One of the most common pieces of rhetoric I hear is what I’ll call the “greater good” fallacy – though it comes in many forms. You even hear it in football circles when people refer to this mysterious and supernatural force called “the good of the game”. Outside of football it’s “the good of society”, but it’s all variations on a theme: some transcendent higher cause external and beyond us. “Us” of course can only mean some limited number of individuals, you and me.
Here’s an example of this nonsense in action. The details are irrelevant here and I’m paraphrasing: a football manager recently was denied permission to speak to another club who wanted to hire him, which they had every right to do. He resigned, but they rejected his resignation. One commenter essentially said: ‘yes he has a contract there and yes they have the right to reject approaches for him under contract, but at some point you have to think about what the manager wants and what’s best for the game.’ What does that even mean? What is this “game” being referred to? Football. Ok…so what does “football” want? What does “football” like and dislike? What is its favourite meal? Does it like music?
Absurd? Yes I think so too. But notice how this “good of football” rhetoric can be applied to just about anything and make as much sense. In the example above let’s flip the comment to: “yes the manager wants to leave and yes he has a right to resign and accept another job if he wants to, but at some point you have to think about what the club wants and what’s best for the game.”
“A club can in theory pay as much as they like for a player and they can pay that player whatever wages they want…but at some point you have to think about what’s best for football”. Ok, so salary caps then. But hang on a second, couldn’t we just say: “You might not like to see such disproportions in salaries and exorbitant fees exchanging hands over one player…but at some point you have think about what’s best for football.”
Here’s another example: “yes a man has the right over his own mind and body, and yes he has a right over his own property and choices, but at some point you have to think about what’s best for society”, and you can justify taxation. But that exact same sentence could be used to justify conscription or anything else you can think of. (Hell, it could be used to justify cannibalism). And that’s why it’s fallacious: there is no logical connection, no necessarily chain of reasoning from the premise to the conclusion. The “greater good” fallacy rests on an unspoken assumption implicitly accepted by all parties (unless they are shrewd enough to reject the bankrupt ethics at work): that there is actually a higher purpose at work. Even if there were, it would still not necessarily follow that the Higher Purpose™ demanded this, that and the other from us – not without a sound argument. The examples above prove this: you can twist the “good of the game” or “best for football/society/community/whole” to mean whatever you want it to mean. I could say that I don’t expect you to buy beggars on the street meals for the rest of their lives, but at some point you need to think about what’s best for society.
As it happens, there’s no such force at work anyway: there is no Higher Purpose. There is no such thing as the “good of football” and don’t be taken in by the ignorant who spout this rubbish on TV to justify their particular subjective opinion. In football, there are only fans, players and owners, each of whom are individual human beings with their own values. But there is no such thing as a value disconnected from an individual person – and whenever you hear anyone imply differently the alarm bells should be going immediately! Only living entities have values, so when you hear someone talk about a “good” above and beyond any individuals, what they’re really saying is that this thing is value…but to no one in particular!
What do all these “good of the [insert higher purpose higher]” fallacies have in common? What do they play on? As I said above, they rest on the unspoken (and wrong) premise of a value external to us (which is a contradiction in terms). But this is really transparent when we break the assertions down: they all ask for a sacrifice; they work by saying ‘your personal interest might be this…but you must give it up’. And this works because it’s just assumed that a “higher purpose” is necessarily beyond our petty selfish individual values – and this is actually true, in the same way that no one has ever seen the Invisible Pink Unicorn – but it isn’t because she’s invisible! Everything that is a value in this reality is a value to someone. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a value! (Who would value it??) So the only way to get someone to accept this garbage concept of Higher Cause is to define it as being of no personal value. In other words: ‘it’s a Higher Value precisely because you don’t value it.’
Once you understand this fallacy you will see it everywhere, especially in politics. The reason it’s so popular is because if your audience accepts it, you can get them to do anything without any argument. It’s so simple: tell them it’s for a Value they don’t hold, and if they don’t see how that benefits them tell them that’s precisely the point! If it benefited you (i.e. any individual), well, it wouldn’t be “Higher” then would it?!