Utilitarianism’s Epistemic Space

Utilitarianism’s Epistemic Space

I read the previous two posts on this blog with great interest, and I welcome this opportunity to bring a theological perspective to bear on some of those discussions. In this piece, I want to discuss a passing comment from Trevor Stammers’ post, in which he acknowledges the necessity of employing utilitarian reasoning when faced with the ethics of triage. This acknowledges situations whereby an ethical philosophy considered woefully problematic in normal circumstances, might be permitted due to the extreme complexity at play.

Utilitarianism’s Epistemic Space

I’m not aiming to argue whether this is right or wrong. It interests me because utilitarianism is often taken to be rationalism, and acknowledging its unavoidability in exceptional moments therefore offers a space in which reason must be allowed to have the last word. To give reason the last word is problematic for a theologian. But considering this space as unavoidable can be approached in terms of the Fall and sin. Utilitarianism’s epistemic space then promises to cast light on one of the more deadlocked areas of theological discussion in relation to Covid: Theodicy and the problem of evil.

What is a theological perspective? Theology is about the encounter of our minds with God’s address to us. Theology is not merely our speech about God, but our thinking through God’s speech to us. As Joseph Ratzinger puts it: ‘We cannot speak rightly about God unless God himself tells us who he is.’

Theology is cruciform, for it must follow from the wounding of our intellectual grandiosity. Any attempt to try something like a ‘theology in the time of Covid’-type discussion should therefore be prefaced by silence. It comes from a prayerful acknowledgement of its near impossibility in the face of so audacious a task.

This means there is an acute epistemic pressure bearing on the discipline of theology. As Karl Barth says: ‘We ought to talk of God’ but ‘we are human and so we cannot talk of God’. Does this mean we cannot do theology at all? No. It means God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. What has been disclosed of God must never reduced to the rationales, norms, and grammar which govern our human discourse and reasoning. God’s self-disclosure, or revelation, uncovers that which is otherwise beyond the horizon of our knowing. For Catholics, there are three oracles of God’s self-revelation: Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church.

To think theologically is to think with a critical attentiveness to the limits of our knowing. Theology is cruciform, for it must follow from the wounding of our intellectual grandiosity. Any attempt to try something like a ‘theology in the time of Covid’-type discussion should therefore be prefaced by silence. It comes from a prayerful acknowledgement of its near impossibility in the face of so audacious a task.

Plagues and pestilence are classically met by theologians with discussions of Theodicy. Theodicy seeks to understand how we can maintain that Theos is just (dike) or righteous (dikaios) in the face of unwarranted suffering and despair. Responses to Theodicy during contemporary crises tend to fall into two camps. On the one hand, there are those – mostly evangelical or traditionalist Catholic – who unabashedly apportion God’s just wrath to current events. On the other, there are those – mostly mainline protestants and some Catholics – who dismiss the entire enterprise of even thinking about a God who permits the suffering of his sinful people tout court.

Two diametrically opposed examples from the current pandemic come to mind. The first, by Joseph Shaw, states ‘Of course the coronavirus is a punishment from God’. The second, by Tina Beattie, says that ‘Theodicy rears its ugly head at times like these’.  Ugliness implies that the enterprise of Theodicy should not even be embarked upon. This breaks with ScriptureTradition, and Magisterium, and that breakage alerts us to the fact that the norms which govern our logos are overreaching themselves. It is perfectly reasonable from a human perspective to hold that the God revealed as infinite love would never permit suffering. To live in the contradiction of thinking otherwise is a stumbling-block indeed.

Shaw’s post is very different. He draws a causative link between sin and the coronavirus pandemic. I do not think one should ever say that individual sufferers of disease, their bereaved, or those who have lost their livelihoods, are getting their ‘just desserts’. But I do think we can hold before our minds the scriptural position that disease, suffering, and even death are a feature of our world because of humanity’s primordial estrangement from God. But to move quickly from this unpalatable conviction to saying something like, ‘God’s will always judges best, like it or lump it!’ is to avoid the stumbling-block from the opposite direction. It is to resolve the discussion by making justice primary over love, instead of resolving it by making love primary over justice. The epistemic pressure is greatest when our logos cannot resolve the simultaneity of love and justice. The coincidence of the two then throws our minds into the hands of the God who lies beyond our understanding.

The suggestion that utilitarian reasoning is necessary for the ethics of triage in exceptional situations can be mapped onto these two approaches. In the first case, we run the risk of dismissing the supernatural dimension, and not permitting language of sin at all. Utilitarianism is then one philosophy like any other, and it is down to our human logos to decide freely on how best to proceed. In the second case, we can hold firm to the supernatural dimensions at play and let our human logos be held open to critique by God.

From a Catholic perspective, this means it is not permissible to clear an epistemic space for utilitarian reasoning in principle. But it means two more tangible things in response to the apparent necessity of utilitarianism’s epistemic space. Firstly, every step must be taken to avoid situations where this space is the only one available. This has been the outcome of UK government policy thus far. Secondly, situations where utilitarian reasoning seems absolute only make sense theologically if the entire scenario is ultimately rooted in a primordial estrangement from God. When human logos must of necessity have the last word on things, it looks like this. This tells us a great deal about theology, for it suggests that reason (logos) is at least in some residual measure fallen itself. This is why the employment of logos in response to God, must ever proceed from the sacramental economy of grace.

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Author: Jacob Phillips

Published: 22nd April 2020

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020