Blog Archive


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 Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

Powered by Blogger.
Showing posts with label utilitarianism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label utilitarianism. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Morality Must be More than Increasing Happiness

Moral knowledge is something people take for granted. We understand that someone who inflicts pain and torture for recreational purposes is evil. That's why the rapist is so reviled. It shows morality as something objective, not merely a preference to be held. Moral values and duties must be anchored in God to be meaningful.

Yet, people don't like to admit an objective morality means they themselves may be morally culpable for acts they choose. So they try to escape the consequence of objective morality. Some do this by trying to claim that morality isn't objective but relative. This reduces them to state absurd conclusions like rape may be morally justified. Others try to ground objective morality in something other than God. I think those folks don't really have an appreciation for what true morality entails. Still, they offer ideas such as morality is a byproduct of evolutionary survival benefits.

One of the more popular ways to try and hold to an objective morality while dismissing God comes in the form of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism holds that increasing happiness and diminishing suffering is the measure of what's good. There are many problems with utilitarianism, but one particular problem is its definition is too narrow to identify all questions generally agreed as moral questions as being truly questions about morality. Richard Swinburne makes this point well:
For some, a belief about moral worth is simply a belief about which actions are important to do. But that use would allow the narcissist, who thinks that is important that he promote his own happiness, to have a moral view, and so it would fail to bring out the distinction which most of us make among the considerations by which we judge the worth of actions, and which I argued to have such importance. For others, a belief about moral worth is a belief about the importance of actions in virtue of their universalizable properties of a certain kind—e.g. those concerned with sex or (more widely) those concerned with the promotion of happiness or unhappiness of other people. On the latter account it would be a moral view that men ought to feed the starving; but not a moral view that men ought to worship God, or that artists who can paint great pictures ought to do so even if those pictures will be seen only by themselves. If you use 'moral' in this limited sense, you can say without contradiction 'I think that religion is more important than morality'; but on my preferred use it would be self-contradictory to assert of anything describable in universal terms that it was more important than morality. A man's morality is (with the qualification that it be not centred on self or any other particular individual) what he believes most important. My grounds for preferring my use are that so many men's beliefs about which actions are important to do are supported or opposed both on grounds which concern the happiness and unhappiness of other people and also on other grounds (e.g. whether the action shows due loyalty, pays honour to whom honour is due, involves keeping a promise or telling the truth), that confining the term to the narrower use would obscure the overlap of grounds of the different kinds in leading to beliefs about overall worth.1
Swinburne is arguing for a view of morality that is objective and prescriptive; moral values and duties are real "oughts" to which all of humanity are beholden. If something like telling the truth is valuable in itself, then morality must be larger than simply adding to the happiness of an individual or individuals. If morality is only about increasing happiness, it begs the question of whether honor has any real meaning since one can bestow false honor on another to make him or her happy. But there is something not quite right with honoring a coward alongside a hero after the battle. And the weighing of the rightness or wrongness of an action identifies it as a moral question, one that defining morality as increasing happiness alone cannot solve.


1. Swinburne, Richard. The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986. Print. 223-224.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Is Morality Grounded in Nature, Utility, or God?

Just as there are three possible sources for moral obligations (determined, designed, or discovered—see previous video), there are three competing ideas offered today for the grounding of morality. Can one derive objective moral principles from naturalism or utilitarianism or must moral law be grounded in God alone? In this last of a four-part series, Lenny discusses the problems with both naturalistic and utilitarian view of morality and shows why moral values and duties are rooted in God and his laws.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Some Problems with Consequentialism

This month, I got to interact with students at a local college, as part of a panel hosted by The Well club. Four of us answered questions from students about the nature and evidence of Christianity. One questioner, the president of the newly-minted atheist club on campus, engaged in a discussion on morality. I've maintained that if morality is objective it must be grounded in God.  He said that he held to an objective moral standard based on "ethical consequentialism." In a separate discussion at a later time, another atheist also offered consequentialism as a basis for morality.

For those that don't know, consequentialism is an ethical system that seeks to root moral values and duties in the consequences one's actions will produce. In other words, an action is moral if it produces consequences that are seen as beneficial in some sense. Utilitarianism is the most well-known version of consequentialism, with philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill arguing that what is moral is that which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number. I don't think any kind of consequentialism works to ground moral values and I want to offer three initial reasons why.

1. Consequentialism results in immoral acts being identified as moral

The first thing one should realize is that consequentialism makes the claim that rightness and wrongness are not found in any action itself, but in the consequence of the action, that is what the action will produce. So, adultery isn't in itself wrong, it is wrong only when the result is one that causes adverse effects, like the harm it causes the offended spouse. But what if a "Same Time Next Year" scenario were to present itself? In this film, the once-a-year tryst not only produces no adverse effects on the marriage the rest of the time, but each participant actually helps the other through different emotional trials. In such a case consequentialism would say that their adultery is the moral thing to do and it would be immoral to withhold this meeting form either party. Calling adultery moral shows the absurdity of consequentialism played out consistently.

2. Consequentialism asks too much

Another problematic aspect of consequentialism is the fact that one must determine one's consequences when performing any action. How are we to do this? Many times, seeing what the actual consequences of an action are is nearly impossible! How could one see all the ramifications of a simple lie? Sometimes it amounts to nothing; other times it can have devastating effects on a third party, perhaps a party whom you never realized would be privy to the lie at all! And is it reasonable to ask people to really reflect on every consequence of all their actions or should they do the right thing for no other reason than it's the right thing to do? If the consequences in question are not personal but are weighed at a societal level, the problem becomes even more egregious. No one could possibly know the outcome their actions would inflict  upon an entire culture. Such knowledge would truly require a form of omniscience, but then we're arguing for God.

3. Consequentialism fails because it assumes what it is supposed to prove

While the two problems above are serious issues with consequentialism as a workable moral system, the biggest problem is with the understanding of how consequences benefit either the individual or the society. You see, by appealing to actions that produce a benefit, the consequentialist has smuggled in a concept of good and evil to measure against. But you cannot do that if you are talking about a system that is supposed to define what good and evil are in the first place.

Consequentialist will say, "We can know what is good because those things allow humans to survive and flourish." But this doesn't solve the problem. First, why is it "good" that all of humanity flourish instead of just the individual? Who says that one should sacrifice one's life for the sake of the society? Just because I would want someone to feed me when I'm hungry doesn't mean that I want to go hungry for the sake of someone else. If I can achieve the first and not the second, I have advanced the good for myself.

Secondly, where did this idea of advancing "the good" for all humanity come from? Philosopher Peter Singer argues that when we think this way, we are committing a kind of speciesism and other species hold the same rights as humans. Maybe by allowing humans to thrive we are denying the cockroach a chance to evolve into the next ruling species on the planet!

No matter which base point one chooses for "the good" consequentialism has no way of answering "why that point and not this one over here?" Instead of defining what is "the good", consequentialism assumes the good and begins to argue from there. It becomes question-begging! Therefore, consequentialism can never really be considered a basis for understanding good and evil. It is simply another subjective viewpoint that doesn't ground right and wrong, but describes them based on assumptions of the individual espousing it.

Morality must be prescriptive if it is to be binding. Consequentialism fails to be even descriptive, since it cannot ground ultimate concepts such as "the good." Most consequentialists are moral, but only because they borrow from Christian ideas, like the inherent worth of persons, in order to begin their calculations of end results. Thus, consequentialism fails as a basis for true morality.
Come Reason brandmark Convincing Christianity
An invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics

Mary Jo Sharp:

"Lenny Esposito's work at Come Reason Ministries is an invaluable addition to the realm of Christian apologetics. He is as knowledgeable as he is gracious. I highly recommend booking Lenny as a speaker for your next conference or workshop!"
Check out more X