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The Myth of the Greater Good

“The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.” ~ Aldous Huxley

In entry-level philosophy class, a professor will often present a scenario that seems to challenge the students’ perspective on morality.

The argument runs something as follows: “The entire nation of France will drop dead tomorrow unless you kill your neighbor who has only one day to live. What do you do?”

Or “You could eliminate cancer by pressing a button that also kills one healthy person. Do you do so?”

The purpose is to create a moral dilemma. The questions pit your moral rejection of murder against your moral guilt for not acting to save millions of lives.

In reality, the questions are a sham that cannot be honestly answered. They postulate a parallel world in which the rules of reality, like cause and effect, have been dramatically changed so that pushing a button cures cancer. The postulated world seems to operate more on magic than reality.

Because my moral code is based on the reality of the existing world, I don’t know what I would do if those rules no longer operated. I presume my morality would be different, so my actions would be as well.

As absurd as they are, these are considered to be the “tough” moral questions. In grappling with them, some students come to believe that being true to morality requires the violation of morality in a profound manner; after all, there is no greater violation than the deliberate murder of another human being.

But how can the life of one outweigh those of millions in your hands? At this point, morality becomes a numbers game, a matter of cost-benefit analysis, rather than of principle. This is not an expansion of morality, as the professor claims, but the manufacture of a conflict that destroys morality. In its place is left a moral gray zone, a vacuum into which utilitarianism rushes.

Suddenly, it becomes obvious that the good of the many outweighs the murder of the one. The collective outweighs the individual. The majority outranks the minority. Hard “factual” utilitarianism is preferable to gray, inconsistent morality.

The philosophical questions lead directly into politics because murdering a person for the greater good is not merely a moral question, but also one of individual rights. If you accept the morality of doing so, you have also accepted the political propriety of murdering an innocent human being.

Phrased in political terms, nonhypothetical versions of the philosophy question come up often. For example, “Should the rich or businessmen (the few) be heavily taxed to provide national health care (for the many)?” Here, a greater good is pitted against individual rights. But more than this, individual rights of two groups conflict, with the rights of a resisting minority viewed as a barrier to the “rights” or entitlements of “the others.” Businessmen are deemed to have no right to their earnings if it prevents the majority from having health care.

This politically manufactured conflict is as absurd as the philosophically manufactured one.

The 19th-century British individualist Auberon Herbert addressed the issue of the “good of the greatest number.” He stated, “There never was invented a more specious and misleading phrase. The Devil was in his most subtle and ingenious mood when he slipped this phrase into the brains of men. I hold it to be utterly false in essentials.”

Why is it false? Because the phrase assumes as a given that a higher morality requires the violation of individual rights. Or in Herbert’s words, “It assumes that there are two opposed ‘goods,’ and that the one good is to be sacrificed to the other good — but in the first place, this is not true, for liberty is the one good, open to all, and requiring no sacrifice of others, and secondly, this false opposition (where no real opposition exists) of two different goods means perpetual war between men.”

Herbert is relying on two intimately related theories: first, “the universality of rights”; and, second, “a natural harmony of interests.” The universality of rights means that every individual has the same natural rights to an equal degree.

Race, gender, religion or other secondary characteristics do not matter; only the primary characteristic of being human is important. A natural harmony of interests means that the peaceful exercise of one person’s individual rights does not harm the similar exercise by any other person.

My freedom of conscience or speech does not negate my neighbor’s. The peaceful jurisdiction I claim over my own body does not diminish anyone else’s claim of self-ownership. Indeed, the more I assert the principle of self-ownership, the stronger and more secure that principle becomes for everyone.

Only in a world where rights are not universal, where people’s peaceful behavior conflicts, does it make sense to accept the need to sacrifice individuals to a greater good. This is not the real world, but one that has been manufactured for political purposes.

Herbert explained a key assumption that underlies this faux world: the acceptance of the “greater good” itself. He asked, “Why are two men to be sacrificed to three men? We all agree that the three men are not to be sacrificed to the two men; but why — as a matter of moral right — are we to do what is almost as bad and immoral and shortsighted — sacrifice the two men to the three men? Why sacrifice any one… when liberty does away with all necessity of sacrifice?”

Herbert denied the validity of “this law of numbers, which… is what we really mean when we speak of State authority…under which three men are made absolutely supreme, and two men are made absolutely dependent.” Instead of accepting the law of numbers as an expression of greater good, Herbert viewed it as a convenient social construct, calling it “a purely conventional law, a mere rude, half-savage expedient, which cannot stand the criticism of reason, or be defended… by considerations of universal justice. You can only plead expediency of it.”

To whom was the social construct of conflict convenient? Why would a faux world of inherent conflict be created? By solving the manufactured problems, a great deal of power was transferred from individuals to a ruling class.

Herbert wrote, “The tendency of all great complicated machines is to make a ruling class, for they alone understand the machine, and they alone are skilled in the habit of guiding it; and the tendency of a ruling expert class, when once established, is that at critical moments they do pretty nearly what they like with the nation…”

Rather than solve a social problem, the ruling class had a devastating effect on the welfare of common people, who became “a puzzled flock of sheep waiting for the sheepdog to drive us through the gate.” Ironically, by claiming the collective was greater, the few were able to assume control over the many. The “greater good” devolved to whatever served the interests of the ruling class.

A Historical Example

Whenever the subject of Nazism arises, it usually begins and ends with "the evils of World War II." That’s unfortunate because the National Socialists had another side, one that is very similar to that of both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives in America.

Consider Social Security. Hitler was as firm a believer in Social Security as American statists. Like them, he too believed that it was the duty of the government to take care of the elderly by providing them a retirement stipend.

I’ll bet that many Americans don’t realize that Hitler had a Social Security program before President Franklin Roosevelt foisted the program onto the American people as part of his New Deal in the 1930s. The German Social Security program actually originated during the regime of Otto von Bismarck, who was known as the Iron Chancellor of Germany. That’s why the U.S. Social Security Administration pays homage to Bismarck by including a bust of him on its website.

Hitler also believed that the state should provide healthcare to the citizenry. He would have loved Medicare and Medicaid but would have been felt that such programs just didn’t go far enough. He promised healthcare for everyone, not just the elderly and the poor.

Just imagine someone asking Obama and Trump, "Adolf Hitler shared the same deep commitment to Social Security and government-provided healthcare that you two gentlemen have. How would you explain this? Would you say that Hitler had his caring and compassionate side — that he too loved the poor and needy, as you two gentlemen profess to do?”

Hitler, like Obama and Trump, also considered himself Germany’s job-creator-in-chief. Like them, he believed that it was the rightful duty of government to manage an economy, including by creating jobs for the citizenry.

One of Hitler’s primary means of creating jobs was to build and maintain a powerful military establishment within Germany. That’s also what Obama and Trump believe — that America’s vast military-industrial complex and overseas military empire is a grand way to reduce unemployment.

Government-business partnerships? Hitler loved them, just as Obama and Trump do.

Paper money and a central bank? Hitler ardently believed in them, especially as a way to stimulate Germany’s economy, just as Obama and Trump do.

When we closely examine Hitler’s overall economic philosophy, we find that it is the same as that of Obama and Trump and other American statists, including those in the mainstream press. Hitler’s philosophy can be summed up in a phrase he used in a letter he wrote commending Roosevelt on his New Deal programs: “The public weal before the private gain.”

Doesn’t that phrase reflect the philosophy of American statists? Isn’t that what their condemnation of Ayn Rand is all about? In the statist mind, the individual does not exist for his own sake. He doesn’t exist to pursue his own happiness. That’s selfish. Instead, for the statist, people’s personal interests must be subordinated to the common good — to the much bigger needs of the collective — to the greater good of society — or, as Hitler put it, to the public weal.

Given this collectivist mindset, how can it surprise us that Obama, Trump, Hitler, and other statists would support the welfare-state, managed-economy way of life? In their view, everyone’s income belongs to “society” and government has the rightful authority to forcibly seize it and redistribute it to those whom government officials feel need it more — such as the poor, the elderly, the bankers, the corporations, the auto companies, the farmers, the foreign dictators, and the other recipients of the government dole. The notion that people should be free to keep what they earn and decide for themselves what to do with it was anathema to Hitler and Roosevelt, just as it is to Obama and Trump and other statists. Like Hitler, American statists believe that a nation’s goodness is defined by the extent to which the government is forcing everyone to be good with its welfare-state programs.

That’s not all. Guess who inspired American statists to construct the biggest public-works project in American history — the Interstate Highway System. You guess right! Adolf Hitler’s autobahn system in National Socialist Germany was the inspiration for this giant socialist project here in the United States.

Public schooling? Hitler was as dedicated to the idea as American statists are. Like them, he viewed state schooling as a means of producing “good little citizens” — that is, people who loyally and “patriotically” defer to the judgment of their public officials in international affairs. Thus, just as Americans didn’t challenge President Bush’s WMD rationale for attacking Iraq, Germans didn’t challenge Hitler’s claim that Czech forces had attacked German troops, which Hitler used as his justification for invading Czechoslovakia.

The war on terrorism and the suspension of civil liberties? Just as the U.S. government’s assumption of emergency powers came after the false flag attacks on 9/11, Hitler’s acquisition of emergency powers came after the false flag attack on the Reichstag. While Hitler’s emergency powers were supposed to be temporary, they lasted well past 10 years after the terrorist attack, just as the U.S. government’s emergency powers have. Hitler would have undoubtedly envied the extent of the U.S. government’s emergency powers — the powers to take citizens and noncitizens into custody as “enemy combatants,” to incarcerate citizens and noncitizens in military dungeons or concentration camps for life without trial or due process, try people with kangaroo tribunals (Hitler kangaroo tribunal was called The People’s Court), invade and occupy countries that had not attacked Germany, torture citizens and noncitizens into providing confessions and evidence, and assassinate citizens and noncitizens anywhere in the world.

Consider the following planks of the Nazi Party and ask yourself whether it conflicts with the political and economic philosophy of Obama, Trump, and other American statists:

We ask that the government undertake the obligation above all of providing citizens with adequate opportunity for employment and earning a living. The activities of the individual must not be allowed to clash with the interests of the community, but must take place within its confines and be for the good of all. Therefore, we demand: an end to the power of the financial interests . We demand profit sharing in big business. We demand a broad extension of care for the aged. We demand. . . the greatest possible consideration of small business in the purchases of the national, state, and municipal governments. In order to make possible to every capable and industrious [citizen] the attainment of higher education and thus the achievement of a post of leadership, the government must provide an all-around enlargement of our system of public education. . . . We demand the education at government expense of gifted children of poor parents. . . . The government must undertake the improvement of public health — by protecting mother and child, by prohibiting child labor — by the greatest possible support for all clubs concerned with the physical education of youth. We combat the . . . materialistic spirit within and without us, and are convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only proceed from within on the foundation of "The Common Good Before the Individual Good ."

Needless to say, anarchists have no reluctance in talking about the other side of Nazism. But then again, unlike neo-liberals and neo-conservatives and other statists, we also oppose everything the National Socialists stood for, not just the evils World War II.


Never forget that the State is a group of individuals exercising the use of force against other individuals. Ultimately, this is the core of the state’s power — the use of force to maintain its order. This is a trait shared by all governments, from republics and liberal democracies, to totalitarian dictatorships and oppressive oligarchies. At their cores, that is, at the foundations of these differing political systems, the use of force is the fundamental premise upon which their theories are built. Only the degree of aggression, intrusion, and violence is varied from the total state to the minimal state. They are identical twins spawned from the same egg. The nurture may differ, but the nature does not.

"The definition of the state is that entity that claims for itself a monopoly on the use violence to maintain its order. There may be variations of this definition, but what these differing definitions refer to are the same — a monopoly on violence." ~ Butler Shaffer