What is the “greater good”? It sure sounds important, doesn’t it? The only thing I can think of that’s better than the greater good would be the “Greatest Best”. But what it actually means is up to conjecture. We’re talking comparative words here, so we are forced to ask the question, “Compared to what?” Let’s break it down.
“Great” can refer to a big number, a large amount, as in a great crowd of people. We call that a quantitative term. A greater crowd would be even bigger, and the greatest crowd would hold the Guinness World’s Record.
But “great” can also be a qualitative modifier, referring to the subjective value or significance of whatever is being modified. Billy had a great time. Sally had an even greater time. But Joe had the greatest time. The “meaning” or “truth” of these statements will vary, depending on who you talk to. So, when it comes to subjective evaluation, the word, “greater” is limited. It really only expresses somebody’s opinion.
Moving on, we come to the word, “good”. Now that’s positive, isn’t it? We can all agree that “good” is good, right? Well, I’m beginning to see a problem here. What’s “good” for you may not be good for me. If we define good as being whatever is personally pleasing or beneficial, then there can be no agreement as to the definition of good, because it will vary from person to person. In that sense, good becomes relative. Things such as the good life, good food, good music, good company or a good book mean different things to different people.
But just as greater has two applications, so does good. Good can also mean morally right, according to accepted social standards. In a moral sense, something is either right or wrong; good or bad. But oh-oh, if that’s what the greater good is referring to, then Bible-believers are caught in a theological dilemma, along with anyone else who’s system of morals is based on an absolute standard of good and bad. You see, the presence of a “greater” good means that all goods aren’t equal, implying the existence of “lesser” goods — not to mention the greater and lesser “bads”. But the Bible teaches that which is good, is good (righteous), and that which is bad, is bad (sinful). Why? because God says so.
The first time I can recall hearing the phrase, “the greater good”, being used in a popular setting (aside from a vegetarian, war-protesting, science-fiction enthusiast I used to know) was in an episode of Star Trek. It seemed as if the noble crew of the Enterprise was always on the front lines, fighting for the greater good. It does have a noble ring, doesn’t it? “The greater good.” Sounds democratic, egalitarian, natural.
Basically, the greater good is an ethical concept, that comes from a theory called Utilitarianism. It refers to making behavioral choices based on what will make the most people happiest. And, from the get-go, I see another major problem: How is happiness to be defined? Or more to the point, Who is going to define happiness for me? We’re back to the same problem we had when we couldn’t agree on what’s greatest. For a theory that poses as objective, it sure has a lot of subjective holes in it.
Don’t get confused by the fact that utilitarianism defines the most ethical decisions as those making the most people happiest. This actually is the polar opposite of our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, found in the Declaration of Independence. Happiness itself isn’t a right, nor does government have any business trying to make people happy. Everyone has the right to find his own happiness, but that’s up to each individual to freely seek as he so determines. These two “happiness” concepts are world views apart.
Of course, I’ve been faulted my whole life for thinking too much, so I can well imagine someone having read this far, still saying, “Oh come on! We have to agree on the greater good. Look at the alternative: rich people enslaving the masses.” The assumption is that if we all work for the greater good, then fewer people will be oppressed and more people will be happy. And that is the carrot on the stick.
The reality is that the greater good will always be an illusion. Individuals may think they know what the greater good is, but unless they are in a position of authority, what they think makes no difference. Given the best case scenario, the greater good will be whatever those in authority say it is. When that happens to be someone like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Kim Jong-il (and the list goes on), millions of people die for someone else’s “greater good”. That’s a matter of historical fact, not hyperbole.
The greater good is no better than a lie from the pit of hell. It was contrived by the minds of men who thought their universal ethics could replace morals established by God. The greater good was contrived by fools who said in their hearts, “There is no God” (Psalms 14:1 and 53:1). The greater good is a humanist, relativist substitute for the authority that the Creator of the Universe has over all men and all nations. God’s standard for good and bad, right and wrong is absolute and authoritative. We should do that which is right because God has commanded us to, not because someone says there is a greater good.
The next time you hear someone use the phrase, the greater good, remember:
“Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” — 1 John 4:4
“Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go.” — Isaiah 48:17
“The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have?” — Jeremiah 8:9