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The Face of Utilitarianism

Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Monday, October 3, 2005

The Face of Utilitarianism

The September/October issue of Foreign Policy (FP), a publication of the influential Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, featured an article by the controversial Princeton philosopher and ethicist, Peter Singer.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Singer, the New Yorker called him the "most influential" philosopher alive. The New York Times, explaining how his views trickle down through media and academia to the general populace, noted that "No other living philosopher has had this kind of influence." The New England Journal of Medicine said he has had "more success in effecting changes in acceptable behavior" than any philosopher since Bertrand Russell.

In the FP article, Singer predicts, "By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct." Singer goes on to say, "In retrospect, 2005 may be seen as the year in which that position became untenable. American conservatives have for several years been in the awkward position of defending a federal funding ban on creating new embryos for research that prevents U.S. scientists from leading an area of biomedical research that could revolutionize the treatment of many common diseases."

My first objection to these statements is the oft touted claim that there is this untapped resource of medical discovery from which untold benefits are being obstructed by "narrow minded" moralists.

Steven Milloy, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo, offers the following summary which appeared on FoxNews:

The controversy centers around the use of stem cells derived from destroyed human embryos. So-called "embryonic stem cells" give rise to all other cells and tissues in the human body and have been touted as possibly yielding treatments for a variety of diseases.
Moral concerns over the destruction of human embryos caused President Bush to limit taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research to stem cell lines already in existence. Researchers who were counting on taxpayer funding to conduct research on embryonic stem cells - and then rake in millions of dollars from naive investors - were enraged and began a campaign to pressure the President into opening the taxpayer spigots for embryonic stem cell research on the basis of a wide-eyed hope that cures are near at hand.

Though embryonic stem cell research advocates euphemistically refer to the current state of research as an "early stage," the unfortunate reality is the goal of embryonic stem cell therapies is, at this point, more accurately described as a pipe dream. No researcher is anywhere close to significant progress in developing practical embryonic stem cell therapies.

In fact, the Family Research Council reports that, "In over twenty years of research, embryonic stem cells have not led to the successful treatment of a single patient." In written testimony presented to the Massachusetts State Legislature's Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies in February of this year; Dr. Elias Zerhouni at the National Institutes of Health wrote regarding adult stem cell and embryonic stem cell research, "Currently, there are no proven therapies using embryonic stem cells, fetal germ cells or stem cells from cloned embryos to treat human diseases and disorders." Conversely, the letter details about 80 successful treatments from adult stem cells.

Regardless of whether or not the destruction of human embryos was effectual in the development of successful therapies; the Christian view of humanity compels us to reject Singer's utilitarianism as a basis for ethics and morality.

This raises my second objection which is to Singer's condemnation of the "view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct." In Singer's utilitarian life and world view the question of "what is useful" or "what works" becomes morally right. The implications of this are nothing short of monstrous when taken to their full and logical conclusions, something that Singer has indicated that he is all too willing to do.

In an interview last year with Marvin Olasky of World Magazine; Olasky posed the question: "What about parents conceiving and giving birth to a child specifically to kill him, take his organs and transplant them into their ill older children?" Singer's reply, "It's difficult to warm to parents who can take such a detached view, (but) they're not doing something really wrong in itself." Olasky pressed further, "Is anything wrong with a society in which children are bred for spare parts on a massive scale?" - Singer's answer, "No."

In the FP article Singer states, "When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it." With the jettisoning of the Judeo-Christian system of ethics and morality Singer understands the need to replace it with a new system and in his view this system must be based upon the utilitarian premise of "whatever works" rather than "what is right."

The most recent example of this seemingly incomprehensible view was Terri Schiavo, an issue which found many Christians on the wrong side of understanding. The overarching argument for starving Terri to death was based upon someone else's determination of her value, or "personhood" to use Singer's language that was based upon how we perceived her "quality of life." This is utilitarianism and it opens the door to accepting value judgments such as, "Is his or hers really a life worth living in that condition?" or "Is it really loving to let a child with this or that condition suffer a life filled with heartache and rejection?" The false assumption is that YOU alone will be allowed to make those judgments only about your own life and not that someone else will make such determinations about the value of YOUR life.

Singer has also stated that "it would be ethically OK to kill 1-year-olds with physical or mental disabilities, although ideally the question of infanticide would be 'raised as soon as possible after birth." So you can see that very quickly someone, in this case the 1-year-old, surrenders their autonomy in these decisions.

Utilitarianism is a shining example of a "false pretension" that opposes not only God's truth but humanity in general and Christians must take seriously the task of equipping themselves with an "answer" that is capable of competing in the broader intellectual arena.

Copyright 2005, National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. All rights reserved.

S. Michael Craven is the vice president for religion & culture at the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families and leads the work and ministry of Cultural Apologetics. The Cultural Apologetics ministry works to equip the Church to assert and defend biblical morality and ethics in a manner that is rational, relevant and persuasive in order to recapture the relevance of Christianity to all of life by demonstrating its complete correspondence to reality. For more information on Cultural Apologetics, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit:

Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.

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The Face of Utilitarianism