Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Greater Good

Democracies work, more or less, on the utilitarian principle that the good of the majority outweighs that of the minority--the greater good. In other words, some suffering is acceptable if the good outweighs the evil that might result from a particular action or law or process. For example, some people may lose their homes or jobs if it is determined that such losses will result in a greater good for the majority.

The question that bothers me is to what extent this may be carried out. At least three works that I'm aware of have either mentioned this point or based the story completely on this issue.

One of the first works that I can find that has brought up this issue is Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the skeptical brother, in a discussion with Alyosha, his younger brother who is a novice monk, brings up the issue in a discussion about justice--how could a just God have created a world so filled with evil in which good people suffer and evil people flourish?

At one point he poses the following hypothetical situation to Alyosha, "Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at least, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears--would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."

Peace and happiness for the human race--but at the cost of one child's suffering. Is that going too far with the philosophy of the greater good?

A second work one might read is a short story by Ursula Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In this story, Le Guin posits such a perfect society and goes into considerable detail describing it. While some might not like this society, many would consider it an ideal world. However, there is a catch--as the old cliche goes, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." In the story, Le Guin describes the life of one small child that resembles horror stories that emerge in the news media about a dreadful example of child abuse--a child being locked in a dark room for years, with no sanitary facilities, physical and mental abuse alternating with complete isolation.

She continues: "They all come to know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvests and the kindly weathers of the skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery."

If that child were released, then "in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one..."

The title, of course, points out that there are some who cannot accept this situation and leave. But, most stay. Are they monsters?

A third version of this hypothetical situation is found in Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X. This tale differs in that it isn't one child who suffers for the good of the whole, but each member unknowingly, as an infant, undergoes a procedure that produces an idyllic society. In one sense they are now less than they could be, but their lives appear to be happier and more satisfying and creative than any contemporary society today. In fact, it is quite similar to Omelas. In this case, the issue is that the members of this society do not have the chance to make a decision, for it is made for them as infants and most do not know the true situation. The question is therefore whether the authorities in this society are justified in their decision to not allow each member to decide whether to undergo the procedure. Could they fear that most might not agree?

These are all hypothetical or fictional situations, but the principles behind them are not. I wonder what I might say if I were really in an actual situation similar to ones posited in the three stories--to exchange the complete happiness and joy of thousands or more people for the suffering of one person. I wonder which is the greater good.


  1. Good to see you back. I don't know why it is necessary to have one person suffer in order to have a utopia in the stories. Do they state why, or is it more hypothetical? Also, does the society ask for a volunteer to sacrifice their life, or just randomly pick a person? I personally wouldn't be able to enjoy my utopia knowing that it's causing another person to suffer. To me, life isn't necessarily about "happiness" ( an often empty pursuit that can be based in selfishness). It's more about personal meaning and becoming a better person inside. I've grown more during the hard times than during the "happy" times, so I guess I need both.

  2. Cheryl,

    I think the authors' point here is the communality of all people. It's a veiled attack on the utilitarian principle of the greater good--that good can somehow be achieved at the cost of even one person's suffering.

    Donne expressed this when he says "any man's death diminishes me" in his meditation--"No man is an island."

    All three authors agree with you; these hypothetical situations would be unacceptable if possible. Why? Most of us empathize with others, and to know that our "perfect" happiness directly depends on the sufferings of another would be intolerable.

    Many of us would walk away from Omelas, I hope.