The greater good is a relatively catchy phrase that is used frequently without much thought about the fact that it means different things to different people. It has been used to rationalize some pretty abhorrent behavior in history and modern times, while also being used to describe some great acts of selflessness. It was coined by the utilitarianists (well, Epicurus had a similar notion) and was quite popular with reductionists! It is used often enough within organizations, but has its roots in economics, philosophy and political science. What does it mean to you? How can you apply it to your daily behaviors?
Historically, the greater good has meant that we as a society must act on behalf of the greatest good for the most of the population. For example, a war that puts an end to terrorism will certainly benefit more people in the long run to keep us safer, and this line of thinking about the greater good diminishes the value of the lives that are lost as a result of the war. The value of the lives lost are remembered as a means to a “safer” or “more free” end. On a smaller scale, a father may be miserable in his vocation because it serves the greater good of his family. The income may allow the family to live better than the father was able to as a child, so he feels his family’s happiness is more important than his own. How do we not know that this father would benefit his family more by being joyful in his work? It is possible that the perception of the soldiers in wars and the fathers such as this are different. They may not believe they are sacrificing, rather they are doing what needs to be done. I think it is a matter of perception and how we believe the greater good is applied to our lives that makes the difference.
Do we really have to endure such sacrifices to behave in a way that serves the greater good? Is this reductionist notion outdated? What if my definition of greater good simply meant anything or anyone outside of myself will benefit from my actions? Greater perhaps would mean anything bigger than me and good means positive, enhancing to the big picture? I do like to believe that my consumer behavior, my daily behaviors and interactions with others somehow make a difference in the lives of others or in the bigger picture of life. Each action has a consequence and some of us know this all too well for our personal lives, but what about the consequences of your actions in the larger picture?
I do not perceive it to be a sacrifice to cooperate or to be positive in my interactions with others. It is a pleasure, actually! It is not a sacrifice for me to work at a job that serves to empower others. It can become a bit cumbersome to compost, recycle my plastics, papers and glass, but really, it is not a sacrifice to send less waste to landfills, but merely a change in habits. I consider each of these smaller acts for the greater good of the environment, my community and consider them to be the responsible things to do for humanity.
What is your greater good?