Nathanael Garrett Novosel, August 2 2023

Non-Consensual Harm or Expense vs. “The Greater Good”

I wrote in a previous post about the ethics of selfishness and altruism. Effectively, it’s a misconception that selfishness is always bad and altruism is always good; you need to be selfish enough to take care of yourself so that you are not a burden on others, and being altruistic when it harms you is not necessarily a good thing, either. But I didn’t get into the rough general rule and why it can be claimed as such, so I wanted to cover it in this post.

In The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose, I document in great detail how ethics work: they are agreed upon by humans to maximize/optimize growth and minimize harm, and they exist so that multiple organisms can cooperate for greater growth than an everyone-for-themselves world. Because ethics make people feel good about themselves as upstanding people, there is always the search for the right or optimal ethical framework that they should follow.

Practically speaking, most people arrive at the universal “non-consensual harm to someone” as the simplest way to define wrong in this way. This covers most ethics, from assault (threat of non-consensual harm) and battery (non-consensual physical harm) to harassment (non-consensual emotional harm) and fraud (financial harm through deception—i.e., would not have been consented to if the truth were known). Yes, there are plenty of ways to expand or contract that definition, from animal rights activists wanting to include animals to bigots who don’t want to treat certain people with the same ethics based on race, gender, or other immutable characteristics. But with few exceptions, most people arrive at this basic definition.

I discuss in the book that I call these “negative ethics”—a way to differentiate rules that you follow for what not to do vs. “positive ethics” suggesting what to do. It’s just a way to distinguish between behaviors that avoid harm and ones that promote growth. The reason for this is because people are looking for universal vs. situational rules, and positive ethics, such as eating your vegetables or exercising three times per week for 60 minutes, are much more likely to be situational. After all, marathon runners need more than 60 minutes of exercise three times per week if they want to perform at their best, whereas there is generally no acceptable reason for initiating force against an innocent person except to avoid a greater harm (i.e., pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming vehicle). As such, negative ethics are much more likely to be encoded as laws with enforcement in effect, whereas no one is going to police your calorie intake under threat of prison.

Now, one thing I didn’t elaborate on in the book or my previous post on selfishness vs. altruism is the idea of “expense”. I include financial harm in my definition, but “expense” includes the time, effort, or other costs incurred by a person and so it deserves to be expanded upon for people who don’t see that as harm. The biggest risk to this form of harm is when someone invokes “the greater good” as a reason for doing something. In fact, “the greater good” is quite possibly one of the few biggest dividing ideas between the two competing life philosophies that I’ll call “socialism” or “collectivism” vs. “libertarianism” or “individualism”. Note that for this conversation, I’m sticking to the idea that a person places the group or the individual at the center of their ethical framework—yes, people who generally believe in the former or the latter also hold the political viewpoints with those names, but the political viewpoints are outside the scope of this post.

The reason why people hate selfishness is that it often comes at someone else’s “expense”. If you cut in line, for example, you break the first-come-first-served rule that values everyone’s time (i.e., expense) and desire (i.e., need, want, or benefit) equally. So you get the reward faster than the rule would indicate, and others who followed the rule have to wait longer and possibly risk not getting the thing they are waiting for if it is in limited quantities. If you hog the video game console, your sibling won’t get to play. If you pee in the pool, you don’t have to exert effort to go to the bathroom, while everyone else for as long as that pool uses the same water has to swim in your urine.

As I mentioned in my last post, however, that means that altruism isn’t always good, either, as someone who sacrifices for others and then gets sick, dies, becomes a burden to others, or otherwise causes harm in some way isn’t as good as it seems. What I didn’t cover, however, was “the greater good” ideal vs. reality that has its own ethical concerns that most people overlook in pursuit of “a better world”.

So, in essence, the problem with any behavior is whether someone unwillingly is harmed or pays the cost of another person’s behavior. Whereas most behaviors that we label “selfish” are ones in which one person benefits at other’s expense and most behaviors that we label “altruistic” are willful selfless acts, the common usage misses the use of “selfish” just meaning to take care of oneself—what people now call “self-care” because selfish has a negative connotation—and the use of “altruism” where people say or do things in the name of benefitting others but with shallow intent, which critics now call “virtue signaling” to call out how people are only pretending to be altruistic when it actually costs them nothing.

This latter one is the most interesting because it is something that modern society—e.g., the media, education system, and mainstream political science—seems to take as a given: this idea that everyone has to pay a price for the benefit of the group. But, if we look at the general definition of “non-consensual harm or expense”, we now run into an ethical quandary: is non-consensual expense even for a greater good morally right? We’ve already answered the extreme cases of the non-consensual harm or expense piece, as most modern answers to The Trolley Problem where you could save 100 people by killing one has people say they couldn’t do it and slavery has been abolished. But non-consensual harm and expense of lesser degrees start to have moral ambiguity to them. Would you punch someone in the face to save someone’s life? Probably. Would you steal medicine to save someone’s life? Likely.

And this brings us to the ethical quandary of being in a position of authority—whether politically or in a school or any other area where you have control over others—when you get to decide the costs and benefits that others pay or receive. The reason why a free-market system has thrived for so many years is that you let individuals determine what they’re willing to spend for what benefit, and all interactions become consensual and, therefore, ethical as long as there was no deception involved (yes, the problem that most people have today has to do with deception—again, outside the scope of this post). But more and more people want to control others’ costs and benefits by popular vote, suggesting that this is ethical as long as everyone contributes and benefits equally.

And this is what this post is about: “the greater good” argument is, effectively, one that leads people to use force to “benefit everyone at everyone’s expense”, but in reality some people will always benefit more and so, therefore, that additional benefit will be disproportionately paid for by the people who benefit less. Examples include taxes, all-you-can-eat buffets, stadiums, insurance, and all-inclusive resorts.

Some of these examples are consensual, as anyone who chooses to go to a buffet or resort know that if they don’t eat or drink as much they will theoretically be getting less “value” than someone who eats or drinks more. They voluntarily do this because maybe they want to eat a lot or eat an array of foods and so it’s more economical for themselves to eat even if they eat less than others. Or maybe there is an intangible value to knowing your total up front or not having to deal with nickel-and-dime expenses throughout the experience. Either way, they except the cost/benefit ratio and are okay if others benefit more or less than them.

So what about the non-consensual ones? Taxes, stadiums, mandatory insurance, etc. In a rough 50/50 split voting environment that some modern countries have, the extreme case of “democracy gone wrong” is that 50.1% of the vote that wins can now set laws regardless of what the 49.9% of people wanted—even at their expense. In an only-barely-hypothetical example, one half of the country could vote to tax the other half of the country while they pay nothing. The real example of “everyone pays, few benefit” is the sports stadium, as citizens of cities will pay thousands of dollars in taxes to build a stadium that they may never visit (and then have to pay on top of that for the privilege of entering it to boot!). A “greater good” argument is always made that it will be good for tourism and commerce, thus benefitting the city as a whole through greater economic activity. And that might be true…but is it ethical to force the non-consenting voters to pay that tax for a stadium that will have zero visible benefit to them? Some benefit at their expense, which under the general ethical statement is immoral.

The point of this post is not to change your political viewpoint or make you hate stadiums but to consider the one ethical issue that people often don’t notice: selfishness posing as altruism. The most extreme example of this is depicted in the movie Hot Fuzz where (minor spoiler alert) the leaders of the town keep chanting “for the greater good” when they make any decision only to be shown to have an ulterior motive (which I won’t spoil here) the whole time. But this happens much more frequently in modern times and has become easily weaponized by master orators and manipulators to dupe people who are familiar with the social stigma of selfishness but not familiar with the subtle social pressures to spend money, vote, or comply with others’ rules or wishes under the guise of social welfare but secretly for personal gain. And this behavior is dangerous because it feels righteous and worth it—after all, you’d punch someone in the face to save 10 people’s lives or steal a loaf of bread to keep someone from starving—but it comes at an ethical price.

Is it right to make everyone (i.e., other people) pay for things that you might advocate for publicly, such as beaches, parks, stadiums, statues, schools, childcare, abortions, or other things that benefit some much more than others? It’s not for me to say via this medium, but it should be much more openly, honestly discussed that the morality of selfishness and altruism is about non-consensual expense and not just because someone cares more about their own well-being (we all do). And advocating for others’ benefit has no moral questions because it is strictly voluntary, but advocating for force for seemingly altruistic reasons but really being an everyone-pays-few-benefit system is an “ends justify the means” argument that is not as righteous as it seems.

“The greater good” is at odds with “non-consensual harm or expense” ethics in this regard, and therefore you (and society as a whole) have to determine whether an “evolved” society’s ethics falls more on the side of no one having to do anything they don’t willingly do anymore or on the side of having to do things for others because everyone should pay to help those in need, prevent bad things from happening, and promote social welfare and publicly available services. There are no easy answers—and you can have 100 people and 120 opinions—but how you answer this will go a long way in your ethical worldview and resulting behavior.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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