Fallacy of the Greater Good

You’re one of the experts in a team hiking up a treacherous mountain which has a morbid 29% death rate. As you all are making your way through a difficult area, one of the team members slips and tumbles down what looks like about 20 meters. You all can see that they are alive but it appears they hurt their leg. The only way to get to them is to try and hike back down and get to their particular area, which may or may not be easily reached. However, due to the time at this particular altitude, temperature and weather conditions the chances of saving them are low and will put the rest of the team in jeopardy whether you leave the team or try to have everyone help. For the greater good, should you leave the team member behind? Is this even a greater good problem?

Good Desires

The idea of greater good seems to be embedded in humanity since the beginning. It was often more related to the idea of “sacrifice” which has been around since the dawn of creation and identified in many of our ancient texts and cultures across the world. Often we consider an individual or a small minority of people “sacrificing'” something of themselves for the greater good whether that be their time, their resources or even their lives.

Aristotle was one of the first to really discuss specifically “greater good” separate from sacrifice in an excerpt called “rhetoric”. In this document he spoke of various topics including democracy and politics but in the portion that speaks of greater good there is a large number of philosophical musings. For example “What is rare is a greater good than what is plentiful”. For the most part Aristotle treated greater good very similar to the desires of the majority; such as “..wealth may be regarded as a greater good if its existence is known to others.” While his musings may be reasonable as it relates to our desires, it is obvious that there will be issues with allowing our own “desires” be what determines greater good.

Greater Ambiguity

“Greater” and “good” are often assumed to be the same for all involved. If not the same, at least reasonably similar and separated into agreed upon differences. However this is often not the case. Good could be a team member not dying, it could mean the individual themselves not dying, it could mean being a good person and trying to save others. It could even mean getting a million dollars for completing the climb. Assuming we actually know what everyone’s particular “good” is, we could technically rack and stack them to make a decision. For instance perhaps more of us want to not die which includes those wanting a million dollars, so the greater good is to continue forward and leave the stranded team member. But more complex matters will likely not be so cut and dry.

What if one of the members reminds us also that “greater” isn’t necessarily the number of people involved. It could also be based upon which good outcome is “greater than all the other” good outcomes. In other words, the good outcome that is greater than the rest is that we save the team member, allow none of the members to die and also get a million dollars. Everyone would agree that’s the best outcome. The team can only agree on this path however if the probability is in a range that is acceptable for everyone. It wouldn’t be a greater good problem if no one had to sacrifice anything. So while “greater good” is somewhat similar to “best outcome”, it’s really dealing with the “best outcome” in a situation where we don’t all agree.

Good Beliefs

At some point in history various civilizations have had slavery. Often the slaves were the minority and those who wanted slaves were the majority. We’d consider it obvious now, that if we say greater good, we are emphasizing doing what is actually “right” for the most people possible. But what isn’t so obvious is that the reason slavery was ever a thing, was because the majority didn’t see it as wrong. Slaves were “less than” others in the owner’s minds, closer to how we envision farm pets. If we cannot always determine what is actually right and wrong, shouldn’t we be extremely careful when we override minorities beliefs or desires?

Not to mention there are many situations that are dichotomies and that have large numbers who oppose each other. How are we supposed to apply greater good when just under half the population believe in two different “goods”? The 51% or more wins? We run into this problem with today’s politics. When we cannot agree on what is good the majority always rules, leaving the minority often marginalized or outright ignored. Which means when we apply greater good we need to keep the minority in mind.

Side Effects

What if the team member who slipped and fell was actually a world class doctor working on a world-changing cancer treatment that was to be released when she got back? Assuming we could know that for sure, everyone would agree, we need to save her because she’ll save more people than just the team hiking the mountain. But if we didn’t ask, or didn’t know the details of her research and treatment we would not include that in our greater good assessment.

We have a hard time conceptualizing it, but we can never know if our choices will end up casting aside someone who could have changed the world for the better, just as we will never know if we supported someone who will change the world for the worst. What we are dealing with is the idea that everyone actually has that potential. Our fallen team member could be a dangerous hiking teacher helping others learn how to prepare, saving countless lives of those who go on subsequent hikes. If she had no redeeming qualities, would that make her a better sacrifice for the greater good?

Lesser Sacrifice

What if instead of calling it the greater good, we started calling it the lesser sacrifice? What we often forget is that to have a greater good situation, it means we are sacrificing something we consider lesser to achieve the greater good. What we also fail to remember is that often these scenarios involve the majority actively sacrificing the minority, versus the minority actively sacrificing themselves. To make it more complicated, even those who are in the minority may not all be in the same position. We can easily see the difference if we altered the scenario and instead of having a fallen team member, we had to sacrifice our own life to save everyone else. Wouldn’t that be quite a bit harder than sacrificing someone else’s life “as a group” to let the majority live? If there was even a chance we could be saved, wouldn’t we be pleading for that chance?

When the numbers are one, two or otherwise small, then the sacrifice seems more pronounced. But if we start scaling the numbers we start to think, “maybe it’s ok”. If one person were sacrificed to save five people versus if one person were sacrificed to save a million people. The vast majority of us would agree, too bad for that one person. So the question starts to become, what is an “equitable” sacrifice? How do we agree on what that equitable sacrifice is?

Chances are we will never all agree on these terms, which is why we need to exercise extreme care. Which brings us to the ultimate question, what gives us the right to sacrifice the minority on their behalf? Given the way we understand “greater good” can be ambiguous, disagreed upon, sometimes wrong and usually ignorant of side effects, does it really make sense and if not, what can we do?

The Fallacy

We simply cannot reasonably apply the idea of “greater good” using the definition that something is “greater” because it is applies to more people, or because the majority thinks it provides more good. Doing so will perpetually leave us in situations where some form of minorities are misrepresented, whether it be a climber stranded on a mountain, a co-worker, a political party, a region, a culture or race. Instead what we want is to somehow balance things not based on a purely “majority” rules perspective, but with a few core ideas in mind:

1. Basic Rights. We often forget that those who are in the lessor good status, these minorities should have a bare minimum of rights. Those minimum rights or “freedoms” are what makes a good democracy, it’s what creates an ecosystem of cooperation. We have to ask ourselves, no matter how amazing this greater good sounds, if it imposes on the rights of others, even a small minority of others, it is not right. If murdering one innocent person would save one hundred, it still simply isn’t right and should not be our place to decide in the context of greater good. If we think about this in terms of math and infinity, how much is a life worth? If you ask a mother or a father, they would say “infinity”. If you ask the government, maybe they’d say something else. But the bottom line is if we think of everyone as being priceless, or infinity; two, three or 100 lives would also be infinity. Greater good simply cannot use different values for life, no matter what. People will disagree on basic rights and that cannot be stopped, but we need to at least try to understand them and use a consistent measure.

2. Greater Good Denominator. Along with establishing basic rights, we need to change the idea that the majority rules without any thought to what the minority wants or needs. Instead of just taking whatever the majority wants, we should always be trying to take the greatest common denominator as it relates to the “good” in question. In other words, what good can everyone within reason agree to? Applying this rule will be difficult, and will result in many people not getting exactly what they want, but the vast majority not being stuck with something the definitely don’t want. It will allow the maximum amount of cooperation on all ends of the spectrum.

3. Forcing Requirements. Since not everyone can agree on what “basic rights” are, we have to also include a means to underscore that when we are establishing rules, or requirements for the greater good they should be applied in a way that leaves the choices in the individual’s hands whenever reasonably possible. Any requirements should be consented to, not forced or coerced. Another extremely difficult concept to adhere to because a large portion of us believe that we “have” to force others sometimes. While this may be the case, forcing others is arguably no longer a greater good situation, it’s simply a “forcing others” situation.

4. Will of the Minority. When we establish rules and efforts related to the greater good, if we were not able to find a greater good denominator, we should at least respect the will of the minority. That means that to every extent possible understand their rationale, understand their perspective and acknowledge any logical arguments found in it. If we do that, when we implement rules we will do so with care and understanding.

Better Greater Good?

If we’ve truly exhausted all of these concepts and were not able to come to any sort of agreement, then anything else may not be a greater good situation. When we come across any political agenda, any social media or any other context that is not considering the will of the minority we should keep an open mind while trying to help them see other possible contexts. Is it possible, that there is no better greater good option? Maybe. But at that point, lets not sugar coat it as if its all for the greater good; every totalitarian nation claims to do that. Whenever we make a decision ignoring or bypassing these ideals, we take one step closer towards a divided society and towards the violence of the past.

We cannot force others to be united, we can only adhere to simple core values and hope we eventually come together. We all want a better future. There are just disagreements as to how to get to that future.  If we choose the path of a better greater good, we ultimately all share the burden of sacrifice instead of leaving the sacrifice to just those who are the minority. Let’s try to remember that greater good isn’t really good if we compromise other’s rights to do so.



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