“The Greater Good”, Individual Good, and the Collective

Collective: One Word, Two Meanings

Today, we can see the strategy of doublespeak from the novel 1984 being employed. Language is intentionally ill-defined so that people discuss semantics, and never get to the point of a substantive debate. I see this when collectivism versus individualism is discussed.

Coercion has been folded into the definition of collectivism, because most examples of collectivist philosophy have been implemented by force through government (with terrible consequences for both the individual and the group). So individualists, who believe the good of the group does not supersede the good of the individual, tend to shy away from collectivist philosophy.

But I don’t think coercion was ever meant to be part of the definition of collectivism. It was more of an ideal, that the individual might want to, or see value in, subverting his will to the will of the majority. But in order for any actual good to be achieved, it cannot be done by force. Voluntarily joining a collective is much different than being forced into one. Individualists believe in mutual benefit, and a group can give benefit to an individual. Individuals still make up that group however, which makes each individual important.

The Voluntary Collective

The most important thing about a voluntary group, is that you can leave it.

I was walking in the woods one day with some friends. We had been hiking for a while and turned and twisted around many paths when we came to a four way intersection. Not wanting to turn back, we began to discuss which way would be best to take. In fact after some discussion, we all agreed to take the same path. But suppose I thought a different path was better. Should I attempt to force them to take the path I want? Or should they, being in the majority, attempt to force me to take the path they want? Of course not.

In a voluntary group, I am free to leave or stay. In the middle of the woods my options are to agree with the group, or be left alone. I see value in the group, and that is why I submit to the majority. Not because the majority has the right to force their will on the minority, and not even because the will of the majority is necessarily better in some way than the minority. No one claims that groups cannot be of great use and help. But they must be voluntary groups in order to serve this purpose best.

There were many paths to take, and at times we may not have agreed on the “best” path to take. In fact, “best” could have different meanings to each individual. “Best” might mean shortest path back for the person who wants to be done hiking. Best might mean longest path back for someone who wants to keep hiking, or best could mean a yet un-trodden path to another who enjoys novelty.

But let’s say we all had the same general goal, and when coming to a fork, have different ideas on which path to take. Two people want to go left, and one wants to go right. In a voluntary collective, this is not a problem because everyone can split up if they want. But if we joined this collective voluntarily in the first place—we all decided to go hiking together—then we saw value in the group, and that value would diminish if we split up.

So if I am the odd man out, I get to decide if I see more value in subverting my will to the group, than in taking the path that I think is “best”. It might appear that the collective has overruled the individual, and the greater good has taken precedence over the good of the individual. But in reality, the individual decided that it was overall in his best interests to remain with the group, even though that one decision does not seem to benefit him. He could still decide to go off on his own and leave the group, but this too has consequences.

The individual cannot force the group to accompany him in a voluntary collective, and the collective cannot force any individual to accompany the group.

This is in stark contrast to the types of collectivism promoted through politics. They say everyone gets a voice through a vote, but then the will of the majority is forced on each individual. If you are always the third guy who wants to take a different path in a forced collective, you will never have your individual needs met, and always will you be less important than the group.

The “greater good” never matches your individual needs. That is how individuals suffer in forced collectives. In a voluntary collective, any “suffering” on the part of the individual is entirely voluntary, and as such cannot be seen as suffering, because they have made a choice that the value in the collective is worth more to them than the fruition of their own goals as an individual.

The “Greater Good”

What is ironic is that modern collectivist philosophies ignore that a group cannot exist without individuals. Yet collectivism is sold as promoting the greater good. Well, the greater good for who? If individuals in the group suffer, what greater good is being accomplished?

In a voluntary collective, that is for the individual to decide, and the “greater good” still has an individual impact. Walking around the woods, I may not want to be alone for fear of danger. So the greater good is having a large group that can come to the aide of an individual; it is a trade. An individual joins a group as an insurance policy, knowing that he might have to at times “suffer” to help another individual. But the “greater good” is something felt by each individual: it was worth it for each individual to sometimes give priority to others, so that others will sometimes give priority to that individual when he needs it.

In a forced collective though, the choice is not your own, and therefore there is no greater good. Greater good does not exist coercively, it cannot, because some individuals’ good will always be subverted to other individuals’ good. Therefore it is not a “greater good” in any sense, it is simply some benefiting at the expense of others; a majority good.

The Mongolian Horde Example

A Mongolian horde is on its way to plunder an area. One town decides to build a wall, and not let anyone out. They force some people to man the walls in order to protect the town. The Mongolian horde comes, and though many on the wall die, the town survives. Coercive collectivists would say this is a win for the greater good: the survival of the town.

But there is no greater good, there are individuals who benefited from forcing some to protect their town, and there are individuals who died protecting the town, and got no benefit. Individual good for the survivors, individual bad for the dead.

But outside this town many others decided to group together in order to protect themselves from the Mongolian horde. It is understood that some will die, but each individual takes on that risk voluntarily, because he decided grouping together is more likely to lead to survival, not only of the group, but of each individual. The Mongolian horde attacks, and this voluntary collective has the same results as the forced collective; they suffer causalities, but the group survives.

In this instance, there was a “greater good”, because each individual got to decide what was best for him. It is true that some still suffered while others benefited, however the assessment was made by each individual. The collective was created by each individual doing what was best for his own good, according to his own assessment of the available options.

Final Thoughts

Individuals, acting in their own best interests, can come together to create a greater good in a voluntary collective. What is called “greater good” in a coercive collective however, cannot be broken down into good for every individual; inevitably some benefit, while some suffer. In the coercive collective, there was no individual assessment of benefit or detriment; it was decided by force who would benefit and who would suffer. So what the coercive collective calls “greater good” is really individual good for certain individuals, at the detriment to others.

What the voluntary collective calls “greater good” was the best option for each individual given the circumstances, and decided by the individual. In that sense, voluntary collectives can only attain a “greater good” by consensus of the group. If there is no group consensus, there is no greater good. When a voluntary group cannot reach a consensus, it simply splinters into smaller groups that can.

Whenever someone is forced into a group, there can be no greater good, because the individual suffers at the hands of the group. Even if the group benefits, this is not a “greater good”, it is a segmented good.

In forced collectives, anything can be considered the “greater good”, since the only requirement is that some benefit. In voluntary collectives, the group will either agree on what the greater good is, or fragment into smaller groups, which will agree on their version of the greater good for the group (or the individual if no group matches their goals).

But through force, “greater good” does not exist.