The Greater Good is Greatly Wrong
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
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. ,