What is the Greater Good?

train

There is a tale of a drawbridge keeper who operated a drawbridge which extended out over a deep chasm. Each day a train carrying travelers would pass over this chasm and he was there to ensure the drawbridge was lowered for their safe passage. One day the drawbridge keeper asked his son to accompany him to the drawbridge so that they might spend the day together. That day there were 3 trains that would pass over the chasm and the first 2 passed by as scheduled. Both times the father was able to demonstrate the working of the drawbridge for his son and they would watch the travelers pass by. “Oh father, how their safety depends on you.” said the son as he peered over into the deep chasm. “Yes, my son” the drawbridge keeper replied, “it is my duty to remain here to lower this drawbridge for them or they would surely plummet into the chasm and perish”.

The day passed on and soon the sound of the final train was heard in the near distance. The drawbridge keeper quickly made his way to his station to lower the drawbridge. As he prepared to lower the drawbridge he heard the cries of his son. The boy had climbed down to the area where the mechanical gears turned to lower the drawbridge. Somehow his foot had become lodged in one of the gears and he could not free himself. He began to call out to his father to help free him. As the drawbridge keeper realized where his son was, his soul filled with terror. To continue with lowering the drawbridge would cause his son to be pulled in by the gears crushing him to death. If he climbed down to free his son from the gears he would not be able to lower the drawbridge. This would guarantee the death of all the travelers for any moment they would plunge in the chasm. The fate of his son as well as that of hundreds of unsuspecting travelers rested upon this drawbridge keeper. Regardless of his decision, as a father or as a drawbridge keeper he would be the harbinger of death this day.

Whether through philosophy or religion, it is likely you have heard this tale before. In a religious context it serves as an allegory to the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ (though there is noticeable theological discrepancy). In a philosophical context, this tale is used to demonstrate a position (or positions) and the corresponding affects that result from a particular ideology. Specifically, this tale serves as a fitting catalyst for the discussion of Deontology. Deontology is a philosophy of viewing actions based on how they fit within the boundaries of rules that determine if the actions are right or wrong. Restated, Deontology is submission to a system of rules which are enforced by an individual’s duty and obligation. The etymology for this philosophy’s name is found in 2 Greek words: Deon (Duty) and Logos (Science/Study). A central figure to this philosophy is Immanuel Kant, who maintained that people have an obligation to always obey rules of duty and obligation. It is never acceptable, regardless of any positive outcome that might result, to venture beyond these established rules.

Immanuel Kant declared that the moral codes of a duty or obligation must be obeyed without any thought. For example, lying that could result in the saving  of someone’s life would be absolutely forbidden. The lie must be avoided and the life must be lost. Obviously that is an extreme example but it literally conveys the essence of Deontology. In direct opposition to Deontology is a philosophy known as Consequentialism; this set of ethics establishes the morality of actions based on the results they can produce. Simply put Deontology is about adherence to Duty and Consequentialism is about adherence to doing what some consider Right (or the Greater Good). During the Holocaust, a family lying to prevent Nazis from arresting the Jews they secretly hid would be acceptable in light of Consequentialism. The preservation of the Jew’s lives would be considered the greater good; it would be valued higher than the moral failure of lying.

In consideration of the tale found at the beginning of this commentary, what influence could Deontology or Consequentialism have on its outcome? There are always exceptions, but what parent would sacrifice their child for the lives of strangers? Its possible those without children would not identify with this as strongly as those who are parents – but what is right? Kant’s position would say his duty was to his role as a drawbridge keeper – but the drawbridge keeper also had a duty as a father. How can the greater good be extracted from such a horrible situation? What if we replace the drawbridge keeper’s son with an individual of ‘less importance’? What if a person unknown to the drawbridge keeper had wondered down into the area and become trapped in the mechanical gears? Does the paradigm shift?

Only a fool would take pleasure in the chance to stand as judge, jury, and executioner in things pertaining to the greater good. In closing, I invite your response to this commentary.  What duty does the drawbridge keeper have? What is the greater good? What would you do?

Copyright © 2012 J.M. Cortés

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