The Greater Good and Its Rivals

Of all the ways to “look at things,” I would like to explore one particular set that is currently bedeviling us. These ways of looking at things are based on value premises that are contradictory, if either is allowed to dominate,  but they can be integrated harmoniously under some circumstances.

One way of looking at things gives priority to “the good of all.” The right thing to do is the thing that will leave everyone better off. The other looks at the achievement of personal goals. Succeeding at what you are trying to do is not only invigorating, it is primal. We would not have gotten to this point in our history without it.

I know this is an argument that has been going on for a long time, but I keep stubbing my toe on it in casual conversation, so I thought I’d examine it again.

See now 1983

I ran into this in a new and unforgettable form in 1983. I was legislative assistant to arationale 1 newly elected State Representative (House District #1 in Oregon) [1] He thought I was politically naive (which was certainly true, although not in the way he thought) so he would bring me into the office from time to time and ask me a question. I thought it felt a good bit like a catechism. The question was, “What is a good idea?” The correct answer was, “Sixteen and 31.” [2] So, roughly, if you can sell it to a majority, it’s a good idea. [3]

And he was right about me in a way. I was much more vulnerable than I am now to the idea that proposed legislation that would be beneficial to everyone ought to be passed on the grounds that it would be beneficial to everyone. There is a “we” in there. It is a category we all belong to and by pulling together, we can achieve great things. What I discovered, over and over, was that people who were being asked to vote for something [4] needed to see that it was in their interest, somehow, to vote for it. The question, always implicit and sometimes also explicit, was, “Why would I do that?” The answer, “Because it’s the right thing to do” was nearly always thought to be inadequate.

The lesson I learned, that has served me on beyond the legislative context is that people, by and large, join movements that are in their interest. When you explain to them what voting yes will do for something they already care about, they are perfectly willing to go along. I might say, inventing the context just for this example, “It will help a lot of school children and it will free up money for the irrigation subsidies you have been proposing.” When he stands up on the floor and votes “Aye,” I am thinking of the school children and he is thinking about the irrigation machinery, but the Clerk of the House just records the vote as “Aye.”

Is there really a tradeoff?

Not necessarily. Sometimes actions taken for personal reasons have the effect of benefitting the whole system. The the rationales and clearly incompatible. Adam Smith, the foundational economist (see illustration below), tried to marry to two motivations by inventing an “Invisible Hand,” (the capital letters are supposed to suggest a deity) with will transform actions taken by individuals for their own benefit into a pattern of outcomes that are good for everyone. According to Smith’s rationale, what is done for private gain has the effect of producing public benefit.

It’s a very attractive argument, but capitalism, the economic system he was justifying, doesn’t actually work the to benefit of all. It works to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. It is, in that way, like evolution, where progress is made on the corpses of all the species whose adaptation was comparatively inadequate. So the less good adaptors failed to the benefit of the better adaptors and that is how good things happened. The new modern giraffe with the long neck wins and thousands of almost-giraffes with less long necks, die.


So let’s say I want to propose a new plant-based menu for the CCRC [5] where I live. I could start with the “It’s the right thing to do” arguments and I could produce studies that show how much better everyone will be if they accept the new plant-based menu. My interest in bringing this example up has nothing to do with food; it has to do with rationales.

rationale 4People who like more “meat” [6] will wonder why they should shift from a menu they like to a menu they do not like. That seems to me a reasonable question. There is a good tight relationship between the preferences of the resident carnivores and their meal choices. They like to eat meat and so they choose meat dishes from the menu. The counterargument, that they really should have different preferences than the ones they do have, will sound faint to their ears and if it persists, it will become annoying. Doing what you like to do—provided that it is not illegal, immoral, or fattening—is your right.

Notice how taut the line is kept between my preferences and my chosen actions. It is hard to ignore that. Note how loose the line is between the overall benefits that will come to all the residents of the CCRC and my nightly experience of dinner. From the standpoint of the rationales alone, the more immediate one, the personal one, will always win out and the system advantages will always be foregone.

It’s the Tragedy of the Commons (again) but with attention paid this time only to the rationales being used.

Overcoming Resistance

Anyone who has ever tried it has learned that telling people that they ought to feel differently than they do feel is an exercise in futility. People quite rightly object that they feel the way they feel about the matter at hand and they intend to pursue the course of action that feeling indicates. If they like eating meat, for instance, they would have to be given a reason for not eating it that is so cogent and so immediate and so personal that they will act in some way that their feelings so not dictate at the moment,.

Is there a solution?

Of course. All we need to do is to set up a system in which the behaviors (and subsequently, the hearts and minds) are those that are in the public interest. In the well-known case of grazing your cattle on the commons, you refuse to graze more than “your share, ” that if you do it, others will do it and the common grazing area will be destroyed. This is not one of those capitalist moments where private knowing greed is supposed to produce the common good. Nor is it reasonable to expect a given owner to refuse to enrich himself by grazing more than his share of the commons. The fact is that some will and others will not.

rationale 5So neither rationale—neither do the right thing nor do what you want to do—is going to work here. What works, instead, is an approach toCommon Pool Resources (CPR), such as Elinor Ostrom considers in her 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. . In Törbel, Switzerland, for instance they live with the possibility of private overgrazing at public cost and they deal with it. How? First, they inculcate the attitudes that will make voluntary compliance the normal thing. [7] Second, they rely on all the members of the association to monitor and report infractions. The association also hires people to monitor infractions, but they are not expected to do all the work, only to supplement the work the residents do. Third, they punish violators with both disapproval of their neighbors and with financial penalties.

I surveyed the two rationales above. This is neither, in a way, because it is both. It emphasizes the value of preserving the common resources, on the one hand, and on avoiding the punishments that the neighbors and law enforces would levy. [8] The first is systemic and remote; the second personal and immediate.


Either kind of rationale, taken alone, has deficiencies. Telling people [9] that “they really oughta wanna,” which is the way the systemic solutions are most often marketed, doesn’t work very often, and it annoys the target audience. [10] Telling people that you understand that they have to do whatever they think is in their own interest, is an easy sell, but is disastrous to the system. Building structures that encourage people to make choices that sustain the system and that identify and punish choices that selfishly harm the system is very promising. I am not quite sure whether it would work at the CCRC where I live, but I think people should adopt it anyway because…you know…it’s the right thing to do.

[1] I proposed that we devise a mural for the small bulletin board that faced the hallway outside our cubicle. It would have pictures from various settings proclaiming “We’re number 1!” Football teams, banks, insurance companies, soft drinks, whatever. Then we would say that what is a claim for them is a simple fact for us. We are, in fact, #1. I was not able to sell the idea and it still disappoints me a little.
[2] Those would be majority votes in the 30-member Senate and the 60 member house.
[3] I don’t really think he believed that. I think he thought it was a useful corrective for me.
[4] Or to lobby for it or to support it or to contribute money to people who are promising to vote for it—I’m putting all those in the same category.
[5] A Continuing Care Retirement Community, in my case, Holladay Park Plaza in Portland, Oregon.
[6] For purposes of convenience, any food a vegan would reject will be considered “meat.”
[7] Obviously, this works only for a closed system, so all the members of the association are alert for incursions into their pastures by outsiders.
[8] Please note: violators are not told to go back to where they came from. They pay their fines; they may or may not demonstrate a public penitence; and then life goes on.
[9] Robert Mager and Peter Pipe have written a very good book with a world class subtitle. The title—informative if not imaginative—is Analyzing Performance Problems. But the subtitle includes the phrase “you really oughta wanna,” which I think captures the dilemma of the first motivation taken alone.
[10] I chose that particular phrasing for the benefit of Mark Twain fans. You know who you are.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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