Published December 24, 2016
The art of medicine. It’s the cornerstone of medical practice. If medicine were all science, and only science, then we...
— William Wilberforce
Whenever you hear someone advocating “for the Greater Good,” run away as fast as you can. Either that, or take the person on aggressively. Be aware that that concept has been used by people throughout history to commit some of the worst, most heinous crimes against humanity. Adolph Hitler immediately comes to mind. His goal was to purify the human race by eliminating those he considered to be subhuman, or those he saw as a threat to his vision of purification and domination.
Perhaps more than anyone else in modern history, Hitler espoused and implemented the theory of utilitarianism, based on the ethics of the “greatest good” for the “greatest number”1—an ethical code that can be attributed largely to the 19th century British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It was Bentham who famously said, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”
For most of the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, a large portion of the people of Germany bought into the idea, or were coerced to go along with it out of fear. As a result, countless millions of people died or were harmed during World War II and, specifically, the Holocaust. And still, after all that suffering, much of humanity has not learned the valuable lesson about social theories that supposedly place the welfare and rights of a community or nation above those of the individual, as if you could easily separate the two.
More to the point, in her science fiction novel The Book of Ivy, author Amy Engel asks…
How do you measure the life of one person against the greater good? Can it ever be the right thing to sacrifice an innocent person? And how do you know what the greater good really is?3
Political philosopher Michael J. Sandel of Harvard University, said it well when he wrote…
First, individual rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the general good, and second, the principles of justice that specify these rights cannot be premised on any particular vision of the good life. What justifies the rights is not that they maximize the general welfare or otherwise promote the good, but rather that they comprise a fair framework within which individuals and groups can choose their own values and ends, consistent with a similar liberty for others.4
Hitler is only one of many Greater Good proponents throughout history that have caused immeasurable death, destruction and misery. Those in the United States who argued against the abolishment of slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries could do so on the basis that the institution served the Greater Good—that the majority of Americans (slaves excluded, of course) benefited from cheap slave labor. The fact that the most basic of human rights was denied to the slaves was of no consequence… first, because the slaves were considered to be subhuman anyway, but second, because under the utilitarian Greater Good thinking, what mattered was the welfare and happiness of the majority.
Under such a mentality, anything could be justified so long as the interests of the greatest number of people were served. In other words, the ends justifies the means. It doesn’t take much to see how such an ethic could lead to big problems, as exemplified by Nazi Germany… or even Harry Potter.
For those familiar with wizarding lore, you may recall that “for the Greater Good” was the phrase that the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald used to justify his “global wizarding war” in the 1940s designed to overthrow the Ministries of Magic in Europe and install a wizarding empire on Earth that would enslave humans (“Muggles”).5 6
The following excerpt from a letter written by the young wizard Albus Dumbledore to his friend Gellert Grindelwald provides a critical insight into Greater Good thinking.
Gellert—Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD—this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.5
It’s not exactly the kind of vision the Founding Fathers had in mind for United States of America, either when they penned the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. It’s arrogant, demeaning, cryptic, and certainly undemocratic. It sounds more like… fascism.
Think about it the next time someone argues you or your children absolutely must get vaccinated and give up your informed consent rights (… and by extension, your civil and human rights) for the sake of the so-called Greater Good. Consider the slippery slope to which this utopian ethic leads.
1 The History of Utilitarianism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Sept. 22, 2014.
2 Ziccardi MJ. Portraits in Philosophy. 2012.
3 Engel A. The Book of Ivy. Nov. 11, 2014.
4 Sandel MJ. Liberalism and Its Critics (Readings in Social and Political Theory). NYU Press Dec. 1, 1984.
5 For the Greater Good. Harry Potter Wiki.
6 Global wizarding war. Harry Potter Wiki.