Individuals, Collectivities, And Teleological Traps


First I ascertained that the class members were unanimously in favor of progress. Then I sprang the first of my traps:

“What is progress? How can you distinguish developments that constitute progress from developments that don’t?”

The students were stunned by the question. Doesn’t everybody know what progress is? was the modal reply. I responded “If you’re one of ‘everybody,’ then define it for me.”

Not one student was willing to take a swing at the question. So I set my second trap:

“This is a basic scientific calculator. I bought it last year for less than $30 at Radio Shack. But twenty years earlier, a calculator that would do somewhat less cost nearly $120. Who here would say that that reduction in the price of such power you can hold in your hand constitutes progress?”

Every hand went which point I sprang the trap:

“Now what if I were to tell you that that price reduction was made possible by enslaving a million men to make calculators for nothing but bread and water and a place on the floor to sleep? Would you still think it’s progress?”

The room buzzed with a welter of objections and qualifications. Of course, the students’ previous willingness to endorse the price drop as progress was founded on the assumption that the process that brought it about was morally acceptable. When that assumption had been invalidated, they were no longer of that opinion.

After a couple more examinations of the processes that had driven developments that we could all agree were progress on their faces, we examined Kevin Cullinane’s famous definition of progress:

Progress is:
1. The improved satisfaction of human needs and desires,
2. Morally,
3. And with less input.

However, though the class was willing to accept that definition as suitable, its implications eluded them for a few minutes more.


In speaking of a course of action that, in isolation from all else, seemed to have violated some moral precept, we often hear the words justify and justification. These words share a common root, which is also the root of the word justice: the Latin word ius, which means right or just. The Romans, one of the first of the classical cultures to promulgate a legal code that (supposedly) applied to all men regardless of their station, were serious about their conception of rights and justice. They held those things to be gifts from the gods, never to be questioned, the unchallengeable premises beneath every argument about the acceptability of any action of individuals, groups, or the State.

In installing the concept of unquestionable principles of right and justice at the base of their thinking, Roman legal thinkers laid the groundwork for nearly all sound ethical philosophy. It was their paramount contribution to Western thought. Even Aristotle, before them the foremost thinker on ethical subjects, had not attempted so bold a stroke.

The key to the matter was the unimpeachable supremacy of moral precepts – the impossibility of overturning them with a utilitarian argument. That postulate invalidates, a priori and with prejudice, any attempt to justify an immoral means to some “beneficial” end.

My listeners were stunned. How could it be that simple? Quite a number were willing to argue the point. They proposed several examples of seemingly immoral actions that nevertheless conduced to “the greater good.”

When one student cited the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I smiled and said “Thank you. Wartime examples are the toughest sort, and that one might be the toughest of all. But we’ll come back to it later.” For I had a third trap to set and spring:

“Everyone here agreed, a few minutes ago, that the price drop in calculators is a good thing – that as long as no immoral means like enslavement was needed to bring it about, it constitutes progress. But believe it or not, not everyone agrees with you.”

And I mentioned the Amish, the Mennonites, and the convictions of secular Luddites.


I’ll make this story a bit shorter by saying that we proceeded to cover the distinctions between actions undertaken by individuals and those undertaken by collectivities; the distinction between freely chosen actions and actions imposed upon one by force or circumstance; and the stupendous range of priorities among men. It was a lively discussion, with many a marginal quibble. Yet we remained agreed on the validity of the Cullinane definition of progress, while nevertheless allowing that individuals’ notions about their needs and desires can vary greatly.

The final consensus was that individual actions must be justified according to fixed rules of right and justice – that no man nor government can justify murder, kidnapping, theft, fraud, or perjury by arguing that it was for “the greater good.” Yet we agreed that there are situations in which we cannot judge individuals as individuals, for those situations force us to act as a collectivity – and that war provides many such situations. A nation’s strategic and tactical choices during a war require a different standard, one that might not be so easy to determine in the aftermath.

My closing comments to the class:

“So it’s possible, at least in clear cases of who did what to whom, to say this action was just while that one was unjust, but it’s not so easy to play Monday morning quarterback about the actions of enforced collectivities, such as nations in wartime. This is an important cleavage. What does it imply?”

There was a brief silence. Presently one young woman raised her hand:

“That we should avoid collectivities that aren’t absolutely necessary?”

I smiled and said “Thank you for thinking along with me.”

All reasoning of any sort must embody some set of premises. The Western cultures largely agree on the premises of the Enlightenment, most important among them the Rights of Man. Despite that, we hear endless “justifications” for deeds that are plainly an offense against someone’s rights on the grounds that they were “necessary.” Necessary according to whom? Whose “need” was served, and at whose cost? “Greater good” claims are of the same sort, as there has never been (and will never be) unanimous agreement on what constitutes “the greater good.”

Yet the principle of inviolable individual rights, like all principles, has a domain of applicability, outside which it produces perverse results. David Friedman illustrates the bounds of that domain with several pithy examples in his book The Machinery of Freedom. Here’s one:

A madman is about to open fire on a crowd; if he does so, numerous innocent people will die. The only way to prevent him is to shoot him with a rifle that is within reach of several members of the crowd. The rifle is on the private property of its legitimate owner. He is a well known misanthrope who has publicly stated on numerous occasions that he is opposed to letting anyone use his rifle without his permission, even if it would save hundreds of lives.

Clearly, you grab the rifle, kill the madman, and deal with the legal consequences later, when a jury of your peers will have to gauge your nominally illegal action against the lives you probably saved. Here’s another, more germane to warfare:

Suppose we are threatened with military conquest by a particularly vicious totalitarian government; if the conquest is successful we shall all lose most of our freedom and many of us will lose our lives. It is claimed that only a draft can protect us. Two [non-coercive] replies are possible. The first is that since coercion is always wrong we should reject the draft whatever the consequences…The other possible reply is to deny that the draft is necessary.

But if the draft is necessary – an arguable point in most cases, but not necessarily in all such – neither of those responses will yield a satisfactory result, neither for those who would have accepted the draft nor for those who were opposed to it!

And the third example, this time not from Friedman but from the Twentieth Century via Fran Porretto:

An aggressor nation ruled by a military clique absolutely unwilling to concede defeat short of the credible prospect of national annihilation remains armed and resisting fiercely in the very last stages of a long and bloody war. You can see two ways to conclude hostilities victoriously: you can use A-bombs on two cities heavy with military industry, or you can mount a ground invasion likely to cost hundreds of thousands of casualties among your forces.

Individuals and private, voluntary organizations must avoid the teleological trap of seeking “progress” at the expense of justice. Sometimes, an unavoidable collectivity such as a nation simply can’t.


images via shutterstock /  ashrafexano / INTERPIXELS