A Shift in How to Help the Less Fortunate

In 1988 there was a short-lived television series called Probe staring Parker Stevenson and co-written by Isaac Asimov. My wife & I may have watched all 7 episodes, or perhaps just the first one, but the plot of the pilot stuck with me. I suppose I should say “spoiler alert” now, but it has been close to 30 years and it’s not available on Netflix, so I’m not sure it matters.

As I remember the first episode – “Computer Logic” – Parker Stevens’ character and his new secretary are thrust into an investigation of a series of strange accidents. One of those was witnessed by the pair – a pedestrian was struck and killed in a traffic accident where light was green, but the walk sign instructed the pedestrian to cross. The culprit was an artificial intelligence computer program. A programmer planned to improve the city’s services and cut costs by letting logic dictate the best way to meet the people’s needs at the lowest costs. Thus the AI program.

It wouldn’t have been a good episode unless something had gone horribly wrong and the protagonists saved the day. So how did it the plan fail? That is why I remember the show after all these years.

The developer of the computer program believed the superior logic and emotional detachment of an artificial intelligence would be able to run the city’s programs most efficiently. He designed the program to take over other municipal computer systems so it would control the entire automated functions for the city. When the AI was in control of all those functions, it – like the humans who had those duties in the past – discovered that it was difficult to meet all of the population’s needs with the limited resources provided. That’s when the AI took in one additional piece of information that made the calculations so much easier. It began to listen to Christian radio broadcast and inputted the information that when people die, they go to heaven and exists in a condition of eternal joy.

The AI concluded that people who served a purpose to society should be supported in their endeavors until the point when the cost of their existence outweighs the value. At that point, they should be killed so they can go to heaven and live in a much better state than this earthly existence.

I am a logical person and the logic in that episode seemed perfectly reasonable IF YOU ACCEPT that heaven exists, that it is for everyone, and is as wonderful as portrayed in paintings, televangelists’ messages and hymns. But what if it doesn’t exist, or it’s not for everyone, or it’s not as portrayed in exalted accounts. In my opinion, people can have beliefs, but they cannot be sure. They cannot truly know.

This is why I am concerned about politicians, especially those running for high office in the United States, who profess their conviction that the bible is the inerrant Word of God, and state that it is their religious beliefs guide their actions.

I believe that the Torah, Christian Bible, Quran, and other religious texts can provide good moral compasses that can guide our attitudes and actions toward our fellow inhabitants in the world. But, I do not believe they should be taken literally. The Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaida are perfect examples of how a small part of the whole can be taken out of context, overemphasized, and turned into an extreme variant of a loving faith.

The same is true for other religions, of course. Slavery is the perfect example. In Jewish and Christian religious texts, the references to slavery are numerous and specific. Slavery is an acceptable practice. Slaves are descendants of Noah’s son Ham who snickered and told his brothers when he found Noah naked and passed out drunk. As a result, Noah cursed Ham’s descendants to become the slaves and servants of the descendants of his two brothers. In Christian epistles – epistles are letters of instruction to groups of people – instructions are given that it is inappropriate to use church funds to purchase a slave’s freedom, and that a slave should take Christ’s example and be the best slave he can be.

Throughout Christian history the Church has used the bible to keep the established order. In brief, the argument can be summed up as, “If you’re a slave, God wants you to be a slave. If you’re a surf, God wants you to be a surf. If you are rich and powerful, God wants you to have that privilege.” Using this line of thought, it wasn’t much of a stretch to conclude that if you took actions which were perceived as being against the Church – like claiming that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around – you were working against God himself. Bad things happened to people who were charged with working against God.

So, what does this have to do with how we treat the less fortunate?

I have attended church leadership workshops several times. The workshops are for priests and lay leaders and provide practical advice on the nuts and bolts of running a church. In my Christian denomination, Episcopal, the lay leaders include the vestry (governing board) and officers (wardens and treasurer). During one of these workshops, a member of a church community in a small city noted a ministry they had which was designed to help the homeless. She characterized the program as “a hand up, not a hand out.”

She didn’t go into details about the program, but my first impression was that she didn’t think very highly of the homeless. I picked up a sense of blame and accusation. That may not have been the case, but my first impressions tend to be pretty good. Still, the “hand up” strategy is a good one. Provide real, tangible assistance to give the homeless person the skills he or she needs to become a functioning member of society, and give housing and food assistance for a period of time to allow these skills to develop.

That “hand up” idea can be found in many federal programs that help those in need, but you can also find the “hand out” programs. Proposals to cut federal spending target both of these program types. While federal spending (outlays) rose 6.7% from the 2015 fiscal year budget to the 2016 fiscal year budget, the following program cuts were made:

-1.2% for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
-1.2% for unemployment insurance grants to states
-4.9% for rehabilitation services and disability research

It seems to me that some members of Congress are moving away from that “hand up, not a hand out” idea to a “it’s God’s will” idea – just like in the Middle Ages. Especially true for conservatives, the plan seems to be to provide the best climate for business and don’t worry about the people. If businesses do well, they hire more people and everyone is better off. If some people are left behind, it God’s will. In fact, throughout Christianity, there is the theme that people who suffer in this life will be rewarded in the afterlife.

And that brings us back to that computer program from the first episode of Probe. Like that artificial intelligence, some members of Congress seem to have included their conviction – as opposed to belief – that God has a plan in their reasoning about the function of government.

If you accept this “truth” as reality, you write laws and set funding levels to allow those who God wants to succeed the opportunity to do so. In fact, when you reduce assistance to the less fortunate, you are presenting opportunity for people to pull themselves up and become great. Just look at Ben Carson. He is a true success story and he would certainly tell you that it was God’s will.

But shouldn’t we pay attention to other parts of the Torah, Bible and Quran which instruct us to help those in need? What if the data show that favoring businesses at the expense of the low income population does not help the less fortunate after all? What about the recent research which shows that while the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer? This is true in the United States and in the world as a whole. Doesn’t that tell us that an environment designed to help businesses thrive does not appear to help the less fortunate after all?

I wonder what a loving God makes of all this. One could imagine a scenario in which God looks upon creation and shakes his/her head wondering where people got these ideas. Perhaps, thinks God, a benevolent overlord could help out humanity. Maybe a system that is capable of quickly and completely evaluating all factors and making logical conclusions for the betterment of mankind. Sounds like a job for a benevolent artificial intelligence program, don’t you think?

About tonyj126

I'm a 50+ married man who always seems to have a large backlog of work to do, but also a lot of flexibility in my schedule. Much of the work I do is volunteer or taking care of extended family members. I suffer from, as my priest calls it, "the sin of self-sufficiency," which means I can figure out how to do most things myself, and consequently, reduce the need for community to solve problems. As a logical extention (at least to me), I find myself called to comtemplate the country's and the world's woes and offer my observations. I hope someone out there will find them useful.
This entry was posted in Economics, Musings, Religion, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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