In the beginning, Nietzsche chronicled the genealogy of morality.
He argued that Greek and Roman culture had a “master morality” mindset, where the good aristocrats ruled over the bad slaves. This was then supplanted by “slave morality,” an egalitarian mindset which demanded everyone to be slaves to everyone else, where all are have equal obligations to one another. Nietzsche lamented this change for a variety of reasons, but Foucault gave it a stronger causal analysis which might be familiar to people today. Foucault observed that when things change, it tends to cement one locus of power even as it dethrones another. In this instance, while the introduction of an egalitarian mindset did introduce some egalitarianism, it also functioned to increase other inegalitarianism.
For example, critical theorists have been keen to point out that pretending that we live in truly egalitarian countries glosses over existing inegalitarianism. Critical race theorists, drawing on this line, have pointed out how pretending we live in a post-race or race-neutral country functions to justify existing racial disparities in wealth, incarceration, and health as not racist.
Similarly, in her new book The Force of Nonviolence, Judith Butler opens with the observation that nonviolence, as noble a concept as it is, is regularly used by the state to justify violence. By demanding nonviolence from citizens, the state finds itself a justification for its own violence by deflecting the responsibility onto supposedly violent protesters. Shut down highways, and you’re violent by harming people’s livelihoods; yell at lawmakers, and you’re violent by intimidating them; damage property, and you’re violent enough to justify potentially-lethal munitions.
The running theme is that there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with the concept, and in fact it may be a great idea, but the powers that be leverage the concept to make things worse. This is how I feel about the concept of sacrificing yourself for the greater good.
When it comes to sacrificing yourself for the greater good, who gets the short end of the stick? It’s not those with the most to give. When Republicans asked us to sacrifice our grandparents to the Dow Jones, that wasn’t the powerful humbling themselves for the greater good. When transgender people are told to stop asking for equal membership in society so that we can accomplish other goals, that isn’t the powerful being compelled to help out the little guy. When the rich get a massive tax break even in a progressive spending bill, they are not really being asked to sacrifice for the rest of us. It follows what is now a well-known trend: The powerful are reluctant to give up their power, and the weak don’t have much of a say in the matter. The hope of an egalitarian politics is that the masses are able to provide a counterweight to the powerful few, but the notion of the greater good is an amazing tool to demand more and more from marginalized minorities.
And so, I’m extremely skeptical of demands to do something for the greater good.
What replaces the operative function of the greater good is altruistic selfishness. As I’ve remarked in the past, I am not an individualist. I believe that when one truly cares for themself, others benefit as well. How can it be any other way? I live connected with other people and the world around me. If I suffer, my environment suffers; if I flourish, I lift others up with me.
Maybe it’s not the greatest good, but it’s pretty good, and I’m okay with settling for that.