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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

How COVID-19 Shows Utilitarianism's Big Flaw


What grounds morality? We all talk about whether actions are right or wrong, but what is it that makes something right or wrong to begin with? Christianity has traditionally held that goodness or rightness have their origin in God and he has revealed that to us. Atheists, on the other hand, cannot ground moral values in God. Yet, most atheists will say that morality is real. They believe that there are certain duties and obligations to which we should all adhere, such as holding the value of life above economic loss.

So, how do they ground morality?

The question isn’t as abstract as it may at first seem. As the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of the economy have thrown real questions of morality into public discussion, one can quickly see grounding morality in something other than God creates real problems in the real world.

One of the more popular ways attempted to ground morality apart from God is to hold to a moral framework known as utilitarianism. Birthed by early 19th century thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism is an "ethical doctrine that an action is right if, and only if, it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people."1 What that means is one can define right and wrong by whether the action will produce the greatest level of happiness for most people in a specific situation.

I want to be clear here. When utilitarians talk about the word "happiness" or "pleasure," they aren’t meaning some immediate, shallow feeling of fun. Certainly, it’s more fun for kids to eat cake rather than vegetables or go and play than go to school. However, utilitarians would know that such short-term pleasures would cause greater pain in the future when the child is grown, sickly, and unemployable. Still, utilitarianism holds that what we call good is what is pleasurable, and therefore, after one weighs all factors, whatever produces the most pleasure/happiness for the most people is by definition good.

COVID-19 and "Ageism"

At first glance, utilitarianism seems common-sensical. Advancing happiness while reducing pain is a grid against which we make decisions all the time. However, the devil is always in the details, and real-life situations can underscore utilitarianism’s fatal flaw.

A recent Los Angeles Times column by Steve Lopez is a case in point.

Lopez recently published a commentary entitled, "Time for seniors to roll over and die so younger generations can get back to work? Not so fast." It opens with this:
I’ve got a Medicare card in my wallet and a target on my back.

"Sacrifice the weak, reopen," said a protest sign in Tennessee.

In Antioch, next door to the Bay Area town I grew up in, a planning commissioner said that "the sick, the old, the injured," along with the homeless, should be left to die from COVID-19 and ease the burden on society.

Even the 70-year-old lieutenant governor of Texas offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb, saying if more people have to die to save the economy for future generations, "I’m all in."2
Lopez goes on to note that the argue that "ageism is running amok" and how he believes "those who are saying we have to choose between returning to work and saving lives — as if we can’t do both — are in a minority" even though he admits "a majority of victims [are] up there in years."

Wrong is Defined as Right

I’m sure most people would side with Lopez that just because someone is in the final decades of life des not mean they are any less valuable than those who are in their thirties or forties. But that’s exactly the rub. You see, utilitarianism defines the good as the greatest happiness for the greatest number and which ever way one slices it, forcing millions and millions of younger people to lose employment, miss school, lose their life savings by closing their businesses, damage the next untold number of years of their future through the worst economic hardship since the Great Depression so the elderly can survive doesn’t measure up.

The fact is, if utilitarianism is true, then what we are doing to protect the elderly and frail among us would be defined as evil. It is morally wrong to intentionally not seek out the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Remember, this concept is the baseline for determining what is classified as moral or immoral. Society suffering for the sake of the few is always immoral in a utilitarian framework.

Of course, like Lopez, I don’t think most people would agree that the elderly should be expendable because of the pain inflicted on the many. In fact, seeking the pleasure of the masses at the expense of the frail, all other things being equal, is immoral. That means one cannot ground their moral values in utilitarianism since it can get morality exactly backwards, calling evil good and good evil. And without utilitarianism to fall back on, anyone who holds morality is real and objective will have a difficult time being consistent unless the foundation of right and wrong is found in God himself.

References

1. Ed. L. Miller. Questions That Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1996.447.
2. Steve Lopez. "Time for seniors to roll over and die so younger generations can get back to work? Not so fast." Los Angeles Times. May 6, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-06/time-for-seniors-to

Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Rational Approach to COVID-19 (video)



As we enter the second month of shelter-in-place, people are asking "Just how dangerous is the coronavirus really?" In this interview, Lenny talks with Dr. AJ Roberts, who worked at the NIH for three years on the first SARS-coronavirus, to get clarity on what the virus is, just how dangerous it can be, and what we will be facing now that the initial wave of infections has crested.

For more articles, podcasts, and teachings on this subject, follow us online: http://www.comereason.org http://twitter.com/comereason https://www.facebook.com/comeletusreason To follow AJ, visit facebook.com/AJRobertsrtb/ or follow her on Twitter at @rtb_ajroberts


Thursday, April 09, 2020

Coronavirus and Missing Other Souls


One of the more interesting byproducts of the sheltering laws during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is how much it underscores the fact we are not simply our bodies. I know that on its face this may seem counter intuitive, but let's think about our situation and what we are learning through our collective ordeal.

For weeks now, all the reporting on coronavirus and its ramifications have been from primarily a materialist point of view. Essential services have been defined to include bodily health, shelter, and transportation areas—all with the goal of preserving our physical selves. In my state of California, marijuana shops are classified as essential while churches are not.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that churches should be meeting together. I think in light of the dangers of contagion, restricting groups temporarily is prudent and biblical. (Remember, God took Jewish temple worship away from his people for seventy years while they were captives in Babylon.) My observations are more focused on how little consideration the spiritual costs have received during the whole crisis. News reports hunt down experts in biology, medicine, and epidemiology to update us on how to protect our bodies, but how many give equal time to faith leaders for advice on bolstering the spiritual health of those cloistered at home?

Isolation and Intimacy

Spiritual health is an essential aspect of being human, though. The interesting thing is that as our social distancing and sheltering-in-place stretch from a couple of weeks into months, we are realizing more and more how much it does. While churches can hold virtual services, everyone feels how incomplete such electronically simulated gatherings are. One of the reasons we need to assemble together physically (Heb. 10:25) is because it helps us relate to one another. That difference is becoming more and more apparent as we are limited to pictures instead of proximity. I'd rather have my family sitting in the same room with me without a lot of conversation than having Zoom engagements sans intimacy.

But just what is it that makes physical proximity more meaningful than virtual proximity? The difference is hard to explain in a purely materialist worldview. If all we are can be reduced to chemical reactions, then a virtual version of yourself should be just as good as the real thing. The same physical senses of sight and sound are engaged whether you see someone in front of you or on a screen. Sure, we cannot touch or smell others (perhaps the latter is a good thing!), but why is it more satisfying to have your friend from church sitting across from you rather than on a computer monitor? You're not touching in either instance.

Soulish Experiences

There seems to be a shared aspect of who we are spiritually when we come together in one space. That's why the Christian concept of koinonia or fellowship played such a vital role in the church's formation. Acts 2:42 tells us this was a doctrine of the church, rooted in the Apostles themselves. In John 4:24, Jesus instructs how since God is spirit, our worship must be based not in our physical behavior but in our spirit, our very essence. The Psalms also command us to praise God together with one voice (Psa. 47 & 95), and Paul echoes this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Ephesians 5:18-19. There is a unique aspect to us being together that cannot be replicated separately, as our souls are aligned towards the one true God and to the building up of each other.

One of the ways to realize the value of something is to make it scarce. If we are simply bodies, then our electronic communication channels should be as valuable as being close to one another. But we know that isn't true. We can feel there's something missing, a piece of reality that isn't measurable by sight or sound, or even touch or smell. There's the presence of individuals in one's life that is real and missing. I think as our proximity to one another becomes scarcer, we'll feel our need for soulish interactions will become more acute. Human beings are both body and soul. While screens can provide a replication of our bodies for one another, it cannot replicate that immaterial bonding between our souls. Our souls need to be in contact with one another, and it's this missing element we will need to address.
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