For The Greater Good!

Today it’s a quick question about having giving NPC’s more complex motives – in particular, about having “Good” characters doing horrible-seeming things in pursuit of “the greater good“.

When you consider it, that’s actually a pretty serious question, and goes a long ways into philosophy. There have been debates over this sort of thing for centuries. Still, we have two observable facts:

People often justify questionable actions as being “for the greater good”.

Rarely does anyone ask how they know that.

Are they capable of determining all future consequences of any given action throughout eternity, of comparing them to the results of all other possible courses of action through eternity, of assigning objective values to all of those consequences, of adjusting those values to account for the probability of them actually occurring, summing them up for each possible course of action, and then comparing those sums to see what course of action actually results in the greater good?

I’ll employ a tired rhetorical device here and give you a hint. Barring perfect knowledge of the total current state and rules governing the cosmos, either the elimination of all uncertainty which may be built into those rules or the ability to successfully calculate the probabilities of all possible outcomes, high-order transfinite errorless computational capacity capable of completing all possible operations within a very limited amount of time, and a perfect ability to implement a course of action which will differ from less optimal courses of action by an infinitesimal quantity, the answer would be “No”.

(If the answer is “Yes”… then there’s no point in talking about it; the universe has been en route for the optimal available outcome as defined by whoever-it-is since the moment they developed this ability, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it anyway).

It doesn’t help that whether or not particular events and outcomes are “good” or not is often a matter of opinion. Which is better? To grow up and become a strong, independent, being or to be perpetually loved and happy in fluffy-cuddle land? To be a little less strong and independent but never suffer any serious pain, or to suffer a few serious pains and learn from them? Aren’t ALL those things “good”? After all, there’s nothing inherently “good” about growth; both trees and tumors grow. Similarly, most people would say that learning how to do CPR is a good thing, while learning how to evade detection as a serial killer is a bad thing – but they’re both learning.

“For the greater good” is a high-order abstraction. With a little verbiage and the user’s choice of predicted outcomes it can be used to justify pretty much anything you want.

You have ten thousand delightfully good little kids? If they grow up a sizable number of their souls will inevitably be lost to eternal torment in hell, but if they die now, they automatically go to eternal bliss in heaven and only you will go to hell. As a servant of the greater good, it is thus your clear duty to kill as many of them as possible; the more you kill, the greater the good.

“The greater good” can take us from “Paragon of Virtue” to “Mass Murderer of Children” in three sentences – and saying “that’s ridiculous!” won’t refute the logic, or the fact that history is full of actions carried out with even thinner rationales. High order abstractions are always treacherous. Anyone who isn’t omniscient who justifies their actions by claiming that they’re “for the greater good” is either…

1) Lying. To be more through, they are attempting to disguise the application of their own assumptions and desires as some marvelous omniscient knowledge that they possess and that the people objecting to their actions do not. In almost all cases they will offer the “greater good” justification in an attempt to silence objections via a false claim of moral superiority. Secondarily it shows their contempt for whoever they are talking to, since the implicit assumption is that the victim will be too stupid to spot the obvious lie. Given that this is a pretty warped view of reality to begin with, that takes us to…

2) Insane – as in not comprehending that claiming to know that something is “for the greater good” is (again, barring omniscience) blatantly inherently false. No matter what the discernible short-term costs or benefits of a course of action may be, the person making such a claim cannot know whether or not it will be “for the greater good” in the long term. Even worse, it follows that – since you know what will result in “the greater good” – that you must be in charge, are indispensable, and always know best even if you have just been proven to be wrong. That’s often called a “Messiah Complex”, but it also neatly fits a common definition of a psychopath:

Psychopath. Noun: A person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, difficulty with and/or undervaluing personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, and failure to learn from experience.


3) Too stupid to realize what they are doing – and you have to be REALLY thick for this one, to the point where your “reasons” are likely to be incoherent. Characters like this are mostly comic relief rather than effective opponents though.

So no. By most standards, a “good guy” will not be justifying his actions as being “for the greater good”. Like it or not, that’s the claim of a liar or a madman, neither of which is generally considered “good”. If someone is doing horrible things and self-justifies them as being “for the greater good” – then they are an insane villain.

Sure, “kill one person to save ten” sounds logical and simple – but it’s really “I could kill this one person and – barring unknown factors – it looks like it will save ten, but I could be wrong about that, or I might be able to save them anyway, but I don’t have limitless time to figure this out – so I’ll go with whatever sloppy, instinct-driven, conclusion my error-prone brain throws up quickly enough and I will rationalize or agonize over it later”.

An actual good guy will admit that they don’t know the ultimate outcome of their actions. That they’re relying on their own assumptions about what is “good”. That their “principles” are simply rules of thumb that they would like to believe will lead to “better” results by their personal standards in the long run – and that they could well be wrong.

That’s why a genuine good guy will try to refrain from causing harm NOW to avoid possible harm in the future. Present harm is definite, while future harm is always speculative – and becomes increasingly speculative as the time involved increases. There are times that they’ll wind up doing it anyway – but any given newborn MIGHT wind up growing up to kill millions, and yet most of us would say that that is not sufficient justification for preemptively killing them. That speculative future harm had better seem very likely indeed, and be very large indeed, to provoke a genuine “good guy” into hurting people now rather than seeking another solution.

Now we know why most people find themselves rather doubtful and suspicious when the phrase “the greater good” starts getting tossed around. They may not have actually analyzed why they feel that something is wrong about it – but somewhere down there they quite rightly suspect that it’s a lie that’s being used to justify someone’s personal agenda when they don’t actually have a convincing reason.

Sure, someone claiming to act reprehensibly for “the greater good” may indeed wind up doing good within the scope of whatever kind of evaluation you make – but they are still a manipulative liar or a madman, and that generally (in most people’s opinion anyway) disqualifies them from being a good guy or hero.

If you really want a misguided hero, or one who’s actually “right” in doing reprehensible things… use a concrete, relatively immediate, and local goal. If it’s “I want to keep as many of the colonists as possible alive – but we only have enough food to keep a fraction of the population alive through the winter, and even in the spring it’s going to be so rough and dangerous that it will take several adults to keep a single child alive”, then one can arguably be good while issuing an order to “round up most of the kids and all the elderly, kill them before we waste any more resources on them, and eat the corpses”.

Of course now we’re weighing slightly greater numbers of survivors against psychological damage to those same survivors, the future social consequences of issuing such an order, the ecological damage resulting from a new colony, and so on. Don’t ask me how that balances out because I don’t know – and neither will the poor guy in command.

And for an “opposing” point of view from Dark Lord Kevin about being evil…

Now then! It’s time to teach you the proper ways to be evil! Evil is characteristic of young and inexperienced souls, who do not yet understand how it ultimately leads to unhappiness! To keep evil around there must be lots of kids! They have to breed to produce more kids! To produce the maximum number of offspring they must be happy, healthy, well-fed, and uninhibited! The sick, and dying, and deceased have no time to be evil – so you need to keep them healthy, and long-lived, and alive! My Thralls are treated very well, and get lots of power, and recreation facilities, and so on, so that everyone will know that, and I can continue to pull in ever more Thralls who want the same benefits to bind them to my evil power! If you do not show them the light, then they can’t meaningfully choose partying over it! And that is why feeding the hungry, rescuing the lost, housing and warming the cold, teaching the young, and showing them the light are some of the MOST EVIL THINGS YOU CAN POSSIBLY DO! BEHOLD MY MAGNIFICENT EVIL! And I can’t allow other evils than mine! That’s COMPETITION that is!

“Dark Lord Kevin” runs about performing rescues, settling conflicts, protecting threatened settlements, providing medical aid, famine relief, and housing, promoting trade and prosperity, and offering immense benefits for any youngster who wishes to take a term of service with him and do the same – all the while cheerily explaining why all of those things promote evil as much or more as they do good at the same time.

And that doesn’t make him any less a hero in the game. Just as explaining how it’s for “the greater good” wouldn’t make our theoretical mass-murderer of children any less a villain.

“The Greater Good” is a pretty evil idea.


6 Responses

  1. “Evil is characteristic of young and inexperienced souls, who do not yet understand how it ultimately leads to unhappiness!”

    That… doesn’t seem necessarily true.
    If I were evil and wanted to be happy, the only thing I’d need would be:
    1d6 Mana 6 CP
    1 Use of Channeling Negative Energy 3 CP
    Conversion (Song of Orpheus + 3 Emotion-spells) 15 CP
    (Corrupted: Needs 1 Mana to use; Specialized: Deals 1 Wisdom Burn* and staggers the character)
    25 Conversion-Specialized base caster levels (just in case) 50 CP
    (Corrupted: Magic is obviously alien in nature, like a number lords hexes)
    Immunity to Aging (Uncommon, Severe, Great) 18 CP
    Immunity: Normal Bodily Needs (Very Common, Severe, Major) 18 CP

    So for 110 CP, you can be perfectly happy, technically forever, no matter what means you employed to get there, by setting Song of Orpheus to “happy” and blast yourself every 24-25 hours. The resources you expended will regenerate every day (namely 1 Mana, 1 Channeling use and 1 natural ability score healing), so you can keep this up forever.

    *Ability Burn is a status in the SRD used by the “Psychometabolism”-Power. It’s attribute damage you can only heal naturally. Overuse it and… well, if yo don’t find a way to accelerate your natural healing, you’ll forever have that negative.

    • It was Psychofeedback, not Psychometabolism.

      • I suppose you could do the same thing with Immunity to Becoming Unhappy, or possibly even an Accursed disadvantage (due to the likely conflict with having a motivation to do much of anything).

        Of course Kevin’s (thoroughly self-serving) little speech was just an example of how how – with enough words – you can justify virtually anything in terms of almost any moral code. Kevin just likes to claim to be evil. It helps keep people from asking for stuff…

        While it’s not really relevant, Kevin’s notion of “evil” (behaviors that seek personal satisfaction in a single, or relatively small, number of lifetimes while having a long-term negative impact on the environment in which the individual in question will be reincarnating for the next few billion years) is a product of his culture’s computerized and highly technical educational systems.He did manage to throw that annoying paladin for a loop with that little speech though.

      • …Wouldn’t that mean that Kevin himself would also need perfect knowledge of the total current state and rules governing the cosmos, either the elimination of all uncertainty which may be built into those rules or the ability to successfully calculate the probabilities of all possible outcomes, high-order transfinite errorless computational capacity capable of completing all possible operations within a very limited amount of time, and a perfect ability to implement a course of action which will differ from less optimal courses of action by an infinitesimal quantity to properly call something “truly evil” then?

      • It would if he wasn’t more interested in being self-serving and annoying than in strict accuracy.

        Sadly, word has gotten around and poor Kevin has a hard time getting anyone to take his “Evil” seriously any longer.

  2. […] the real world clearing some forest is good for some types of creatures, bad for others, and will have ongoing effects, both knowable and unknowable, on the environment, the world, and the human population, that will […]

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