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.


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