Ethics and common sense

A few weeks ago a House episode featured a man who was giving away almost all his money to people who needed it more than he did. Although he was a multi-millionaire, his family ended up living on something like 25K a year. His wife took their child and left because she was frustrated that he wouldn’t prioritize his family over strangers. He argued that if other people needed the money more than he and his family did, it must be wrong for him not to give it to them instead. There seemed to be something wrong with his thinking, but it was hard to pin down what.

One of the characters suggested that when people are functioning in a healthy way, they care more about themselves and their own families than about other people. Is that true? Is it Christian? Something about it still seems wrong.

In our philosophy class this week a similar question came up. We were studying utilitarianism, which suggests (more or less) that if an action will increase happiness in the world, we are obligated to take it.Giving $100 of my money to feed a starving child in Africa is a good thing because he will get more happiness from it than I will lose by giving it away. But then isn’t it even better to give $200? And still better to give $300? Doesn’t it logically follow that I am obligated to keep giving money until everyone in the world has less need of it than I do? Again, there’s something wrong here.

The same kind of problem comes up in questions that have nothing to do with money or giving. At some point after I first became a Christian, I was about to watch a TV program and decided that it would be a better use of my time to read some Scripture and pray for a while. I had trouble justifying taking time out for entertainment after that. If reading the Bible is better than watching TV in general, then it is better than watching TV always, and so it’s never OK to watch TV.

The problem is that whenever we discover that doing A is better than doing B for a general reason, it seems logical to conclude that we should always choose A over B, even when a common-sense approach to morality would lead us to do A sometimes, but not every time.

How can we think about morality in a way that leaves room for common sense? The answer isn’t obvious to me, although I suspect Psalm 127:1-2 may hold a key.

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