The common good matters more than your ‘values’

When I was first introduced to various schools of philosophy, there was one I was almost instantaneously and inevitably drawn to. It’s perhaps not a surprise to learn that it was utilitarianism, focusing on the greatest good for the greatest number of people and creating a society that operates at maximum efficiency. Some people seem to regard this approach as clinically cold, but I’d argue that it’s not, and, in fact, good social justice politics dovetail very well with utilitarianism.

If you believe that quality of life, freedom, and happiness are part of the common good, things that infringe upon those are bad. Tolerating disablist social structures, for example, harms roughly a fifth of the population. Deconstructing them is typically cost-effective and easy to implement, thereby allowing us to efficiently address a serious social problem. Running social services is more efficient than leaving them up to charity or creating a patchwork system through which people fall with an alarming regularity. Creating a social structure that promotes health, happiness, and wellbeing results in better long term outcomes.

Which is why I am so furious that people think they get to dictate how the rest of the society lives on the basis of their ‘values.’ A relatively small number of people have the United States in an iron grasp at the moment, insisting that their personal beliefs are more important than anyone else’s, and, moreover, that society should bow to their will. That it’s more important for them to get their way than for people to live healthy and well-balanced lives. Conservative politics is destroying this country on a social level and on a utilitarian one, making things actively worse for a huge swath of humanity. But conservatives aren’t the only problem.

Take the anti-vaccine movement, which is still going strong despite outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease and an overwhelming amount of evidence indicating that vaccines are safe and effective. This is not an issue of judging people for being ‘wrong,’ but a clear and simple social problem: Disease is not something we want to circulate because it causes suffering, social problems, and long-term social consequences. Ergo, when we can prevent it, it is both reasonable and desirable to address it. Vaccines provide a highly cost-effective way of doing so.

Yet, the ‘values’ of the anti-vaccine people ensured that growing numbers of children weren’t vaccinated, exposing the public to the risk of infections that could be easily prevented. Mandating vaccinations was entirely reasonable, but politicians and officials made vague noises about personal liberties and values and who else knows what, claiming that they couldn’t force people to have vaccines. Yet, we force people to do other things in the interest of the common good — people are compelled to pay taxes, for example, and will be punished if they do not.

Or people agitating to remove abortion services, birth control, and gynecological care from insurance. In some cases, particularly abortion, they’ve already succeeded. Yet, the cost of not providing these services is much, much higher than that of providing them — there’s a strong social argument for ensuring they’re available through insurance, including insurance purchased as an employee benefit from staff members of a corporation. Companies might not like that, but that’s the way it is. Their values shouldn’t trump insurance coverage or dictate policy underwriting.

See also, of course, people insisting that sexual education remain firmly in the dark ages, with few people having access to safe and comprehensive sexual education — most youth in the US are growing up with limited options, forcing them to turn to the internet and other sources for information. Those sources are not necessarily reliable or helpful, and we shouldn’t be encouraging youth to use them without assistance. Erroneous information circulates and becomes gospel, spreads among youth and endangers them.

People insist on restricting access to needed social services and basic rights on the grounds of their ‘morals’ — they tell cities that they want to be able to discriminate against LGBQT employees, they inform regulatory authorities that they want to keep polluting because limitations would restrict their personal freedoms, they want states to use the Bible as an actual guiding document instead of respecting it as a religious text and leaving it at that.

This is a culture where ‘morals’ trump ethics — and the two are distinctly different. Morals are rooted in personal beliefs and should be applied on an individual level. I respect morals that different from my own even if I find them troubling and I don’t want to be subject to them, and especially when they’re used to judge me and turn my identity into something repulsive.

Ethics, on the other hand, are social principles. People can have personal ethical systems, but such systems can also take on a larger social role. Environmental ethics, for example, dictate that pollution is not acceptable because of the harm it causes — there is no greater good in allowing companies to pollute, but there is a collective benefit in controlling the release of hazardous substances. There’s a greater good in preventing disease, in providing children with access to any reading material they please.

This country can and must stand up against the tide of moral panic and indignation, refocusing onto what’s important: Our collective welfare. I may not like everyone in the United States, but I firmly support the belief that we should always be operating in the common good, with an eye to the welfare of everyone.

Image: Joining the community, Susanne Nilsson, Flickr