Everyone’s Welfare Counts

We should try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

It sounds like a pretty good idea.

And it is. But it’s not the whole answer.

The problem is that like lower animals, humans distinguish between their own group and other groups. They value members of their own group more than they value members of other groups. In extreme cases, they completely deny the value of people who belong to other groups.

As a result, “the greatest good for the greatest number” leads to two more questions:

  • Which people count?
  • Are some actions wrong even if they produce the greatest good for the greatest number (of the people who count)?

Equality — but only in moderation

Many people believe that the welfare of some human groups doesn’t count at all. When put into action, that kind of thinking can lead to murder, war, and attempted genocide.

On the other hand, valuing everyone equally means valuing no one specially.

And if you don’t consider your family’s welfare more important than the welfare of any random person on the planet, then pardon me, but I think there’s something wrong with you.

Everyone deserves (1) equal treatment under the law, (2) basic courtesy, and (3) at least some consideration of his or her welfare. As long as you don’t violate those requirements, you can treat people as unequally as seems reasonable.

The greatest good for the greatest number isn’t everything

Sometimes, societies can achieve the greatest good by unjustly harming individuals or groups.

Most people think that’s wrong, though most societies seem to try it. Even if hanging an innocent man or expelling a falsely-accused student might do some good, it’s still wrong.

It all comes down to choice

Most moral issues can be argued forever. The question that each of us must answer in the here and now is:

What kind of person do I choose to be?

Do I choose to be the kind of person who treats people unjustly to gain some advantage?

And do I want my society to follow that principle?

Or do I choose to be a better person than that, and try to make my society better as well?

The answers are up to you. Du bist dran.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One reader said that “This one book could easily absorb an entire year of teaching at college.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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