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.