easy to see why it received an Academy Award nomination. I found it inspiring, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in Ayn Rand and her approach to life.

–Ken

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Religion & Objectivism

Somebody calling himself “The Forum God” here says:

“I have always enjoyed Ayn Rand’s philosophy and have madea (sic) sort of hobby when there’s nothing else to do to try to mix Objectivism into a philosophy that would still allow me to keep being a proud Lutheran.”

Now, I know practically nothing about Lutheranism, except that it is counted as a (the?) Protestant religion. I do know something of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Enough to know that Objectivism won’t “mix into” any religion. It’s the polar opposite of religion.

Why, you ask? So I’ll tell you.

The cardinal tenet of Objectivism is rationality. Objectivism says, in effect, “Look at reality, at the evidence, and then use reason to draw your conclusions on that basis and only that basis.”

Way over at the other pole, religion’s chief tenet is faith. Religion says, “Believe, whether there is any evidence or not. Truth is what God says it is. (That is, what Lutheranism, or Catholicism, or Islam, Judaism, etc., etc., says God says it is.”)

The Forum God wants to mix rationality — ” relying only on evidence and reason to reach truth” — with proudly proclaiming his faith that Lutheranism is true. The contradiction is insurmountable.

He wants to make a change in himself without changing. He wants to mix something he sees as good, Objectivism, with something else that feels good to him, his habitual Lutheranism. Apparently, he doesn’t see, or else doesn’t care about, the contradiction.

–Ken

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Ayn Rand and Life

Diana Hsieh recently asked, on her blog, “At what point in reading Ayn Rand did you realize that she had something really significant to contribute to your understanding of the world?”

Several of her many readers responded with their first encounters with Objectivism. Most of them are appallingly young, recounting first experiences during their high school years. Would that Ayn Rand’s works had been available during my high school years!

If I had replied to Diana’s question, it would have gone something like this: I happened on Atlas Shrugged in the early 1960’s. My mother, a voracious and indiscriminate reader of any new library books, had read AS several years previously, but had said something about the story going “on and on,” and she didn’t understand it. The book was huge, and that, along with Mom’s somewhat negative review, made it uninteresting to me at the time.

In 1963 the 13th printing of the paperback Signet edition of AS was in the drug store book racks (price: $0.95). I recall being discouraged about the novels being published at the time. My conscious thought was, “I don’t think I’ve ever read anything worthwhile by a woman author. Maybe I should give this a try.” I was about 31 years of age.

The story was gripping and its ideas were intriguing. As many people have done, I questioned whether people like Ayn Rand’s protagonists were even possible, but I certainly found them inspiring.

The answer to my question (and to Diana’s) happened when I came to the “About the Author” page at the end of the book. The quotation there was, “My personal life is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.’ I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books — and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters. The concretes differ, the abstractions are the same.”

It was then that I realized I had not just read a great story. I had happened onto something that would make an enormous difference in my life.

–Ken

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Drugs and Gambling

Today’s news is full of: what-to-do about drug gang violence in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Texas, and, the “big” gambling scandal involving the wife of a hockey superstar.

By the standards of Objectivism — and of common sense — neither of these “problems” ought to be a problem. Gambling, for example should never be a concern of the government, if the government is solely concerned with protecting individual rights — the primary concern of government. What a person does with his own money, even if he capriciously loses it, is his own business and responsibility. Government has no proper authority to make him treat his money differently “for his own good.” (Nor should the government have the authority to make others take care of that person when he is broke.)

As to the gang violence at the border, note that what was mentioned is drug gang violence. Like gambling, drug use/abuse should be a matter of personal choice. If it had not been made illegal to buy, sell, or use drugs, it would not be worthwhile to form illegal “gangs” in order to supply drugs illegally.

–Ken

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