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.


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.