In the constant pursuit of happiness, all human beings want a few good things to happen to them each day of their lives. Al Capp observed in his famous Dog Patch comic strip, Little Abner, “Whether you are rich or whether you’re poor, it’s nice to have money.” Why? Because you can buy yourself more of the little things that will make you feel somewhat happier.
There’s a catch, however. For many folks who cannot tolerate deferred gratification, the more things they have, the more they want. Consequently, the more people there are living on this planet, the more things they want to experience or possess in order to feel good about themselves, their families, and their lives. That’s great for the world’s economy!
Being aware of this human proclivity, government leaders everywhere promise to provide a better standard of living for their country’s growing number of people. Which presidential candidate in the present election campaign (2008) hasn’t optimistically talked about increasing benefits for unhappy citizens?
Of course, there is very little consensus about what should be considered the greater good for humanity. The overriding objective of each human breadwinner is to satisfy the needs of his (or her) intimate family. Does this objective include sacrificing time, effort, and money to improve his neighborhood, his city, his state, or his country? Or reaching out to help those unfortunate poor people who live in underdeveloped countries? When does an individual’s moral obligation to help others begin? What level of income per annum is necessary to think outside the family? The CEO of Lehman Brothers was paid over a half a billion dollars just before his company went into bankruptcy. Was he concerned about anyone besides himself?
There are so many different opinions about what constitutes the greater good. Is it longer human life? A minimum number of food calories per day to sustain a hardworking adult? A job that pays enough money to support a family of four and yet build a small retirement nest egg? A health insurance policy that covers a family for catastrophic illnesses? A stress-free environment at home and at work? An extensive and cheap public transit system? A chicken in every pot on Sunday? A car in every garage? A 30 day vacation every year? Home ownership in a new gated community? Safety, security, harmony, and tranquility? Material well-being with some kind of spiritual enrichment?
Let’s not get involved with what an individual person might determine to be good for him or herself. The ethical question before us is why any human should consider improving the life of someone else beside his own child. Social animals quickly learn that from their inbred culture that they must do something for the hive, the colony, the herd, or the pride. Our sophisticated human culture teaches humans that by helping others they are more likely to maximize their chances of obtaining what they want for themselves. The “Golden Rule” typifies the instruction that many cultures use to promote unselfishness and empathy for others.
But the question remains unanswered when it encompasses the entire planet and its ecosystem. Greater good for whom? Plants or animals? Which plants, which animals? The most powerful, the most prolific, the most intelligent, or the most apt to survive whatever natural disaster might confront them? Then, who should benefit most: those that are living today, those being born tomorrow, or those coming into being a 100 years from now?
To complicate the matter, who gets to play the God role and how should this individual decide who deserves to receive the highest priority in the distribution of our limited natural resources? The rich, the healthy, the brightest, or the most devout worshipers of the unseen Almighty? Although the head of the bureaucracy of the United Nations might be considered a surrogate deity with Solomonic wisdom, the UN is not well respected or obeyed by the leaders of most sovereign states.
There are several main reasons that prevent mankind from focusing their attention on solving this eternal problem. Humans have created secular organizations to choose someone to replace God. However, the leaders of these various organizations seem incapable of establishing acceptable criteria to determine who is to receive the greater good. Further, they can’t decide what would be the greater good for the most people. And finally, they don’t seem to be in any hurry to help others until they themselves are helped out of trouble they have made for themselves and their country’s population.
Most of mankind has chosen some form of regulated Capitalism to sort out how to accomplish a fair and reasonable distribution of wealth, good health, security, happiness, and serenity. To enforce unpopular regulations, modern humans have established some local legal system to mete out fines and punishment to anyone who abuses the system for controlling citizen behavior.
Capitalism supposedly relies on the divine guidance (the “unseen hand”) of supply and demand relationships. Corner a market, and you are God. Overproduce, and you become a loser in that economic game. The “unseen hand” and “blindfolded justice” systems work up to a point, but quite often the more successful human entrepreneurs become greedy and careless, and they make gross errors in underestimating the patience of the masses they have been leading or abusing.
The socialists, promoting the three political falsehoods, “Liberty, equality, and fraternity,” fail to unify their followers when their leaders illustrate by their inappropriate actions that they are more equal than the rest of the brotherhood of tightly constrained citizens.
These common folks are forever yoked to the heavy, flat-tired wagon from which the limited beneficence of the government in power is tossed to the most vocal beggars to achieve the greater good of the local fraternity. Human nature being what it always has been, socialism cannot adequately restrain or constrain the fierce competition that ensues between the ambitious and the greedy within the organization.
It remains to be seen if there is some other political/economic way to organize human society so that the greater good, once it has been defined, can be dispensed more equitably. Obviously, the more unfit humans there are trying to survive on this delicate planet, the more opinions there will be from self-appointed experts about how best to work for the greater good of the ___________ (you fill in the blank with “species, country, race, religion, gender, or political orientation,” radical or reactionary.)