Fallacy of the Greater Good

This article was originally published by Bidhyalaxmi Maharjan in the Himalayan Times on November 03, 2019.

In 2011, the government of Nepal initiated road expansion drive in the valley in order to ameliorate traffic congestion. The expansion has continued ever since. In a bid to widen narrow roads of the city, the government did not shy away from expropriating privately-owned land along these roads. Many private houses had to be demolished in order to widen the roads. While the wider roads did offer some respite to people who would be stuck in traffic for hours every day, it came at the expense of the private landowning citizens. One may say that keeping hundreds of commuters stuck in traffic just for the sake of protection of private properties of a few individuals is unreasonable. After all, the road expansion was done in service to the greater good of society.

This leads us to the question of whether the interests of a few individuals should be allowed to interfere with the greater good of society. Can a group of small minority stand in the way fulfilling the interest of a larger group or the so-called greater good? It’s time we gave some thought to these questions, or better perhaps deconstruct “the greater good”. In this article, I attempt to subject “the greater good” to examination from the perspectives of individual rights and the nature of government.

Before we examine the greater good from individual rights’ point of view, you may want to ask what makes “the greater good” greater than other goods. Who determines what is great and what is not so great? Is greater good defined by the number of people that profit from its outcome? The more number of people benefit, the greater it is. Or, is greater good related to upholding the moral values, principles and vision the society in question aspires to? Did we ask certain citizens to give up their private houses and lands in order to achieve our national goal of development and prosperity? These questions undoubtedly point us towards the concept of individual rights.

If we agree that the greater good translates to the majority of people being able to take advantage of the end result, we have essentially agreed that the minority can be made to sacrifice their freedom to choose. We have probably done so under the impression that such majority and its interests are constant at any point in time. Regardless of such an assumption, it is evident in the case of road expansion that the idea that a person is obligated to give up their individual rights for “the greater good” sits well with us. In this context, we may find ourselves baffled at Ayn Rand, a Russian-American writer and philosopher and her idea that every man is an end in himself. She implies that an individual cannot be a means to an end, other than what he chooses.

An individual can act on his own self-interest and has the right to decide for himself.  As Rand further explained, “He must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself: he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.” If we admit that you and I as individuals have that right to choose for ourselves, any claims of greater good based on what the majority chooses for us is proved to be invalid. Unless every one of us willingly decides that certain act is good for us, it cannot be called the greater good.

In addition to the part played by the majority in defining what the greater good is, the dominant role of the state cannot be ignored.  State or some form of governance has existed in human societies for a very long time. The major role entrusted to governments is the legal use of physical force in order to protect ‘unarmed’ citizens and maintain security in society. The governments we have now, including in democratic countries, have taken on the larger role of deciding what is good for all of its citizens. As we have seen in the road expansion or other development projects in Nepal, the government sells its large scale projects as serving the greater good of the nation. Instead of upholding every citizen’s individual freedom, particularly the right to private property, we have witnessed the government exercise its coercive force to do the exact opposite. Thus, whenever we hear of the greater good, one can always uncover the conflict between individual freedom and state’s power to exercise force.

The idea of greater good is often irresistible. If it is good for everyone, how can it not be good for you? Thus, it is always important to question good, but at whose expense? In most it the greater good may come at your expense. While other fellow citizens may lose their physical properties, we are also losing the ground on which our individual rights stand.