Utilitarian Yahweh wants to harvest your soul

Picture the scene: a number of young and otherwise healthy people are dying due to the failure of a single organ, a different one in each case, and no organs are available for transplants. An enterprising doctor suggests killing the next healthy person to walk through the door, and harvesting their organs. It’s an outrageous suggestion, but it would take one life to save many. Isn’t that a good deal?

RailwayThis is the sort of thinking that’s usually being attacked when people criticise utilitarianism, and no one but the odd provocative philosopher or fifth-form debater ever seriously proposes it, but it’s hard to explain why it’s a bad thing. Wars are conducted on very similar ethical grounds, for example, with death accepted for the greater good. It’s not just consent – civilians don’t consent to be “collateral damage” either – but the obvious difference is that the death in this case  is obvious and necessary, not just something that may happen.

As Philippa Foot’s trolley problem and its many variations suggest, our ethical instincts can be hard to explain, but we consistently balk at specifically using a person as an object, a means to an end. When it’s apparent that a person’s being used like this, all but a handful of Act utilitarians reject the suggestion as unethical. Essentially, a single deliberate death is far harder to accept than thousands of unintended but likely ones.

Now I’m getting to the important question: what if you’re omniscient? If you know with absolute clarity every single result of your actions, isn’t every single negative consequence just as apparent and exploitative as if you were picking on the poor guy who walked into the hospital at the wrong moment? Free will is usually claimed as the greater good that justifies death and suffering, but if God’s truly omniscient, He knows exactly what the personal cost will be, including abuse, starvation and agonising medical conditions.

Harvester of SoulsSo God’s happy to make people suffer as part of His grand plan. It’s as if He was behind Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, about a community endorsing one person’s suffering so that they can live in comfort. But this contrives to be even worse, by creating some unfortunates just so they can spend eternity in Hell. Effectively, their souls are harvested so that others can have nice, happy lives and live forever in paradise.

Understandably, we tend to be repulsed by this sort of calculation. Maybe our moral instincts are completely wrong, but wouldn’t that be down to God, who we’re told both wrote His law on our hearts and gave us His own set of specific moral instructions? It also raises the question of whether it would be in any way acceptable, let alone praiseworthy, for us to start harvesting the organs of healthy bystanders for the greater good.

It’s ironic that Christians are so often dismissive of any form of utilitarian ethics, when their own description of God and His motivation points towards utilitarian arguments having at least some value. Even without my input, answers to the problem of evil tend to rely on appeals to a greater good, usually free will. If there’s suffering, an omniscient God must either be pursuing a greater good or allowing needless and gratuitous suffering – utilitarian or monster, take your pick.

Congratulations, apologists – it looks like you might be utilitarians after all.

Images courtesy of wetape and ConstructaCard.com, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

8 responses to “Utilitarian Yahweh wants to harvest your soul”

  1. unkleE says :

    Hi, this is an interesting topic. I hope you don’t mind my commenting again?

    “It’s an outrageous suggestion, but it would take one life to save many. Isn’t that a good deal?”

    We usually find such a trade obnoxious if it is overt and forced, but acceptable if dressed up in some (as in warfare, as you point out). But it is heroic if a person voluntarily offers up their life.

    I recall an example from a Nazi prison camp, where the guards lined everyone up and chose every tenth person to be killed by slow starvation. The lot fell on a Polish man with a wife and children, and he fell to the ground in tears that he’d never see them again. A Catholic priest was also there and, naturally, he had no wife and children, so he offered to take the man’s place and the offer was accepted. He died slowly, but the Polish many survived the war, and brought his family to Australia after the war. Some time ago now, he was in our local newspapers because he was flying back to Poland to attend the sanctification (if that is the right word) of that Catholic priest, who was of course a hero for what he had done.

    The interesting thing to me, as a christian, is that naturalism seems to lead to a different assessment of such examples of altruism and the value of human life.

    Francis Crick said: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

    Peter Singer (in many ways a very compassionate man) nevertheless feels that infanticide may be permissible if if there are reasons why the happiness of other humans would be increased by killing the baby.

    And biologist William Provine said: “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences …. no ultimate foundation for ethics exists…”

    “So God’s happy to make people suffer as part of His grand plan….. by creating some unfortunates just so they can spend eternity in Hell.”

    I agree with you here. If a large number of people spend an infinite time in torment, it is hard to justify God’s creation of them in the first place. Fortunately, that isn’t (I believe) the Bible’s teaching. If you are interested in why I say this, you could check out Hell – what does the Bible say?.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      The question of naturalist ethics is an interesting one, but I’m thinking of dealing with that separately at some point. Suffice to say, I don’t think it has any relevance to the direct question of whether Christianity is internally consistent.

      I find the arguments on Hell rather baffling – I used to think in a similar direction myself, but it requires a huge amount of special pleading to ignore the obvious direct meaning of certain passages in the gospels, and the historic doctrines of the church. Still, even assuming that Hell doesn’t exist, there are two possibilities – one, the nice, hopeful universalism which teaches that everyone ends up in paradise for eternity, makes our entire mortal existence pointless and gratuitously painful. The other, annihilationism destroying anyone who isn’t going to make it, still involves a huge number of people enduring a painful existence for the benefit of others.

      But again, we’re discussing whether the Bible says this, that or the other, before we can get down to how to respond to that – exactly the sort of difficulty you were denying the existence of in our previous exchange on ignosticism. Any position on this question raises problems, but without knowing which one you’re proposing, it’s not something that can be adequately discussed and/or refuted.

  2. ReasonBeing says :

    Great discussion. I have always found the concept of “free will” to be a cop out. If we are supposedly dealing with an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent deity—then there is no room for free will. This god would know—for eternity—ie he would have always known what all outcomes would be, and could act to change them. The fact that he does not, and and we have evil means that at least one of the “omni” adjectives has to go, if not more than one. Further, how can we be said to have free will, if god already knows what we will choose? Free will cannot exist in the face of the Christian version of god, which is ironic as the entire notion is of their devising.

    • unkleE says :

      “there is no room for free will. This god would know—for eternity—ie he would have always known what all outcomes would be”

      Hi ReasonBeing, I hope you don’t mind if I disagree. Do you notice you have used the future tense in there (“what outcomes would be”)? But the God you describe is not bound by time, is outside time, and created time. So there is no future for him. All is present.

      But that means that his omniscience forces no-one, because it is not the case that knows in advance and so they are forced to act. Rather he knows what they are doing in his eternal present. Our acting and his knowing occur at the same time, so our action is not determined by his knowing – in fact his knowing is determined by our acting (that is what omniscience means).

      “and could act to change them”

      Yes he could, but that is another question. It has nothing to do with our actions being determined, as I’ve just shown, it has to do with God allowing our freely chosen actions even though he sees the outcomes are bad.

      We know how badly some of our choices turn out, so that is indeed an amazing thing for God to do. But it is nevertheless not a lack of freewill, but an excess of it!

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I think that’s a tricky one, for the reasons UnkleE gives. It’s possible that I’m still working off cognitive patterns and assumptions formed back when I believed (see my post on crowdsourced indoctrination), but I don’t think there’s a necessary contradiction. The problem I have is more that the paths of our lives, free or otherwise, are known in their entirety and considered with obscene detachment as a price worth paying. Whether your child died, you were horribly abused or God knows you’re headed for Hell, He’s considered that and said it’s cool, according to His own ethical calculations. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s monstrous.

  3. unkleE says :

    “it requires a huge amount of special pleading to ignore the obvious direct meaning of certain passages in the gospels …. even assuming that Hell doesn’t exist ….”

    Hi, I just wanted to share a thought here please. While there was no mention of hell in the OT, it was part of first century Judaic thought. They apparently had the same three views that we have today, with the end of life view the more prominent. Jesus used this concept to talk about judgment and the loss of life in the age to come.

    So it is not a matter of hell “not existing”, but of using the word as Jesus used it rather than as the modern fundamentalist church uses it. And it is not a matter of ignoring the obvious meaning but of accepting the obvious meaning. I got this from a professor of NT Greek, who said that the word translated “eternal” doesn’t mean “everlasting” but “in the age to come”. Then when you check what Jesus said would happen, the word used means destruction or end, not ongoing torture.

    This isn’t an attractive option (though I have heard many atheists say this one life is all they want, which is what I am saying they’ll actually get), but I don’t see how it is “enduring a painful existence for the benefit of others.” Rather, we all get the gift of this life, which is good for most of us, and for some that is all, while for others it is just the doorway into a new life in the age to come.

    So, having studied this extensively (as in the reference I gave before), I don’t this is special pleading but scriptural truth – and I have believed it for something like 30+ years.

    Hope that throws a little light. Thanks.

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