Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Mistrust of "Societal Good"

I lately find myself cringing when professors and fellow-students invoke the idea of “societal good” to support policies from Euclidean zoning laws to eugenics. We can, so the arguments go, bar the poor from residential areas so that society as a whole will benefit; we can eliminate the mentally retarded because the rest of us will have better lives without them.

Who are the people that belong to this “society” and what gives them the right to enforce these policies’ burdens on other members that have not agreed to accept them? “Society” becomes an independent being, not bound by the policy wishes of its individual members, or even by a democratic determination of “majority will.” Rather, “society” becomes a tool of elite social engineers whose agenda is to enforce the policies they deign “good” without gathering the input of those upon whom the policies are imposed. Society becomes a name-less, face-less entity that represents “the rest of us.”

The law seems replete with images of race-less, face-less, gender-less beings. One need only consider the “reasonable person” standard to confront the abstraction epitomized. When it comes to defining criminal or negligent behavioral standards, the personality-less abstraction is a good thing. Justice must, after all, be blind. However, when these abstractions creep into our social policies and begin to regulate the behavior of people that have committed no wrong, the abstractions work their queer evils. Generally, an individual does not believe he derives benefit from barring a poor family from moving in next door or from killing the human being that is most dependent upon him. But when the good of “society” is invoked as a justification for these things, good people unthinkingly accept the premise that someone else out there must be benefiting from such policies.

I humbly suggest not that readers immediately dismiss arguments based on “societal good” but rather that they press the question further and ask what determines “the good” and what distinguishes “the rest of us” from those bearing the harm of the proposed social policy. In the above examples, “the good” is defined as class segregation or a desire to rid ourselves of the “burden” of caring for the weak among us. What distinguishes “us” from “them” is financial status or mental capacity. If one can be made to bear the brunt of “societal progress” based upon such things, the next logical questions are, “How poor must you be? How smart?” It begins to seem that “we have seen the enemy and they is us.”

When a defender of “societal good” can come up with no better justification than those offered above, perhaps the best response is merely to shudder. It seems the non-reasonable thing to do.


Misha Tseytlin said...

a very interesting and through-provoking post. I would also add that when we are deciding what "societal good" is, we must reject several notions as inconsistent with both our founding (for you Scalia types) and with natural law principles (for you Lincoln types). That is, we just realize that utilitarian justifications that if we sacrifice one person's rights for the benefit of others are not acceptable and are inconsistent with individual rights. our liberal friends seem to understand this in areas like civil liberties, we just need to show them that economic liberties are civil liberties too. our more conservative friends seem to understand this in the area of redistribution, but tend to forget about it when it comes to safety and security. One we realize that the only true social good the government can legitimately aim at is protecting the inalienable rights of life, liberty and property, then we can begin the dialogue anew about what is actually a sacrifice to this good and what is actually a surrender of something we had no right to in the beginning.

Charles Iragui said...

"Society" suffers from multiple unacknowledged meanings rather than simply serving as a codeword for "right-thinking" judges. For instance, "Society" as "majority" strikes me as just as dangerous, especially as it is a euphemism: acting in the name of society gives a veneer of respectability to actions that, if made in the name of the majority, would seem crass. I wonder, though, if society might be an expression with a meaning: a supermajority consisting of the 2 standard deviations from the norm people. We allow decisive majorities, in effect, to amend the Constitution... But if this majority is so overwhelming and so convinced, why is it ashamed of doing just that: amending the Constitution to work its will. Often people are glad of low deeds so long as they don't have to acknowledge them: the Holocaust springs to mind, perhaps in gloomy response to your examples.
Sorry, this is rambling, but I will agree that "society" in any form is an attack on the law: it is a way to make law by appealing to what "everyone knows", rather than to text or precedent or even logic.