Viewpoint: Common Good vs Greater Good; One is Often Good, One is Evil

Viewpoint: Common Good vs Greater Good; One is Often Good, One is Evil

We all bear the responsibility to critically examine these policies and to resist when they infringe upon liberties, ethical standards or the rights of individuals.

“Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some ‘noble’ goal,” ― Leonard E. Read

Throughout history, philosophers, political theorists and leaders have grappled with concepts of the “greater good” and the “common good.” Both have their origins and applications in philosophical, ethical, religious and political discourse. To many, the “greater good” and the “common good” are seen as the same thing, but they couldn’t be more different. 

The “common good” is deontological and focuses on the fairness of the rules and processes themselves, not just the end results. “Common good” decisions or actions benefit all or most members of a community, often through shared resources or services. 

On the other hand, the “greater good” is consequentialist (focused on the outcomes), and involves decisions or actions that compel sacrifice from some individuals or groups for the overall benefit of a larger group or society. It embodies the ethical principle “the ends justify the means,” or the “lesser of two evils” as it advocates for actions that may cause harm to some, but ultimately lead to the overall benefit of a larger group or society.

Origins and examples of the “Common Good”

“Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” John Locke

The “common good” is tied to a set of values and principles that guide decision-making in a way that benefits everyone. The concept of the “common good” originated in ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle saw it as the end-goal of a community where all members flourish. This idea was further developed by the Stoics, who proposed a universal ethic, emphasizing our shared responsibilities.

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, integrated the “common good“ into Christian theology and defined the “common good” as “peace, security, and a well-ordered community.”

During the Enlightenment, philosophers like John Locke described the “common good” in the context of social contracts. They argued that governments exist to serve the common good of their citizens. Immanuel Kant asserts that we should invariably view and treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. This essentially aligns with the principle of the golden rule. Adam Smith, in “The Wealth of Nations,” states that individuals acting in their self-interest, guided by the “invisible hand” of the free market, indirectly promote the common good by producing goods and services that others need or want.

Examples of the “common good”:

  1. Public Safety: services such as law enforcement, fire departments and emergency services.
  2. Infrastructure Development: public roads, bridges, water systems, electrical grids and internet access.
  3. National Defense.
  4. Public Health Measures: sanitation and waste management systems, water treatment facilities and food safety regulations.
  5. Land Use Planning: urban planning.
  6. Traffic Laws: speed limits, traffic signals and rules about right-of-way help.

Origins and examples of the “Greater Good”

“It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” – Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

“Greater good” advocates believe that an action is moral if it results in more good than harm. It’s okay to kill one man to save ten. It’s moral to commit one evil act as long as it’s in service of something noble. They use the Paradox of Deontology as a rebuttal to “common good” deontological ethics. The trolley car problem is often used as an example. 

The concept of the “greater good“ has its roots in utilitarian philosophy. Utilitarianism, a theory primarily developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, argues that the most ethical action is the one that provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism’s emphasis on the maximization of overall welfare justifies harm to the well-being of a minority of individuals so long as it leads to greater overall benefits to the majority. The “greater good” can best be summed by its most fervent advocate John Stewart Mill: 

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”

Historical Evils of “Greater Good”

“For the greater good”: the phrase that always precedes the greatest evil.” ― Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski, Fellow of the Mises Institute

Throughout history, many catastrophic events have been justified in the name of the “greater good.” These often resulted in significant human suffering and death.

Some examples where catastrophic harm was inflicted in the name of the “greater good”:

  1. During the Stalin era in the Soviet Union, the purges and the Holodomor famine in Ukraine resulted in the deaths of millions of people. These actions were justified in the name of consolidation of power and agricultural efficiency for the “greater good” of society.
  2. The Holocaust – perpetrated by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime during World War II led to the systematic murder of six million Jews, as well as many others. This horrific act was justified under the notion of racial purity and the “greater good” of the German people.
  3. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study involved lying about withholding treatment from African-American men with syphilis to observe the disease’s natural progression. This was done under the pretense of studying the disease for the benefit of society.
  4. Forced Sterilizations and Eugenics – In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some societies, most notably Nazi Germany, practiced forced sterilizations, euthanasia, and genocide in the name of “improving the human race.” These actions were justified as being for the “greater good” of society.
  5. During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments justified the implementation of emergency powers and imposed restrictions on citizens’ rights and freedoms in the name of the “greater good.” These “restrictions” were implemented with arbitrary and sometimes violent enforcement and included restricting freedom of assembly, privacy, the freedom to worship, the freedom of movement through lockdowns, the closing of businesses, banning of speech it disagreed with, mandating vaccines, limiting travel, closing schools, enforcing social isolation, and rationing of healthcare. The long-term social and economic impacts of these actions are still being assessed.

“I respect people’s freedom, but when you’re talking about a public health crisis, that we’ve been going through now for well over a year and a half, the time is come, enough is enough.” – Dr. Anthony Fauci head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” ― Milton Friedman

The use of “common good“ and “greater good“ are often conflated and misused. One way to identify the ‘greater good’ argument in a conversation or argument is by listening for language designed to persuade someone into thinking what is good for the collective rather than their own needs. Words like ’we’ or ‘everyone’ and phrases like ‘the greatest good for the greatest number,’ ‘it’s for the best,’ ‘necessary sacrifice.’ 

The natural human drive to do good is commendable. However, when the pursuit of this “good” necessitates coercion and aggression against the few, it loses its nobility.  The “greater good” isn’t a reflection of what’s best for everyone, but usually of what’s best for the people in power. “Greater good” policies exploit the human tendency to enthusiastically judge others and enforce/impose conformity. A recent example is the COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed widespread anger and hostility towards those who chose to follow their conscience or own thinking rather than the mandate of the collective. While those who enforce the majority decision may genuinely believe in the good intentions of their actions, good intentions are not enough. With all of our “progressive” knowledge and good intentions, the 20th century distinguished itself as the bloodiest in history

So, vigilance against the imposition of “greater good” arguments is essential. We all bear the responsibility to critically examine these policies and to resist when they infringe upon liberties, ethical standards or the rights of individuals. The good for the common man comes from tolerating a diverse society where everyone can pursue their own interests within limits that apply equally to all.

“The great citizens of a country are not those who bend the knee before authority but rather those who, against authority, if need be, are adamant as to the honor and freedom of that country.” - Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death

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