Over the course of the last couple of months, it has become clear that many of the arguments we hear about social distancing, masks mandates, self-isolation, business and school closures, and now even future mandatory vaccinations, all are done in the name of the “greater good.” To say that most states and even our federal government have adopted this line of judicial and ethical justification is not a reach. In Christian business school, Andrew Herrity (author of What If We Are Graduating Utilitarians?) noted how surprised he was to find that most graduates become Utilitarians.
The trouble is that most of us are not familiar with the system of ethics that lead to the “greater good.” In turn, we fail to understand why our government would use ‘greater good’ arguments so consistently or how we should respond as believers when we hear such arguments. Some believers have become so accustomed to utilitarian practice in government, business, or schooling, that it is difficult for them to move beyond its cultural acceptance to a deliberate Christian evaluation.
My aim with this blog-article is to shed some light on the utilitarian argument and to show you how we as believers could respond when we hear people arguing this way. I will look at a short history, the appeal of Utilitarianism within our culture, a critique by Prof. Bernard Williams, a biblical evaluation and finally a warning against the development of Utilitarianism within culture.
So, to start we need to realize that Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive ethical frameworks in the history of deep-thinking. The main idea is this: a right or morally good action is an action that produces the most happiness or pleasure. So, in any given situation, the action that would produce the greatest benefit and the least amount of harm would be considered the right action. The entire system of thinking hangs on this premise. It’s simple and to the point.
Consequently, all actions are judged based on this outcome. This means that right actions are seen as promoting the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. For example, it would be considered good and right to evict and demolish a person’s home to make way for the expansion of a road that would allow better traffic flow for a town full of people. Herein it also becomes clear that the highest goal in life (our summum bonum) within utilitarian ethics are not individual happiness but communal happiness.
Another consequence of judging actions only on their outcome is that there is no need for a moral rulebook or code of conduct. Since actions are evaluated in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number of people, no action could be seen as intrinsically good or bad. Herein we discover one of the main appeals to Utilitarianism, namely that actions like deceit, slander, theft, adultery, and even murder could be considered good when they create a good outcome.
In the universe where there are no absolute values within actions other than their consequences, we don’t need God to tell us if something is right or wrong. This is why utilitarianism is sometimes called consequentialism, and why the teachers of this ethic often argue for the destruction of all religion. In ancient Greece, Epicurus and Democritus taught an elementary form of Utilitarianism. Epicurus (around 307 B.C.) reasoned that since we could evaluate good actions in terms of the pleasure they create or the pain they avoided, people did not need religion for moral development.
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) summarized this ethical framework as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” He argued that all decisions about right and wrong behavior, virtue and vice, or justice and crime should be made by refocusing on act-evaluation, rather than character evaluation (traditional morality). When John Stuart Mill, the protegee of Bentham, wrote his little but majorly influential book Utilitarianism in 1863, it was understood as a revival of Epicurism. The rest is history.
The Appeal in Post-Christian Cultures
Seeing how Utilitarianism started, I want to push deeper into why this ethical framework (the standards that determine what is right and wrong) is so appealing and so prevalent.
What immediately stands from its history is the fact that Utilitarianism promotes an ethic that is separated from any allegiance to God. You can be a good person without a personal relationship or responsibility towards God. Herein lies the appeal of Utilitarianism to any institution that desires secularization. More, utilitarian thought promotes a humanistic morality while becoming the proverbial pebble that starts the landslide into post-truth cultures or relativist thinking (no absolute truths). Since actions are not intrinsically good or bad, or so they would have you believe, its value is determined by its utility or the outcome (consequence).
Government, Business, and Schooling are attracted to such an ethical framework because it also gives them the tools to promote a corporate and communal support over individualism, family, group attraction, or unique identifiers. The only social distinctions used are those that promote actions that favor the fulfillment of their own greater aims. Utilitarians only promote actions they believe will result in the uplifting of “the people,” and denounce anyone who fail to support their actions as ‘unloving’ or ‘uncaring.’ This is also why Utilitarians favor the use of mobs, the language of democracy, and the continued utility of polls.
Another group Utilitarianism directly appeals to is the LGBTQ. Every orientation within this group justify their actions in a different way. Gay/Lesbian arguments center around being born Gay/Lesbian. The Trans-community directly contradicts Gay/Lesbian arguments since sex reassignment surgery infer a different value system. Utilitarianism allows the group to move ethical forward without a need to justify their orientation or any reliance on God. Since all actions within Utilitarianism are judged in light of the greater good of human happiness, pleasure, or fulfillment, all sexual expressions are freed from traditional morality. Consequently, this group supports most other utilitarian ‘greater good’ agendas.
Furthermore, since goodness is calculated in terms of its effect or consequences (the principle of utility), utilitarian actions that promote the ‘greater good” are easily legislated. Herein governments, businesses, and schools can make utilitarian actions the duty of its members. If someone does not dutifully demonstrate or “virtue signal” their commitment to the corporate greater good of the company, governmental or school, they are seen as illegitimate or morally lacking and therefore be cancelled. Another way the ‘greater good’ becomes established practice is by hiring and advancing only those that see the “big picture.”
Another appeal within Utilitarian thought is the “harm principle.” In pursuing the greatest good, people must avoid causing harm. Consequently, any action the majority believes to cause harm must be censored or eliminated. In this way utilitarian thinking always leads to censorship, book burnings, statue destruction, internet bans, safe spaces, and the limiting of personal freedoms. Since personal freedoms or religious activity stifles the pursuit of communal happiness, such activities must eventually be blocked. Utilitarians often start their campaigns of censorship by accusing traditional moralities and religions of not caring or integrating within their larger communities. If their appeals fail, Utilitarians immediately accuse faith communities of propagating hatred or proselytizing people away from the greater good.
The harm principle however does not extend into the evaluation of actions in and of themselves. As such, lying, stealing, destruction, and even murder do not have to be seen with disfavor if these actions promote the ultimate consequence of establishing the greater good for the majority of people. Consider how the Governor of New York used the ‘greater good’ argument in asking residents to informer on the behavior of their neighbors. Or think about how thousands of criminal charges against rioters were dismissed because they advocated for social justice. We can clearly see how actions that traditionally was seen as hurtful or criminal, become broadcasted by a utilitarian media as signs of justice or a fight against those that fail to uphold the greater good narrative.
Governments specifically favor utilitarian ethics because it allows them to use secrecy and public shaming to advance their own interests. What would be considered wrong in the public square could be advanced as right in secret, as long as it serves the government’s pursuit of the greater good. Torture, propaganda, incarceration without a trial, falsifying of evidence, and the concealment of facts become options when the truth might be used against the governments greater good. George Orwell addressed such an ethic when he says, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Consider how many doctors become censored, disbarred or disappear for telling the public about specific medicines or vaccinations. As long as medical specialist uphold the ‘greater good’ of the government, their actions are right. Yet, the moment they speak up about side-effects, high costs, alternative medicines, or the likelihood of negative effects, they must be addressed. On the other hand, Utilitarianism also allows heal professions to push patients to abdicate their right to refuse the administration of medication (against the Nuremberg Code, and Universal Declaration of Human Rights) or to take mediation that is untested. All in the name of the ‘greater good.’
Lastly, utilitarian thought is appealing to because it can dress up its most murderous severity in the language of beauty. For the sake of what is beautiful, they argue, we can do away with the ugly. For the sake of establishing a lasting racial legacy, lets forbid interracial marriage or get rid of the Jews. In creating a more peaceful world, lets do away with all haters. For the sake of peace, let us disarm our citizens and make it illegal for them to be able to resist the enforcement of our greater good.
In appealing to Christians, Utilitarians remind us of our shared desire to see poverty and suffering alleviated. They remind us to “treat people the same way you want them to treat you,” (Matt. 7:12) and then tell us to get aboard their social programs. And because (1) Christians don’t often understand the logic within utilitarian ethics, or (2) have become so accustomed to thinking about the greater good (adopted utilitarian behavior), they go along without any deliberate or critical evaluation of this ideology. Some believers even call for a merging of these two antithetical viewpoints. The first Christian Utilitarian was Rev. William Paley, who published a book on the topic in 1785. ,
In concluding this section, I believe you should be able to start noticing how prevalent Utilitarianism has become and why it appeals to institutions within a Post-Christian culture.
Bernard Williams and Utilitarianism
In order to understand the threat that this ideology poses, let's consider some thought experiments. Professor Bernard Williams (1929-2003), an English Professor of Philosophy, proposed thought experiments (also called utilitarian scenarios) to highlight and question the very values Utilitarianism espouse. Here are two of his more known scenarios.
The first scenario is about a man named George. George is unemployed Ph.D. graduate in Chemistry. He has been job-searching for a long time. One day he is offered a high-paying opportunity to develop chemical weapons. George’s wife is ecstatic about the opportunity and its benefits to them as a family. George knows that if he doesn’t take the job, someone else will. If George takes the job, he might be able to slow the process of development.
Utilitarians would argue that George should take the job because it makes his family happy and contributes in the greater good of his country. The fact that his job might create such conflict within George that it could lead him to commit suicide are shrugged off by Utilitarians. Yet Prof. Williams state that George should not take the job. For him the happiness of his family is important but not at the cost of downplaying George’s role in the creation of horrifying weapons of war. Prof. Williams points out that the scenario demonstrated how Utilitarians completely divorces a person’s feelings (sense response to what these scenarios demand of him) and integrity (personal values) from the consequence of his actions.
The second scenario revolves around a man called Jim. Jim is on an expedition in South America when he comes upon a situation where 20 indigenous people have been captured by soldiers. The soldiers are about to execute everyone for protesting the ruling regime. Yet, the commander offers him a choice as foreigner. Shoot one indigenous person, and the soldiers will let the other 19 go. If Jim refuses to shoot someone, the soldiers will kill all 20.
Again, Utilitarians argue that Jim should kill one person because he is saving lives. The fact that Jim might experience guilt over the taking of an innocent life is irrelevant since one or more of the captured people would have died anyway. Accordingly, Jim should be focused on the consequence of his actions, namely that he was actually helping. Prof. Williams disagrees. He states that Jim should not take the life of an innocent person nor feel guilty if one or all of the captured people are killed. The guilt lies with the murderous solders. For Prof. Williams the scenario demonstrates how Utilitarianism demands that we get our hands dirty if the situation calls for it. The question of personal integrity and the intrinsic value of life becomes irrelevant within utilitarian thought.
The scenarios Prof. Williams posed highlights how utilitarian ethics follow an uncontainable logic that is as likely to allow euthanasia as the large scale killing of pandemic infected people. The restrictive focus on consequences (the greater good) within utilitarian thought reduces situations into over-simplified scenarios that denies moral conflict. Since the right action will produce the greatest good for the greatest amount of people (also called Act Utilitarianism), Utilitarianism allows for the abandonment and killing of individuals in achieving it goal of reducing suffering and increasing happiness. The same argument could be made for permitting prostitution.
Consider the following scenario. What would keep a doctor from killing his no-good recluse neighbor in order to save 5 genius patients of his? If the neighbors’ organs are a match for the 5 geniuses, it would be right for the Utilitarian doctor to kill him and help the geniuses extend their services to society. The answer is scares Utilitarians. So, the moment you follow their logic to its inevitable conclusion, Utilitarians suddenly redefine one element or another in hopes of saving their poisonous ethical system. In the scenario of the neighbor-killing doctor, Utilitarians would say that it is better to avoid short-term utilitarian goals (like harvesting organs and the fear it would cause in society) and pursue long term goals that would maximize happiness for the majority over time. These kinds of bait-and-switch tactics become part and parcel of the way Utilitarians argue.
In addressing utilitarian arguments, Prof. Williams states that their ethics unescapably leads to a ‘streamlined thinking’ where moral dilemmas become censored. Their reductionist style flows from the fact that they disregard the intrinsic value within actions, the human dignity of even the poorest person, and personal integrity. Consequently,Utilitarians accuse anyone who struggles with their distorted decision making as ‘overthinking situations’ or ‘missing the big picture.’ We see the same tunnel vision ethic when it comes to state mask mandates and social distancing requirements.
A Christian Response to Utilitarianism
Having seen how prevalent, prevailing, and poisonous Utilitarianism is, let’s examine this ideology in terms of our faith.
Though some believe that Utilitarianism and Biblical Christian faith could be compatible, I am not among them. I believe that the only reason Utilitarianism have not been strongly confronted by the Church is because many believers lack the experience of recognizing Utilitarianism for what it is. Utilitarianism is an ideology that divorces God from humanity’s greatest purpose.
Matthew 22:37-39 tells us that our aim in life is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The best Utilitarians can come up with is the 'greatest happiness principle’ (the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number of people). Herein they fail to anchor life within relationship to God.
This point also speaks to human value. We believe that every person is made in the image of God (1 Cor. 11:7, 15:49, 1 John 3:2) and is invested with dignity and worth. As such, we can never argue that an action that would be right for ‘the greatest number of people’ is morally right if it abandons the sick, the poor, the widow, the orphan, those in prison, or the peripheral of society.
A Biblical Christian faith is committed to works of mercy by the Church (James 1:27, Mark 12:31). We demonstrate our faith by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting those in prison, comforting and praying for the sick, and burying the dead (Matt. 25:35-45, Isa. 58:7, Ezek. 18:7, Heb. 13:3). The difference lies in the fact that we see Christ in those Utilitarians would turn away, forget, or cancel.
Next, since Utilitarian ethics deny absolutes, how can Utilitarians know with any certainty what is the greater good or true happiness? As believers we place no trust in earthy wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-21, 3:18, Col. 2:8, Prov. 14:12), since we believe that people’s hearts are calloused (Matt. 13:15), dark and futile (Rom. 1:21), and above all corrupted by deceitful desires (Jer. 17:9, Eph. 4:22). That is why all cultures who abandon absolute morality systematically becomes more and more materialistic, hedonistic, and violent (Rom. 1:21-23). The only hope we have is the saving grace of our Savior Jesus Christ. Utilitarians have no gospel. That is why they pretend to be the saviors of society.
As believers we define happiness, pleasures, or fulfillment very differently to how Utilitarians do. For example, the apostle Paul teaches us the we count every materialistic gain or advancement as lost for the sake of Christ and knowing Him. We even embrace loss in order to gain Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). All materialist gain, money, health, or relationship are subject to our relationship with Christ (Matt. 6:24-24, 33-34, Matt.19:29). As such, Biblical faith directly contradicts how Utilitarians define happiness or pleasure or fulfillment for the greatest number of people.
The next major conflict comes with the utilitarian rule of expediency over principle (i.e. the way we do it, is not as important as where we arrive). Just because a rich man might not miss twenty dollars a poor man stole, theft is never justified. In the same way political spin does not justify lying, or grievous wealth taxes justify state robbery and plunder. As Christians we believe our actions carry moral weight. Biblical Christian faith never excuses sinful behavior (2 Cor. 5:10). We believe that God will judge all people based on their actions (1 Cor. 3:10-15, 2 Cor. 5:9-10, Rom. 14:10-12). The best Utilitarians can do is to blame the system if it is discovered that wrongs were done to innocent people. Consider how the same politicians that justify theft because someone was hungry would also justify riots and destruction of private property in the name of establishing a greater good.
Actions carry direct consequences. Consider Gal. 6:7 that warns us, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” The biblical principle of reaping what we sow directly contradicts the utilitarian notion that any means to an end is acceptable as long as it brings about good consequences. Though some believers toy with the notion that God will bring good consequences out of bad actions for those who follow Him (taking Romans 8:28, Genesis 50:20 out of context), Scripture is clear that we will reap what we sow, whether good or bad (Prov. 1:31, 22:8, Job 4:8-9, Jer. 17:10, Hos. 8:7, 10:12, Luke 6:38, 2 Cor. 9:6).
Another wonder of grace or moral complexity that Utilitarianism fail to understand is when God directly demonstrates how expediency is not subject to the principle. Take for example the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). This story turns utilitarian logic inside out. For the sake of the one lost sheep, ninety-nine sheep are left in the open field. Then, in Matt. 26:6-12 we find a woman from Bethany anointing Jesus’ head with a very expensive perfume. When Judas makes the utilitarian argument that it would have been better if they sold the perfume for a high cost and gave the money to the poor, Jesus responds that Judas was bothering the women and that she had done a beautiful thing to Him. In these accounts it becomes clear that good actions cannot be judged purely on the ‘greater good’ principle, for that will give credence to a tyranny of the majority. The moment goodness becomes relative to an agenda, those in positions of power will want to control people by telling them what is right and wrong for the “people”.
The last point against Utilitarianism is that its ethics ultimately lead to a belief that we can be justified by our actions. I am a good person by doing those things that are required for the greater good. If I do those things that enhancing the happiness of the majority, I am right. Biblical Christian faith oppose this logic because actions cannot be right or good simple because it effected a good outcome (as discussed above). This kind of utilitarian thinking leads to the ethical blindness that Prof. Williams critiqued.
What is more, Christians completely disagree with the way Utilitarianism define what a good person is. For us there are no ontological goodness or rightness without Christ. We embrace the historical crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Him becoming the ransom payment for sin on behalf of us all (Mt 20:28, 26:28, John 15:13, 1 Cor. 15:3, 2 Cor. 5:21, Heb 9:28, 1 John 3:16). It is only through Jesus Christ that we find ourselves being made right (renewed, John 3:3, 2 Cor. 5:17, Eph. 4:22-24, Rom. 6:4, 12:2). As such a right life is not seeking the pleasure or happiness of the majority, or even the avoidance of pain, but that we should imitate Christ (John 13:34, 15:12, 2 Cor. 3:18, Eph. 5:2, Phil. 2:5-11; 3:21).
Utilitarianism Erodes Freedom
Understanding Utilitarianism in light of a Biblical Christian faith, we are compelled to resist and oppose this poisonous ideology. We are also the prophets against its assimilation into culture. Considering its appeal, we also understand that the more support Utilitarianism gets, the more power it gives those that define the ‘greater good.’ When only a few people determine their actions in terms of the ‘greater good of everyone,’ Utilitarianism is benign. The laws of the country keep the severity of utilitarian logic in check.
But when majority of people determine what is right and lawful based on the ‘greater good,’ totalitarian takeover is imminent. Consider how Russia’s Bolsheviks (meaning bigger, more) overthrew their provisional government and later even the monarchy. Even before they adopted Lenin’s thesis on party organization, they were already directing their actions for the ‘greater good’ of Russia. It allowed them to justify the killing and destruction of anyone who stood against the collective good of the party.
What starts as the right thing to do to ensure that everyone gets their “fair share,” becomes a majority move (initiated by its represented leaders) to justify laws that will identify people’s unalienable “rights” with what is good for “the people.” We see this kind of move when people’s freedom of speech become subject to hate-speech laws. In the US we see the same slow move when state governments infringe our free right to worship. So, when Utilitarians can successfully make that identification, between what is our rights and what is right for the country, they set the cornerstone for totalitarian control.
Hereafter, any individual, family, or group that doesn’t actively promote the political agenda of the ‘the greater good” forfeits their rights. Hitler had an often-repeated motto when he addressed the crowds, “Right is what is good for the German people.” Herein we see Utilitarians being able to criminalize behavior that doesn’t support the “greater good,” or worse, infringe on the rights of people in the name of the “greater good.”
Finally, Utilitarians will pass laws that state that the “rights” of people depend on what is good for “the people.” Here Utilitarians will make it clear that if you don’t behave like “the people” you will not be treated as one of “the people.” Human dignity and individual rights will become subject to the tyranny of the ‘greater good.’
C.S. Lewis Wrote:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny excised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
The appeal of Utilitarianism in our post-Christian culture is undeniable. Nonetheless I counter this ideology on philosophical and biblical grounds.
Using the work of Prof. Bernard Williams, I oppose Utilitarianism because: (1) it denies personal integrity and feelings, (2) places guilt and blame where there should be none, (3) demand that we participate in ‘wrong,’ (4) denies the intrinsic value of human life, (5) over-simplify or denies moral conflict, (6) disregard values within actions, and (7) justifies brutality.
From a Biblical Christian faith I oppose Utilitarianism on the grounds that it: (1) denies God, (2) misses the true aim of human life, (3) devalue individual lives, (4) denies absolutes, (5) becomes morally dark, (6) fails to address minorities, (7) misplace responsivity, (8) and leads to a works-based ethic.