The Myth of the Greater Good

Politicians must stop acting like the ends justify the means.


I—and most other people, I assume—grew up being taught that the end doesn't justify the means. Basically, this is an injunction not to rationalize one's behavior while using other people as mere means to one's ends.

Most people apply that principle day to day. If you want at an item on a supermarket shelf and someone is standing in the way, few of us would think it right to shove that person aside. Why not? It won't do to say that the person might fight back. Would things change if an elderly, frail person were there? It also won't do to say that other people might observe your conduct, perhaps leading to a fight, or an arrest, or at least a loss of reputation. Nor will it do to say that in normal circumstances waiting for the person to move would cost little in time and convenience. How much time and inconvenience would be required to make shoving an attractive option? The question answers itself.

A utilitarian (or any other sort of consequentialist) might say that greater good, happiness, or utility would be achieved by waiting than by shoving. That is, the harm to the other person would exceed the benefits to you. But since interpersonal comparisons of subjective utility are impossible—not only is there no unit of measurement, in principle there's nothing to measure—that claim has no content. As J. J. C. Smart, a utilitarian, put it, "[T]he utilitarian is reduced to an intuitive weighing of various consequences with their probabilities. It is impossible to justify such intuitions rationally, and we have here a serious weakness in utilitarianism." A. J. Ayer had a similar insight, "Bentham's process of 'sober calculation' turns out to be a myth." Jeremy Bentham himself was aware of this problem. (The quotes are in Germain Grisez, "Against Consequentialism" [pdf], American Journal of Jurisprudence, 1978. Hat tip: Gary Chartier for bringing this article to my attention.)

The "Greater Good"

If "goods" are incommensurable, then one of them cannot be said to be "greater" than others. Thus acting for the "greater good" is without meaning. "[T]his lack of commensurability eliminates all possibility of reference for the expression 'greater good' as the consequentialist uses this expression," natural-law philosopher Germain Grisez writes.

So why wouldn't we shove the elderly, frail person aside even if we were certain to be unobserved? We abstain from that "efficient" means to an unobjectionable and perhaps worthy end because we have a sense that it would be an injustice and that injustice is to be avoided. We don't calculate that committing the injustice would in this case be contrary to our own self-interest (what would you think of someone who actually did that?), nor do we even determine that shoving the person aside would ill-serve that person's interests. Rather, we know that the act would be wrong because it is wrong to use another person as a mere means to our ends. (In a sense we're all the children of Athens.)

So why is the principle that the end doesn't justify the means absent from most discussion of government policy? Why are political measures routinely defended on the sole basis that they will bring about some good consequence that supposedly outweighs the costs (from the perspective of those who propose them)? This happens all the time. A tariff is justified by the help it is thought to give to a struggling domestic industry. A price control is justified as a way to keep the price of some product affordable. A mandate that employers or insurance companies (nominally) pay for women's contraception is justified in terms of women's health or of reducing the number of abortions. Torture is justified as a source of useful information. Obliteration bombing is justified as a way to shorten a war.

In all these cases and more, those who proffer the government policy seem to think that all they need do is identify a consequence as the "greater good" and the discussion is over. The end justifies the means. That may indicate one of two things. The proponent of the measure may think that the objective of the policy is more important than whatever those who are forced to pay for it must forgo as a result. Or the proponent may be oblivious of the costs entirely, as though there were none.

Costs and Victims

But, first of all, there are always costs to—and therefore victims of—any government action. Government is force, and "[c]oercive intervention . . . signifies per se that the individual or individuals coerced would not have done what they are now doing were it not for the intervention" (Murray Rothbard, Power and Market). A tariff forces consumers to pay more for products, leaving them less money to spend on other people's products. That's two sets of victims. A price control will drive marginal producers out of business, creating shortages. A contraception mandate will cost someone money, no matter how often the products and services are called "free." Etc.

All those who are forced to bear the costs are treated by the government and the special-interest groups it empowers as mere means to other people's ends; that is, they are treated as less than human.

The proponents of such measures never tell us why the benefits they aim for are more important than the benefits other people will have to do without. But of course they couldn't tell us: The benefits are incommensurable.

Lost Freedom

Furthermore, apart from the material loss, the victims' progressive loss of freedom is real both in the immediate instance as well as with respect to the precedent set for future government action (the slippery slope). Intervention begets intervention as policy makers try to clean up the mess their previous actions created.

As natural-law philosopher Grisez puts it,

The economic advantages and disadvantages of a proposed public project can be quantified. But people also want freedom of speech and of religion, equal protection of the laws, privacy, and other goods which block certain choices, yet which cannot be costed out. Cost-benefit analysis can tell one the most effective way of attaining certain objectives, assuming one accepts the objectives and has no concerns about the means and the side effects of the means required to attain them. But such analysis cannot tell one whether the objectives one seeks are objectives one ought to seek, or whether nonquantifiable factors should be ignored. [Emphasis added.]

Means and ends of course are intimately related. The end determines the array of relevant means. But that is not the end of the story. In selecting from that array, considerations apart from the end are highly relevant—such as the injunction never to use another person as a mere means. To ignore those considerations is to mock human dignity and countenance the slave principle.

That's basic to how we ordinarily think about morality. But politicians and those who leech off their power flout this insight as a matter of course.

Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, where this article originally appeared.