The Greater Good Theory (Utilitarianism)

Philosophers refer to it as a “teleological” system. The Greek word “telos” means end or goal. That means that this ethical system determines morality by the end result.

The greater good theory is one that we have been hearing more and more about in recent times, however,we seldom think about it. We look at the world through filters, much like the ones on Snapchat. The Greater Good is something I like thinkng of as the decision that most people know is right, but refuse to accept it as such.

The Greater Good is also known as the politician’s dodge, the murderer’s solace, the culprits excuse and several other metaphors, because it is like a scapegoat they run to every time they make a decision that affects many in a harmful way, claiming that it will benefit many others. It is something that we all pass judgement on, but refuse to put ourselves in the decision maker’s shoes to realise what an impossible choice it is.

A psychopathy test once put its subjects through two situations:

There is a train running on a track which splits into two ways. The path it is following will lead to the death of 10 people who are stuck on the tracks. You have a lever in front of you,

which if you pull, will switch the train to another track- this one leading to the death of a single person.

Many philosophers ask, who are we to play God and decide who lives and who dies? While realists would choose pulling the lever in a jiffy to shift directions, taking solace in the idea of having saved nine other lives for the loss of one, a good number of people would choose to do nothing and let nature take its course.

Another situation now. With the advent of self driving cars, imagine a situation where a car is boxed in by a truck ahead of it, a biker with a helmet on the left and another without a helmet on the right. In case the truck brakes and the AI of the car calculates whom to hit- the trucker or the driver? The biker with the helmet perhaps, because he has a better chance of survival; but he would be at risk nonetheless. Or maybe the biker without one, because he was not wise enough to wear a helmet Without self driving cars, it is you who might need to make that split second decision, however with them, it is pre-programmed.

Everyone has the idea of the greater good etched into their minds- from dilemmas of choosing the lesser of two evils, to others, who merely decide which path to take to avoid traffic. Some more examples of them could be:

  • John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
  • If a doctor can save five people from death by killing one healthy person and using that person’s organs for life-saving transplants, then the greater good theory implies that the doctor should kill the one person to save five.
  • If a person makes a promise, but breaking the promise will allow him/her to perform an action that leads to just slightly more well-being than keeping the promise will, then the theory implies that the promise should be broken.

What people forget to do when it comes to decisions ranging from these trivial aspects, to radical measures of the actions in Kashmir is putting themselves in the shoes of the one making the decisions. To imagine the incomprehensible feeling of facing the dilemma. A dilemma that could potentially affect countless lives and have terrifying consequences while the other could lead to the same effect, even if it’s at a smaller magnitude.

Idealism vs Greater good is an ethical battle which has been a matter of debate for centuries, and shall probably continue being so.

What do you think about it? If you were to be the one who decides from among the above situations, how would you choose?


Writer: Sarthak Pandya
Editor: Vedika Agarwal