Friday, July 29, 2005

Utilitarianism, Pragmatism and Christian Ethics

(Senator Bill Frist's recent advocacy of embryonic stem cell research is a perfect example of how Americans hold pragmatism and utilitarianism as normative. The question I ask is, can Christians hold these ethical theories?)

"The real drive behind the argument over personhood, at least for human embryos, says Hurlbut, is that they have become a potential resource for biotechnology. 'If there was no use for the embryo,' he argues, 'people would be more willing to grant it full moral standing from the beginning.' "

"'...For years, evangelical leaders have been very clear on the question of life and personhood beginning at conception,' Hall says. 'Now that we have found a use for embryos, with the possibility of healing ourselves and healing our children, we are tempted to rethink our position on prenatal life.' She points to an irony of the evangelical pro-life commitment: 'Now that we are being called to bear the sacrifice of a witness to life, we are tempted not to sacrifice.'"
--Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today.
July 2004, Vol. 48, No. 7, Page 24

Utilitarianism says, "do that which provides the greatest good for the greatest number." Pragmatism says, "Whatever works is what is good." (Note: this is NOT the same as saying, "what is good will work.") Utilitarianism is the premiere ethical theory of the Enlightenment, that period of human history that celebrated the deistic "marginalizing" or eclipse of God. (Remember John Stuart Mill? Or Spock, at the end of "The Wrath of Khan?" "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one." ) Pragmatism is the premier ethical theory of postmodernism, that period of human history where the transcendent is --at best--unknowable, perhaps non-existent.

Utilitarianism and pragmatism are also favorite ethical theories for free markets, because they pose so few restraints. Two years ago, when our CAC meeting was held in Connecticut, I was amazed to see billboards along the roadside and commercials on TV advertising various fertility clinics, the same way beer or cosmetics get advertised. There's definitely a market here, and markets hate to be told they cannot expand! Our libertarian streak runs deep, particularly when we can make a profit at the same time we think we can be doing good.

With an average cost of $12,400 per cycle, infertility treatment has become a billion-dollar industry. And there's enormous potential for growth. The Association for Reproductive Medicine reports that only 5 percent of the estimated 2.1 million infertile couples have used IVF. To capitalize on this potential, a number of clinics have begun offering "100 percent money-back guarantees" and financing for patients who sign up for ART discount packages.
I have recently been diagnosed as a type II diabetic. My mother had Alzheimer's for ten years, and I witnessed her "long goodbye." I have dear friends whose bodies have been ravaged by type I diabetes. I myself have dealt with some mild infertility issues, and I have other friends who have struggled deeply with more profound infertility problems. Do I wish there was a way to end all this suffering? Of course I do! But do I wish to do so by defining away who my neighbor is? As Paul so often said, "Me genoito"--may it never be!

Like many ethicists, Scheidt is concerned that personhood is used more often than not to exclude, rather than include people. "When we didn't want to treat blacks as equal," he says, "we defined them as not persons or as three-fifths of a person in the early American Constitution. We define a fetus as a non-person, and then we can do whatever we wish with it. Most recently [personhood has] been used in arguments about people in persistent vegetative states."

Pain and suffering can make us not think clearly. It can also tempt us to grasp at any solution. That is why it is so important to think beforehand about these issues. Otherwise, our compassion may turn into cruelty, and--even worse--we might not be able to discern the difference. Chuck Colson writes: "To sacrifice one person for the good of many can never be justified. Evil often masquerades as good; the worst atrocities are performed in the name of humanitarian causes."

So, IMO, Christians of every stripe must wrestle with the question of how well the utilitarian/pragmatic moral reasoning represents the mind of Christ. People like Nancy Reagan, Mary Tyler Moore and Christopher Reeve would tell us there is no contradiction. ("Why not *use* those embryos for the greater good?") Others, like Gilbert Meilander and Charles Colson, do not operate not out of Enlightenment presuppositions, nor do they wear pragmatic postmodernist lenses as they read scripture. They find great discontinuity between current popular moral reasoning and God's word. Like Captain James T. Kirk, in the "The Search for Spock," and like the shepherd in Luke 15:4-7, they say, "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."

Unfortunately, we hear the voices of Reagan, Moore and Reeve more loudly and clearly than those of C.S. Lewis, Meilander, Colson, Hurlbut, Verhey Barg and Hall. It takes real courage and faith to listen for the still small voice which says:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

As Mother Theresa said, "It is a poverty of spirit to believe that a child must die so that you can continue to live as you choose." It takes even more courage and faith to stand beside and minister to those whose suffer, and to support those who are sacrificing themselves for the sake of the suffering. However, we are not without examples, and we are not without a Comforter who brings consolation and hope to us all, But only those with eyes to see can receive it: the Enlightenment clouded those lenses, and postmodernism has blinded us.

This, therefore, is my prayer:

may the eyes of our hearts be enlightened in order that we might know the hope to which You have called us, the riches of your glorious inheritance in the saints, and Your incomparably great power for those of us who believe. Lead us to new ways of healing, and overcoming infertility, which do not tempt us to marginalize You, and those You have given us as neighbors. And help us not to fear, but to be ready to sacrifice ourselves, as we seek to follow Your Son, who became a sacrifice for us.

For Jesus' sake,


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