googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Utilitarianism: A poor substitute for morality

Monday, April 21, 2014

Utilitarianism: A poor substitute for morality

A compelling argument for the existence of God is the near universal belief in absolute morality. People seem to instinctively understand there are such things as right and wrong yet absolute right and wrong can only exist if there is a universal standard that transcends men's opinions. People often use the example of Hitler's Germany as an example of a true evil. The Holocaust may be evil by our standards by what makes our standards more correct than Hitler's? It is only because there is an immutable standard, one given by a supreme Lawgiver, that we are able to know what is always right and what is always wrong.

Because the idea of absolute right and wrong seems to exist and is acknowledged by so many people, some non-believers seek ways to explain how it can exist without a transcendent Judge. One ethical theory is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is basically the idea that whatever provides the most benefit to the most people is “good.” It's a sort of pragmatic approach to morality that says whatever maximizes pleasure or most greatly reduces pain is “right.” Stealing from my neighbor might benefit me, but it doesn't benefit him. Therefore, it would produce more benefit to both of us if we cooperated. Because the benefit to society derived from not stealing seems to align itself with the universal understanding that it's wrong to steal, utilitarianism seems to explain why we could consider stealing to be immoral.

There are a couple of problems with such a concept. First, what makes this the correct standard by which we can measure good/evil? In other words, why benefit the most people instead of working primarily for the benefit of myself? It is only because benefiting the most people sounds reasonable? This philosophy suffers from the same weakness as many other theories in that it is not objective. There is no compelling reason to adopt this belief unless I just happen to agree with it. I could say, “Screw you. I'm only looking out for myself.” You have absolutely no unequivocal grounds to rebut my position except to appeal to my reason and hope to persuade me to your side.

I'm also curious why adherents to utilitarianism would prefer a belief that seems antithetical to a belief in evolution. Natural selection (a driving force behind evolution) is sometimes characterized as the survival of the fittest. Richard Dawkins, for example, wrote an entire book called, The Selfish Gene, where a organism is considered “successful” if is maximizes the chances of its genes being passed along to posterity. This exhibits itself in varied ways. A male lion, for example, earns its right to reproduce by killing or driving off the current male leader of the pride. One of its first acts as the new leader is to kill all the cubs of its former rival. This actually helps the pride in the long run since it ensures the genes of only the strongest males are passed along. How would utilitarianism condemn this behavior if a similar practice were exhibited among people?

Which brings me to still another point. How do we know what response will bring about the most benefit in any given situation? There are various strategies for helping the poor, for example. We could just give them food and shelter, which might sustain them but it will only perpetuate their poverty. It also drains the resources from productive citizens. Or consider a more extreme example: Suppose a person is permanently disabled. He may not only require food and shelter, but may also require extraordinary medical care. Such a person is not able to contribute to society (nor even care for himself) but instead creates a burden on everyone else. His very existence diminishes the prosperity of society in general. If the objective of morality is to provide the most benefit to to the most people, then it should be justifiably moral to euthanize the infirm and chronically poor.

We see then, that utilitarianism fails in many ways to provide an objective, immutable standard for what is good or moral. People seem to instinctively know there is a still higher, moral standard where it is wrong to summarily execute a group of people even if it is for the benefit of many more people or wrong to kill weaker persons for the sake of improving the gene pool. On the other hand, the Bible provides the best solutions to the moral ambiguities not answered by utilitarianism.

In the case of the lions, the Bible makes it clear that we are not like the animals. Out of all creation, only man was created in the image of God and we are accountable to Him. Therefor, we should not behave the way animals behave but we should behave in the way commanded by God. See? Isn't that simple? Mental gymnastics aren't necessary when one directly applies the ultimate standard of morality. Jesus also commanded us to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the infirm. We help them in spite of the cost to ourselves; not because helping them necessarily brings about the greatest benefit to the most people but because it's the right thing to do.

There's an old saying, “The ends justify the means.” Does anyone really agree with that? People just know that certain things are always wrong no matter what good might seem to come from them. It's this very instinct that drives humanists to seek a natural explanation for the self-evident existence of universal morality. Utilitarianism is simply another failed attempt to explain goodness without God.

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