What is the greater good?
The source is from the philosophy of Utilitarianism developed by Jeremy Bentham and later expounded upon by John Stuart Mill. Bentham’s approach was one of “act” utilitarianism where one avoided pain and sought pleasure, thus what was useful was that which could provide the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill’s approach was one of “rule” utilitarianism where one sought to avoid as many negative consequences as possible by picking the rule which provided the most benefit at that particular moment in time. Thus if the known good results outweighed the known bad results at that moment, it was okay to proceed.
This then creates a mindset of “the end justifies the means.” and eventually led to the creation of Situational Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. The problem with this entire line of reasoning is that it can never protect the rights of minorities especially the true minority of the individual. Slavery was rationalized on the basis that it benefited a greater majority of people so the violation of the rights of enslaved people (regardless of their ethnicity) was permissible.
This same mindset permeates every collective philosophy. The will and desires of the individual must be given up for or become subservient to the greater good as Marx indicated when he spoke of “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor;” or when August Comte wrote of “a moral and political obligation of the individual to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of a greater social good.”
This is a very common appeal from politicians of every stripe when it comes to the relinquishing of individual rights or funds for whatever new program or legislation is being proposed. The argument always involves the individual having to sacrifice for the common good. On its face, a simple appeal for the individual to freely choose to participate in a shared sacrifice is all fine and good, but once the freedom to choose or refuse participation is removed, such appeals become meaningless nonsense. In other words, if the sacrifice is voluntary, the appeal is simply an appeal and each individual can determine their own path. If the choice is not voluntary, the appeal is nothing more than post-fact justification and entirely invalid! A true appeal comes before an action is taken and the individual decision impacts the action. A justification comes anytime and individual decision has no impact on the action.
Is the appeal to the greater good a proper methodology for determining public policy?
The greatest good is the preservation of individual rights and liberties. Any public policy should be designed to do this and nothing more.
Remember the power and right to govern is granted to the institutions of government and those individuals who fill its various role by the consent of the governed. In other words, the power wielded by the government originates from the power of the individual. No collective right can exist where an individual right does not exist.
Lets use the right of self-defense. The right of self-defense originates from the right to life possessed by the individual. Since the individual has the right to protect itself, it can grant a portion of that right to another or to a group, or in this case to a government. Outside of this, government has no right to self-defense because there is no “self” in government, merely individuals functioning in appointed or elected roles.
Now, this can arguably be termed as a collective power granted to the government in the sense that collectively all individual citizens are a part of that contract establishing a government, but each person acts individually. Thus the government has an obligation via this granted authority to defend every member’s life to the best of its ability.
So, does the greatest good for the greatest number apply here? No, not in a collectivist sense because this power of the government is not based on the collective, but on the individual. The individual has a contract with the government in which he or she has individually empowered the government to use violence on their individual behalf to defend their individual life. There is no entity beyond the individual which can grant such power, so the power granted is not a group-based entity.
This was a positive example of a power that can be granted to the institution of government. Let’s examine a negative example.
Is there a collective right to limit, restrict or otherwise infringe upon the right of the individual to keep and bear arms? NO. In fact the Constitution is implicitly clear that there is no power granted to the institution of government nor the individuals filling its elected and appointed seats to in anyway restrict the right of the individual to keep and bear weapons.
In granting the government the responsibility and thus authority to defend the nation, the individual in no way surrendered all rights to self-defense. This intrinsic right to defend one’s life and property from those wishing to deprive them of either is still just a valid with the Constitution in effect as without.
I cannot take away from you your right to defend yourself with weapons and I certainly cannot then pass that unobtainable power to an individual filling a role in the government. If the individual cannot grant the government a power they do not possess, then the government cannot exercise that power. It is restrained even further by the restrictions of the Second Amendment which state undeniably that this power was not granted to the government.
So thus an appeal to society in the form of “we have to do something about gun violence” seeks to grant to the government a power it does not possess by way of appealing to a group (society) to justify the abuse of the individual (by theft of personal freedom and liberty). A collection of individuals has not rights than each individual possesses. If no individual possesses the right to disarm another individual of their right and ability to defend themselves, a group of individuals lacking the same right cannot create such a right simply by being categorized together as a group.
So what are we to do about gun violence? We should again take a clue from our founding fathers. At the nation’s founding, it was common and ordinary for the states to insist that every able-bodied person be suitable armed and prepared to defend themselves and the community. Yes, I am arguing for the right for free individuals once again be free to always and openly carry weapons they deem suitable for their personal protection because that is their individual intrinsic right!
Should there be licensing or mandatory training? No to licensing, but each community can determine which standards of training they deem suitable for their community. Active shooter training, monthly drills at the town square or park, marksmanship and gun safety training are all equally valid requirements that any community by consent of that community’s individual members can support and provide.
These practices were common throughout the colonies at our inception and have an equally valid place in this day and age. It would be better by far if every member of the community were able to resist the efforts of the lone wolf or terrorist group rather than herding citizens into groups unable to defend themselves because of restrictions on their very right of self-defense.
Thus support for individual rights creates the best possible outcome for the entire community in dealing with the threat of violence.
Again, no collective right can exist where an individual right does not exist. Government exists by the consent of the governed.