From the day we are born, society teaches us to think like ants. That making sacrifices for the ‘greater good’ is noble. Just like ants, which are willing to sacrifice their very lives to preserve the colony, we are taught that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and that society’s well-being is more important than our own selves. That we shouldn’t be selfish individualists placing our own interests before the greater good of society. And that collectivism is morally superior to individualism.
The problem with this now widespread ‘moral’ view is that, unlike ants, which biologically have a very clear and defined idea of what is the ‘greater good’ of the colony, and which every ant shares, humans have consciousness, individual desires, and rational thought. (It is worth mentioning that in actual fact ants are all working selfishly to preserve their own genes, and the reason for such apparent selfless sacrifice is that supporting and defending their queen is the only way for their genes to be reproduced). The human capacity for individual desires and goals means that the ‘greater good’ is a completely subjective concept. In the past, the ‘greater good’ has been interpreted as killing six million Jews. It has been interpreted as killing thousands of innocent people in Iraq. In fact, the millions who died in pretty much every war in history were always nobly sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ of a country, society, or humanity itself.
To many, democracy seems to have neatly solved the problem. Thanks to democracy, the ‘greater good’ is now defined as whatever the majority happens to think it is. Unfortunately, democracy is deeply flawed. At the moment, in the United States, it is considered in the greater good for gay people not to be allowed to marry each other. It is also in the greater good to arrest and incarcerate more than 800,000 people every year for smoking marijuana (for possession alone!) And, most importantly, it is in the greater good to terrorize civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries around the world. Not surprising considering that the majority tends to consist of mostly uninformed and biased people.
So how do we go about deciding what really is the greater good of society? For starters, we can all agree that society is made up of individuals, and each individual has his or her own aspirations, goals, and desires. Each of us enjoys certain things, and dislikes others, and we all try to maximize pleasure and minimize grief. It is crucial to understand that while some pleasures are shared by the majority of the world, every single pleasure, grief, emotion, goal, or desire is completely subjective. That is, we cannot say that football is objectively better than golf. I am sure of it, and many people agree with me – but it isn’t a fact, simply my opinion. I cannot assume that my opinion has any objective significance to anybody other than myself; one opinion cannot be superior to any other opinion.
In the same way, nobody can assert that football is objectively better than being voluntarily tortured. Even more people would agree with me on this, but the existence of masochists demonstrates that it is still just an opinion (to be clear, it should be obvious that being tortured against one’s will is objectively worse than anything done voluntarily, since, if someone enjoyed it, then it wouldn’t be against their will). One of the interesting qualities of humanity is that we each enjoy completely different things. Opinions, no matter how many people agree with them or how seemingly logical they are, cannot be superior to anybody else’s, because they are wholly subjective.
Thus it follows that the ‘greater good’ of society is whatever maximizes everyone’s individual pleasures. So how can we attain a society in which everybody receives the greatest amount of individualised, subjective pleasure? The standard solution is to create a democracy, in which people can vote for the policies they (subjectively) prefer, and then impose them on the remaining minority. How this makes any sense at all escapes me. Essentially, this conventional wisdom holds that for some reason if the entire population of a state (a random collection of people who happen to be living inside a set of entirely arbitrary lines drawn on a map) follows the subjective preferences of the majority then society, as a whole, will be better off.
This folly is combined with the philosophy of holding society’s good before your own, creating a system in which everybody is supposed to try to vote for the policies that will maximize everybody else’s happiness, while simultaneously (because it is biologically impossible not to) bearing in mind one’s own preferences. And yet how exactly are we supposed to know what’s best for the entire country when everything is completely subjective? It is inevitable that we will assume, to a greater or lesser extent, that everybody likes and wants the same things we do. I’m sure many people have trouble just figuring out what to give their own families for Christmas (I certainly do) – and yet they’re supposed to be able to vote for policies that will benefit somebody living hundreds of kilometres away.
This is made even worse by the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, the majority of voters tends to consist of a mass of ignorant and biased people. I can see how this might be interpreted as an arrogant and unnecessary comment. And yet, as Michael Huemer brilliantly explains, it is not difficult to understand why it is indeed very likely that the majority of voters will usually be highly uninformed. This is due to the fact that, on an individual level, the costs of being informed far outweigh the benefits. Each voter knows that his or her individual vote will have a negligible impact on the outcome of an election. In fact, one individual vote is likely to have almost no benefit to anyone at all. Of course, in numbers votes can (in theory) make a difference, but every person knows that their individual vote is essentially insignificant.
On the other hand, acquiring the knowledge necessary to be an informed voter is very costly. First of all, one has to study and understand a great deal of economic and political theory (significantly more than the little to nothing that is commonly taught in schools). One then has to extensively examine each candidate and party’s platform and their history in politics. In short, many long hours need to be detracted from much more pleasurable activities, such as watching movies or playing sports. So unless an individual happens to be born with a passion for economics and politics and therefore enjoys acquiring the necessary information, it is likely that he or she will weigh both the high cost and the nearly insignificant benefit, and decide to vote on a whim, random personal bias, or what little relevant knowledge they happen to have gained in their lives.
Some argue that because such bias is random and evenly distributed then the outcome of the election is still decided by the minority of informed voters. This would be the case if bias were in fact equally spread between all possible options and candidates. Yet the unfortunate truth is that bias is decidedly polarized. Because a large number of people decide to vote while being terribly misinformed, irrelevant factors such as good looks play an important role. Even worse, propaganda becomes key in securing a victory, which further helps established powers that have the resources to broadcast their messages to greater numbers of people. But, and perhaps most importantly, humans have an inbuilt tendency to ‘follow the leader’. Psychological studies such as the famous Milgram Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment continually demonstrate that people are quick to blindly follow an authority figure, regardless of their personal opinions regarding that authority. Thus, because the majority of voters are uninformed, elections tend to result in victories for powerful figures that are unlikely to care very much about the ‘greater good’ of society.
Why not consider the following, much less conventional, yet significantly more rational, option. Why not create a system in which people can all do anything they possibly can to enjoy life, as long as they aren’t forcing (through physical violence or fraud) anyone else to do something they don’t want to do? In other words, a system in which any truly voluntary interaction is permitted. Isn’t that the logical solution? Wouldn’t this create a balanced society, in which everyone tries to maximize pleasure without ever constraining anyone else’s similar ambitions? In a system based on voluntary interactions, every single trade that ever occurred between two parties would be mutually beneficial. No one could make a profit at somebody else’s expense, because if it’s a voluntary transaction then both parties must, by definition, be profiting! (Otherwise, why would the exchange happen in the first place?)
Indeed, you would really have to be quite the fool to voluntarily agree to something that you don’t actually want to do. Of course, changing your mind doesn’t mean that anything you voluntarily did in the past suddenly becomes having been taken advantage of, just because your preferences changed. We live in the present – it’s absurd to claim that if I change my mind and think I’ve been ripped off after I’ve already taken part in a voluntary exchange, then I’ve been exploited. At the time of the exchange, both parties profited; and that can’t be subject to change every time someone decides that they actually made a mistake and wish they hadn’t bought some particular good.
I hope it is clear by know that any system other than one of voluntary exchange is not truly in the best interests of society as a whole. Humanity is simply too varied for any one system to be a real solution for everyone involved. Democracy merely makes the solution (theoretically) work for the majority, yet even that leaves the possibility open for a highly discontented 49%. Furthermore, a democracy is bound to be co-opted by vested interests and powerful figures due to the tendency of a significant percentage of the electorate to be misinformed. This is evidenced by the fact that since most democracies were established in the last two centuries, the power and size of their governments has vastly increased. The only tenable social structure in the long run is one that returns freedom to individuals.