Monday, May 16, 2011

Faith Works 5-21

Faith Works 5-21-11

Jeff Gill


Utilitarianism and Faith, Together and At Odds



Just a couple of weeks ago, there were levees along the Mississippi that were literally blown up, near where the Ohio joins the Big Muddy, and where some of our local runoff and outflow ultimately joins rainfall from across the Midwest.


The decision was made to flood some 100 homes to relieve pressure that threatened 3,000 people in and around Cairo, Illinois. Two hundred some people take a hit, so more than twelve times as many people can be protected.


Is that fair?


Most of us would work to avoid that word, and fall back on "logical." It makes sense to us, a kind of sense that philosophically gets called "utilitarianism," or "the greatest good for the greatest number."


It makes sense, but is it enough? Utilitarianism, that is.


Last weekend, the Morganza floodgates were opened, releasing through a planned pathway a torrent of water from the still rising Mississippi, again reducing the pressures building up on levee walls, some of which date back to the great floods of 1927 where hundreds along the lower Mississippi died.


Not only levee failure, but over-topping is feared, where the maximum height is reached by rising water, which can quickly start to cut gaps in earthen structures, or simply undermine from behind other kinds of built floodwall.


If the massive flows of water continued unabated to New Orleans, there was great concern that they might do again to that city from the north what Hurricane Katrina and levee failure did from the south in 2005.




You can see where utilitarian arguments that look so straightforward and elegant in some settings can get complex and confusing in a big hurry. So we know, if we open the Morganza, that 3,000 square miles, 11,000 buildings, and at least 25,000 people will be flooded out, for sure.


If we don't, there might be flooding in Baton Rouge or New Orleans, which could be sudden and relatively unpredictable, leading to possible loss of life, and the probability of tens of thousands of homes and businesses hit again as they were not very long ago.


What's the right thing to do? You can still do a number of pragmatic utilitarian calculations as to just how probable the damage will be if nothing is done, and in this case it looks very high. Not for sure, but high. How do you do the math for deciding just how probable probably has to be in order to definitely impact someone else?


And what is the math for a sense of the justice in giving New Orleans a little extra consideration? Does the recently repaired devastation from Katrina mean that we should go out of our way, even to the detriment of others, to protect the Crescent City from repeated horrors?


Then there's the counterbalance in that all of the people in the areas being affected this week through Louisiana are regularly reminded by civil and federal authorities that they've built or located in an area which can be chosen for "protective flooding." If you've wondered at why so few folks in the Cajun country watching waters rise have pitched a fit, that's a major reason why.


Information, then, plays a role: as does compassion. Some of the folks interviewed in the flooded zone have said flat out "better us than those poor folks in N'Orlins." I doubt they've all said it, but some have. How do you put that sentiment into a formula?


I raise these issues as the floodwaters rise, at least on our TV screens if not nearby, to partially address a point. Those who are unhappy with or even outright hostile to a public role for faith & religion in civic affairs usually comment on "reason" and their dislike of "unreason" getting a voice in decision-making.


Their implication is that there is, close at hand, an entirely reasonable and rational way to make choices about things like floodwaters and health care, military action and relief operations, or public policy in general.


During these sorts of events like the Mississippi floods, utilitarianism looks, from a distance, like it's head and shoulders up out of the muck, making clean and crisp decisions on the mathematical merits.


Up close, on an individual and communal basis, utilitarian options drown in the fast moving tide of minutiae. Faith isn't a shortcut for hard choices, either, but it can give you a solid place to stand while you make them.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. Tell him a story at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.