The Myth of the Greater Good

Politicians must stop acting like the ends justify the means.

Sheldon Richman
Reason Magazine

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…

…All those who are forced to bear the costs [of government intervention] 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…

The complete article is at

Comments are closed.