In this three-part series, The greater good, you and I think together about how our decision-making can reflect the Christian values of empathy and community. Today we take a closer look at some possible complexities.
“Seeking the greater good” can help anchor the decisions we make. An easy way to understand this ideal involves a utilitarian calculation: Determine the best outcomes for the greatest number of people. If you’re confronted with difficult decisions, you simply tote up the relative benefits for each choice and—voila!—your decision is made!
It’s not that simple, is it? Consider this situation, one you may have faced or are facing right now:
Mom’s trying to decide whether to stay in her home, or to move to an independent or assisted living facility. She’s determined to leave an inheritance that’s large enough to benefit her adult children and their families. Staying at home will keep down the costs for her care. Balancing that calculation, though, is the more-difficult matter of her children’s levels of stress, as they try to provide satisfactory levels of support. What’s the greatest good here, her children’s current well-being or their future financial security?
Mom has taken the “not living for yourself” Bible passage to heart—she doesn’t think of this decision as a way to make life better for herself. She’s a loving person—her children come first in her life. But the greater good here can’t be easily calculated just by quantifying benefits. A variety of questions come to mind—for Mom as well as her children:
• How do you measure the effects of stress on a loved one?
• How will the results of her decision play out over time?
• Are there immediate (perhaps hidden) dangers, costs or vulnerabilities in her decision?
• On whom will the weight of unintended consequences lay most heavily?
• Where does “happiness” factor in the decision—hers and her children’s?
• How does she keep (perhaps-unwarranted) guilt pushed to the side?
• What are the benefits and risks of delaying the decisions?
• Whose advice can she most rely on?
This situation—not solved by anything I’ll write here—is an example of how “greater good” thinking can become more difficult as the ramifications of decisions become more complicated—especially in the long-term. The ripples of consequences may be only partially imagined, so risk is present in any decision.
One complicating factor: Who decides what’s the greatest good, for individuals or for our society? If we give over to others the sole responsibility for that determination, we may relinquish not only our own freedoms, but our calling to be God’s leaven in the world.
Another matter: Where does thinking primarily of others’ needs diminish our necessary self-care, health or other matters connected to well-being? Giving away those elements of a full life could subtract from our capabilities to care for others.
Another consideration: Thinking that the greater good is somehow connected to what is most widely accepted, believed or practiced can lead to the “tyranny of the majority”—one way in which dissent, even righteous opposition, can be muffled.
What to do about these complexities? “It’s too hard, so I won’t even try” might be one approach. That seems counter-productive and not at all in keeping with Jesus’ directives. Perhaps we acknowledge the difficulties, and keep taking the risks of trying to live beyond ourselves. An advantage of this approach: Seeking the greater good can serve as an antidote to self-idolatry, a primary cause of much of what’s wrong in the world.
In all of this, we can hold tightly to Jesus’ life and teachings as proof that empathic living is possible. That it’s good and godly.
In the next and final entry in this series, I share some thoughts about how greater-good thinking and living might especially fit older adults.
For an informative assessment of your own beliefs about utilitarian ways of thinking and acting, see the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale (developed by Oxford scholars Guy Kahane, Jim Everett and others) http://www.jimaceverett.com/research/consequentialism/oxford-utilitarianism-scale/