The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is under increasing pressure to allow debate on a measure that would allow “research using 400,000 frozen embryos created for in-vitro [fertilization] treatment.” This debate over embryonic stem-cell research is a good example of how the confluence of two worldviews has put the vulnerable in the crosshairs. The proponents of this measure, passed by the House last year, argue that since most of the embryos will wind up being destroyed anyway, we might as well put them to good use. Why not? They’re going to die anyway. Of course, so are you and I. While the argument is rarely stated that bluntly, that’s what it amounts to. President Bush has promised to veto it, opposing “science which destroys life in order to save life.” But advocates of embryonic stem-cell research are taking advantage of the president’s political weakness to push for their goals now. But that’s not the only weakness being exploited here. The most obvious one is that of the embryos. Their plight literally embodies two ideas that have come together to cause great suffering: utilitarianism and Darwinism. Both of these ideas originated in Victorian England at a time when Christianity’s influence, especially among the elite, was beginning to wane. In his book Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill wrote that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” By “happiness” Mill meant “pleasure, and the absence of pain . . . ” What was appropriate for individuals was also appropriate for the state. So utilitarianism held that societies should promote the greatest good for the greatest number. You can see where that leaves 400,000 frozen embryos, especially given the exaggerated claims about the potential of embryonic stem-cell research. Darwinism’s contribution to the suffering of the vulnerable was to diminish man’s special status within creation. Instead of being created in the image of God and endowed with a unique dignity, man became just another animal—an especially clever ape, if you will. Life was not a gift from God, but a result of purposeless chance. This combination of utilitarianism and Darwinism changed the way elites thought about the poor and the vulnerable. Instead of feeling an obligation to care for them, they increasingly felt free to target them in the name of the “greatest good.” The most obvious example of this was the eugenics movement, started by Darwin’s cousin, which, in the name of “racial betterment,” sterilized and even killed those it deemed “defective.” But this targeting did not end with eugenics. There are still many instances where a vulnerable class is being asked to sacrifice its well-being or even, as with embryos, its very existence, for the “greatest good.” These include children, families, the sick, prisoners, and the elderly. Over the next couple of weeks, Mark Earley and I will chronicle some of the more egregious examples of this targeting of the vulnerable in this series called “War on the Weak.” Because it’s time for another blunt truth: Happiness obtained through the suffering of others is cruelty by another name. This is part one in the “War on the Weak” series.


Chuck Colson


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