Rejecting Utilitarianism in a Time of Crisis

Utilitarianism is running wild in the world today. It postulates that the worth of an action is determined by its utility to society as a whole. It suggests the rights, or life, of individuals, can be sacrificed to preserve the “happiness” of the many. Ultimately the consequences of an action are the only moral standard by which an action should be judged. So today, some conservative economists, politicians, and pundits are postulating that the sacrifice of the elderly (who are especially threatened by the coronavirus), who by implication are also non-productive and costly, is warranted if “capitalism,” namely our economy is to be saved. Apparently, for these thinkers, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Yet, when it is seen as appropriate for a society to judge its citizens, based only on their utility in creating “the greatest amount of happiness,” (in this case-preserving, it is claimed, the economic health of a nation), then that society has crossed a dangerous line. 

Such a society fails to value individuals but instead sees them only as objects of use. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and use, a civilization of things and not of persons, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.” Therefore, removing the social segregation and putting the nation back to work – seen as necessary by these conservative thinkers as required to save “capitalism” – is justified even if seniors and others with compromised health die from the coronavirus.

Such a philosophy, which views human beings as objects of use, to be utilized or sacrificed based on the needs, “the happiness,” of the many is antithetical to the Jewish view of humanity. God created each of us in the image of the Divine. Each of us is an essential part of the Divine plan. Indeed, the Talmud focuses on the importance of each individual as it examines why humanity was created as a single human (couple), rather than as a multitude like all of the (other) animals. It adduces several answers, each of which reaffirms the importance of each individual in the eyes of God. Two of these answers are of especial interest. One suggests that this particular form of creation serves as a reminder to us of our essential equality, as each of us is descended from the same parents. Another, made famous by Schindler’s List, also establishes the importance of each human being, no matter who he or she is. “It comes to teach that if one saves a single human life, it is as if one has saved the entire world.” (this formulation is also echoed with an identical wording on the Qur’an, 2:190). To the author of this statement, each of us represents a whole world of potential. Therefore, each of us is important and unique. He also adds the converse of this statement, reminding us that “if we kill a single human being, it is as if we are destroying the entire world.”

Our Jewish tradition addresses the suggested sacrifice of the elderly even more directly. The Talmud states that if we are ordered to “Go kill such and such a person, and if not, I will kill you,” it is preferable that he kill you rather than you kill another. For “why do you think that your blood is redder (i.e., more precious than another’s)?” Indeed, Maimonides, codifies a related tradition from the Yerushalmi as follows, “If a group of Jews was traveling and a group of non-Jews chanced upon them and said, “Hand over one of your group, or we will kill you all,” even if all will be killed, they may not hand over a soul.” Taken together, all of these texts make it clear that it is not permissible to sacrifice individuals (i.e., the elderly) to save one’s own life, let alone a group or something as amorphous as short term economic wellbeing.

Utilitarianism implies that the wellbeing, happiness, and even the very lives of the group outweigh the needs and rights of the individual. Therefore, an individual can be sacrificed if such a sacrifice will save the lives, or in this case the economic wellbeing of the many. Within the Jewish tradition the very opposite is true. Each life is of infinite value, and it is forbidden for us to take actions which imply that we can measure the relative importance of human life.

About the Author
David serves as rabbi of Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in DeWitt, NY. He was formerly the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan and a past chair of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He works closely with the emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. He has a strong commitment to interfaith relations, exemplified by, "Beyond the Golden Rule: A Jewish Approach to Dialogue and Discourse."
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