The Corner


The Ethics of Life at CNN

(Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

At the network’s website, religion editor Daniel Burke wades into the philosophical question of when it is permissible to sacrifice human lives for the greater good. On his telling, advocates of re-opening the economy are embracing a utilitarian ethic that is at odds with the perspective they bring to the abortion debate. He concludes:

The point here is not to play “gotcha.” It’s to expose the moral inconsistency in considering some lives worth fighting for, while abandoning others for the good of “most Americans.”

If unborn life is sacred, then so is all life, including the lives made more vulnerable when we go back to work.

On Twitter, Burke describes opposition to abortion combined with advocacy for re-opening as “moral hypocrisy.” I don’t agree.

Polling consistently suggests that a large majority of Americans is more worried that we will resume normal activity prematurely than that we will do it too late — so large a majority that it must include most pro-lifers. But those pro-lifers who view the question differently from that majority are not being hypocrites, inconsistent, or utilitarian. Sure, they think that the expected consequences of an action are relevant to whether it is morally justified. It would be perverse not to think that. Their position does not entail the view that the balance of consequences is all that matters.

If we could resume normal economic activity while knowing with certainty that three additional Americans would die as a result, nearly everyone would, rightly, opt for that choice. It would not make all of us utilitarians without concern for the sanctity of life — any more than we are monsters for not wanting speed limits to be set extremely low.

If it’s wrong to try to re-open everything now, as I believe it is, it’s because the economic gains would be much smaller than advocates think, the cost in lives could be much higher, and thus their judgment is off. It’s not because they are violating the principle that all human beings have worth, meaning, and moral status.

Burke writes:

One of the biggest problems with utilitarianism is the ease with which it treats individual lives as mere means for social ends.

Consider one famous thought experiment: Would you kill one healthy person to save the lives of five others who desperately need organ transplants?

Utilitarianism argues yes, for the greater good, the one should be killed for the five.

“It jars our common sense,” said [Oxford philosopher Julian] Savulescu. “People feel a tension and don’t know how to resolve it.”

Now the pandemic is forcing doctors, nurses and policy experts to face this thought experiment in real life.

“The question is staring us in the face,” said the Oxford philosopher. “Every day is judgment day.”

This seems wholly mistaken, thank goodness. Doctors and nurses are not, in fact, being asked to kill one healthy person (or even one sick person) in order to help others. The choice of words in the hypothetical example illustrates a defect of utilitarianism at the price of also illustrating its lack of applicability to the situation at hand.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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