The Greater Good?

Another approach to ethics is to ask “What is the greater good.” I guess this is a form of situational ethics. Immanuel Kant was more associated with duty based or deontological ethics whereas people like Jeremy Bentham believed that a moral benefit could be measured in terms of the benefit it gave. This leads us to talk about utilitarianism.

Let me give you an example. A lot of public health considerations are around utilitarian calculations. The decision to shut down our society for lockdown was not made on the basis that every life is precious and we must try to save everyone. Rather, calculations were made balancing the affect of different decisions, what would lead to the least number of deaths, what would protect the NHS, what would cause the least damage to other aspects of life, economic costs, social costs and psychological costs.

At its most extreme, a judge once suggested that it was better to have an innocent person suffer the death penalty because their punishment acted as a deterrent to other potential victims. We also see it in Caiaphas’s words to the Sanhedrin about Jesus In John 11:50.

It’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.”

Utilitarianism could be seen as a form of situational ethics. At its best, it encourages us to consider the impact of our decisions on others. However, there are a number of challenges to this approach. The first is as to how we determine value or utility. What is the greatest good? Is it simply measured in straight numbers and percentages?  If that is so, you are likely to make the decision that gives pleasure to at least 51% of the population. However, pleasure is not a flat rate. What if 70% of the population are mildly affected  positively by a decision that is seriously harmful to 30%. Or, the other way round, what if there are huge benefits to 30% of the population whilst the rest of us experience a negative but negligible impact? There are debates within utilitarianism about how to account for this.

We also realise at this stage that those in the minority are most likely to be disadvantage.  Utilitarianism will be disproportionately detrimental to those from other cultures and those who are already vulnerable and disadvantaged.  John Rawls suggested a better alternative, that law makes should imagine themselves as making the rules for a new world where they are blind to the status and role they will have in that new world. It sounds like one of those game shows where you can choose to either gamble for a bigger pot of money on your own or chose to share a guaranteed amount with them.  Would I accept a basic, equitable if or would I take the risk that I would be in the beneficiary group and gamble for something more than basic?

Christian ethics provides another alternative. It is first of all modelled in Jesus Christ himself. For the ruler of a nation (Caiaphas) to choose one person to act against the will as a sacrifice for the people is shocking and disturbing. However, get this, the High Priest was not in control of the decision because in fact the true ruler of the people had decided of his own volition to lay down his life for the people.

As well as providing our atonement, Christ also provides an example for us. We are to prefer each other’s needs and submit to one another. Therefore, we should be willing to give our rights and even our lives for others.  However, the decision to make this sacrificial choice lies not with the state or those in power but the victims themselves, those who will suffer.

How is such an approach to ethics possible? We will find out in our next post on this subject.

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