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?
This 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.
So 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.