What is “The Greater Good?” To get a real, empirical look at the concept, one would have to travel back to the year 1945. Anyone who was alive then would be around 75 years old today, and those truly cognizant of the world’s affairs at the time would be over 90 in our present year of 2020—a small sliver of the American populace. 1945 is significant in that it heralded the end of the Second World War, and also the beginning of our long estrangement from the greater good.
Open up your news source of choice and you will likely find any one of many opinion pieces maligning those who are selfishly trying to go forward with their lives, potentially spreading the novel coronavirus at the expense of their fellow citizens. Many of the authors illuminate some truly questionable behavior and frame it in terms that seem very clear to them, even if some of the readership may be confused—or perhaps preoccupied with employment concerns or unpayable bills.
With so much at stake, how could there be such a deep gulf separating the sides of this conflict? Could it be that millions of Americans are inherently evil? I refuse to believe that. It seems overly simplistic.
“Do what you can, for the greater good.” That appears easy enough to understand. So what is the problem? The problem is that the phrase “The Greater Good” no longer holds any currency in our society. It is as indecipherable as The Lascaux Cave Paintings, or ancient hieroglyphics once were, and as valuable as a three-dollar bill. If you ask a million Americans what the phrase actually means, and how it pertains to our current struggle, you will get a million different answers. Unfortunately, it’s once-universal meaning has been lost to time.
No doubt, many people don’t really grasp the virility and severity of COVID-19, and countless others gave up on the discipline of mathematics when the lines started bending, rendering references to exponential growth useless. There is also the debate as to what is actually best for the greater good (that discussion will be left to epidemiologists and economists, not armchair sociologists). What is overlooked in this stew of ambivalence is that some people have simply fallen out of the practice of thinking of others, and some, consciously or not, no longer care.
After the end of WWII, America entered an era of economic production and prosperity that furthered our ability to indulge our individuality. We sped away from the shared sacrifice and civic responsibilities that defeated the Axis Powers, and towards a future of plenty, without the aforementioned burdens. If that new mentality wasn’t blameless, it was certainly understandable. As it became easier to procure all that one needed for oneself, the survival instincts of reciprocity and communal behavior slowly, then quickly (I’m looking at you 1960s), faded from our minds. Even altruistic thinkers couldn’t deny that in most cases, others could also procure all that they needed for themselves as well. It wasn’t very long before only the most devout humanitarians and religious adherents held onto these collective virtues; over the decades, their numbers also decreased.
As a result, many Americans are simply out of practice when it comes to thinking of others, or thinking of the collective well-being of our society. Even if the consequences are more severe, the mechanics at play are no different from losing the ability to consistently make a jump-shot, or to fluidly converse in a foreign language. There is no malice involved, just rust. Already there are stories of great generosity and selflessness that indicate that a potential reversal of the hyper-individualistic mentality might be on the horizon.
On the other hand, the second half of America’s post-war boom has not been as evenly distributed as the first, and this has caused a fair bit of resentment. Terms like wage stagnation, generational strife, and income inequality are not just mediaspeak; they also serve as reminders of the darker side of the past few decades. For many Americans, the call to act in service of the greater good likely rings hollow, and for a few it might even be insulting. Millions of workers once dependent on meager wages are now expected to forgo work altogether, so that they do not risk infecting others who might become gravely ill. Without a social safety net, and likely without savings as they live paycheck to paycheck, the expectation is that they will sacrifice their last shreds of economic independence for the salvation of a few. Is it that hard to imagine that there are people who scoff at this call to duty, wondering where the greater good has been hiding for the past thirty years when they might have benefitted from it?
Likewise, it seems far less inconceivable that millenials would be so cavalier and partake in spring break revelry when faced with bleak and worsening, future prospects. Burdened with crippling debt and constantly reminded by elder generations that “the world owes you nothing,” could it be possible that a small segment has finally taken that message to heart? Whether a conscious choice, or just an adapted indifference, not everyone in today’s America cares about the greater good at all. Looking at the predicament with an objective eye, it is not hard to see why.
Maybe the best strategy to convince social distancing holdouts and virus—vacation delinquents is not to self-righteously shame them into compliance through use of a phrase that carries little resonance in 2020. Perhaps it would be more effective to offer an empathetic explanation, a heartfelt plea, or even a promise to help them too, and do better by them in the future. And when the pandemic ends, because it will end eventually, it might behoove America not to forget how we feel right now, and to act in service of the greater good a bit more often.