Monday, June 10, 2013

Do The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few?

      "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one." Any self-respecting science fiction enthusiast is familiar with this oft-quoted line from the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; it was spoken in one of the most memorable, emotionally packed scenes in science fiction. Mr. Spock, having just saved the Enterprise from destruction, is dying from a lethal dose of radiation he received in doing so. The line is spoken to his best friend, Captain Kirk, and within moments, he dies (though he is resurrected in the next film, which takes away some of the emotional impact of his death, in hindsight). At this point you may be tempted to write me off as just another pathetic fanboy, a sci-fi nerd who spends too much time with his head in the clouds of some fictional future of space travel and technological advancement. I must confess, you are partly right. However, I have no desire to give you my take on the film, my thoughts on space travel, alien species or the future, or any other such pointless pursuit. My focus today is the phrase itself; what it is saying, what it implies and its pervasiveness in the world today.
       We won't waste any time discussing the socio-political overtones of the Star Trek franchise (which was socialistic and  held the goodness of human nature in too high regard) nor the religious and political views of its creator, Gene Roddenberry (who was a humanist, an agnostic and a socialist), but this statement deserves a great deal of discussion from a Christian perspective. On the face of it, this maxim is a powerful call to self sacrifice; that is the context in which it was spoken, and its full emotional force is easily felt when one is a fan of the series and films. It almost seems reminiscent of Christ's proclamation that,"Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends."(John 15:13). Here was a "man" who recognized that sacrificing his one life, however precious it may have been to him or to his friends, was the only viable option if he wanted to save the hundreds of lives on the ship. In such a context, it is a most noble sentiment.
       However, the maxim, within the continuity of Star Trek "canon", was not a call to self-sacrifice. It was one of the pillars of the Vulcan worldview, and as such was applied to all decision making processes. You may ask,"What does the worldview of a fictional alien race have to do with anything?" Well, the word fictional is pivotal to that statement. Yes, this species, who builds its worldview around logic and the above maxim, are fictitious, but the words themselves were written by a human author, and are therefore indicative not only of his worldview, but, I believe, the worldview of a great deal of western society. I myself, must confess, that when I first heard this line uttered, I was emotionally moved and instantly agreed with it. However, I agreed with it because I myself have always believed in doing the greatest possible good, and desired to give my energies and my very life to see it achieved. That is the drive to self-sacrifice. After reflection, I have come to reconsider my initial reaction, not because I no longer desire to give myself for the greatest possible good, but because that is not what is being said here.
       You see, Mr. Spock's maxim is a moral judgement, and an alarming one at that. He is not saying that self-sacrifice is noble, or that it is logical, or that it is the greatest love we may exhibit; he is stating that the greatest good is that the greatest number of people have their needs met. This is a variation of the utilitarian ethic. Utilitarian philosophy teaches that the canon against which we should measure our options in ethical situations is this question: what option will produce the most pleasure and the least pain? For the utilitarian, the ultimate goal is to experience more pleasure than pain in the course of one's life; every decision we make should be towards the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain, no matter how insignificant the difference may be.  As I am not a trained philosopher, I am unable to give you a full critique of utilitarian ethics; for that, I refer you to the Reformed Theological Seminary iTunes page, specifically the course on Christian Ethics, taught by the late Dr. Ronald Nash. For the purposes of this article, I will merely point out that the utilitarian ethic is incompatible with orthodox Christianity for two reasons:1) it provides no objective basis for morality (it devolves into "situational ethics", or the belief that there are no objective principles by which to make decisions since an action maximizing pleasure in one situation could maximize pain in another) and 2), "maximizing pleasure" or "minimizing pain" could require one to perform any number of sinful actions (lie, steal, murder, etc.)
            Now, there is a type of utilitarian ethics that states that the greatest possible good is, through our actions, to maximize the pleasure (or minimize the pain) of the most possible people (a statement that lamentably sounds like a good and noble thing). While this is a vast improvement over the more narcissistic and hedonistic varieties of utilitarian philosophy, it brings with it a very troubling corollary, which is the devaluation of the minority and the individual. This is the objection I bring against Mr. Spock's maxim, which I believe is prevalent in western society today. Just look at some of the popular movements of recent years, particularly the Occupy Wall Street movement. The purpose of the Occupy protesters was  forced wealth redistribution, and they preached this in moralistic terms, vilifying those who had earned great wealth for not doing their "fair share" (incidentally, no one has ever given a coherent definition of what that "fair share" is). However, the true motives of this movement are clear as the noonday sun: they resented the wealthy for their wealth and wanted it for themselves. They did not want everyone to be equal, they wanted to punish the wealthy for their wealth by taking it for themselves. There was no talk of rising to the level of the wealthy, but of bringing the wealthy down to the level of the poor.
           Why does this matter? Because it proposes that the rights of the individual (in this case, the right of  the wealthy minority to keep the money they had earned) be stripped for the improvement of the majority (in this case, the majority being the poor and middle classes). In the current socio-economic climate, that probably does not sound so terrible, but it has potentially horrible implications. According to the maxim, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. This means that any and all rights of an individual or minority (be it political, economic or racial) can be stripped by the majority; not only can they be, but it is a moral imperative that they should be. In this view, it is immoral for the minority to possess any right that may be detrimental to the majority in society, so it is the duty of society to strip that right away. When talking about redistribution of wealth (or the removal of the right to private property), it doesn't sound so bad...to the poor and middle classes. However, this principle does not stop with something as insignificant as money; it extends into all possible scenarios.
           Take, for instance, the Nazi policy of euthanizing the mentally ill or severely physically handicapped. From the utilitarian perspective, the elimination of these people would "maximize pleasure" for the most possible people (pleasure is a poor term, but it is the terminology of the philosophy). By "maximize pleasure" I simply mean that the elimination of the mentally ill or invalid produces the most tangible benefits to the most people. Without them, family members and doctors who spent their time caring for them could be put to more productive uses, and the stress and strain of said care would disappear. The financial and material costs of caring for one who could not be "productive in society" would also be eliminated. Thus, the largest number of people would be benefited by the murder of the weak, ill, elderly or unproductive.  Even writing these words is horrifying and reprehensible to me, but these are the implications inherent in utilitarian philosophy. We have to follow the maxim to its logical end, and the end of this maxim is one of the most violent, objectively evil regimes in world history.
           We may also consider the African slave trade to be an outworking of this philosophy, though to be historically accurate I feel I must state that the slave trade was the result of blind avarice more than any philosophy. Nevertheless, it is logically valid, when viewed through utilitarian lenses, that slavery "maximized the pleasure" of the most people by stripping the right of self determination from a minority for economic ends. Though the suffering of the slaves was extreme, and millions died from horrific maltreatment, the economy of the western world was built on their backs. Thus, when presented with the moral question, "What will benefit the most possible people: slavery or no slavery?", the utilitarian must reply,"Slavery." This is what it means for the "needs of the many to outweigh the needs of the few."
          Utilitarianism, as a philosophy, is open to enormous criticism, and many excellent philosophers have lambasted it. Yet, for all intents and purposes, it seems to be the reigning moral theory in popular thought, as exemplified by the line which was the catalyst for this discussion. We are constantly told to "do what feels right", "do what makes you feel good", or "do what makes you happy", often with the addendum "as long as you don't hurt anybody" (which is an appeal to an objective morality that does not exist for the utilitarian exercising their situational ethics, for my maximum pleasure may require actions harmful to others). The guiding principle of the mass of western society is to "maximize pleasure" and "minimize pain", to take the path of least potential pain or suffering. It is true that different individuals of this age have different moral value systems, and it is also true that very few would consider genocide or slavery to be acceptable actions even for the "benefit of the most people"... at this moment. But the scenarios I have described have happened; they are not hypothetical, they are historical fact, and as such we cannot assume that such a destructive philosophy won't be carried to such extremes again.
          Contrast this with what Christianity offers: immeasurable value for each individual. It cannot be denied that Christianity is (or, rather, should be) by nature self sacrificial and communal, where each and every individual is encouraged to help their companion in tangible, even sacrificial, ways, the individual is never forced to do so. It is a choice which we are all free to make (though the genuine Christian would not withhold when a need was made known). Christianity never states that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few"; on the contrary, it can be said that Christianity "never leaves a man behind" (I speak of the whole, for there are many instances of shameful deeds perpetrated by Christendom, or the institutionalized variety of Christianity that has wielded political power throughout the ages). The philosophy of Christianity (whether each individual member practices it or not) is that each individual soul is of such value that the Son of God died to secure their salvation from eternal damnation, and for this reason, Christians must not neglect a single soul. Christianity can never lay claim to an individual's right "for the greater good". Their rights are objective, they are endowed by the Creator, and while the call to self-sacrifice has often been made and responded to nobly, it cannot be forced by man (though wicked men under the guise of the church have done this, it is inexcusable and incompatible with true Christianity).
         In summation, Mr. Spock's maxim, while seemingly noble, is an unacceptable moral principle. Even as a motivation for personal self-sacrifice it is inferior; while we may rightly say "for the needs of the many (or the few, or the one), I will sacrifice my own", we cannot state that their needs outweigh our own in any sense of moral value. This, in fact, cheapens self-sacrifice; the highest sacrifice is knowing that you are just as valuable as any other, and choosing to give yourself for another anyway.  There is no acceptable hybrid in which we are able to combine this utilitarian ethical statement with an objective morality. For the Christian, the demands of the Savior outweigh all other considerations, and the Savior has already established the infinite value of the individual, and this value cannot be effected whether the individual be alone or one of one million. When we firmly establish the value of every individual, then we will never write off a single person or minority as "inferior" or "expendable". There is no such thing as an expendable human being, not evangelistically (meaning that there is not a single people group that we can neglect in our effort to spread the Gospel) and not materially (meaning that there is no situation in which a Christian can neglect the physical well being of a person or group). (I hope my reader will not misunderstand my meaning: I am not addressing the need for military leaders to make choices regarding who will be sacrificed for the continued survival of the whole; the soldier has already made this a form of self-sacrifice by vowing to give their lives in service to their army and nation.) In the end, we may regard the needs of others as worthy of our own sacrifice, but we may never regard the majority as having a higher moral value than the minority or the individual. In terms of moral value, the majority's value can be found exclusively in the value of its individual members, or else it has no value at all.