[F]utilitarianism

There is a school of thought to which many ethicists subscribe, whose students never seem willing to move on from the lambda-omega-lambdas, and whose parties are always unusually loud and long even after the music has been stopped for years and all the drink has dried up. This troupe of tautological idealogues loves to insist upon its own opinions and swears so should you. In doing so they both establish and undercut their point. These are the Utilitarians.

Utilitarianism is a philosophy of ethics that is summarily defined to say, “the morally right action is the action that produces the most good.” To be fair, “good” is then relegated to either pleasure or even beauty, but ultimately it’s difficult to see which side depends upon the other, and whether such a statement is even meaningful on its own and not simply tautologous.

This theory arises from the assumption of naturalism, which is of course the belief that only natural processes govern the world, or else that nothing exists beyond the “natural.” And it is this theory that those people subscribe to who don’t believe God created morality and governs it. Generally, it’s said that good and bad are determined by utility – by what brings more happiness or pleasure to the greater number of people – though even today there’s the question of whether that means the greatest total utility or greatest average utility.

Another difficulty with this theory is that different civilizations sometimes have opposing values of utility, and so one is forced to wonder which of the opposing values of utility is be maximized, and whether or not he can give a reason that doesn’t beg itself. Will different cultures have different gauges for utility? Can someone rightfully say that other cultures are wrong in the utility they value? While the former almost certainly seems the case, the latter can only be done by ignoring utilitarianism. But in favor of what? Well, anything else, so long as denial of God is maintained, apparently.

It’s actually a flimsy theory, and yet it’s held quite strongly by most. Perhaps they consider stubbornness to be a virtue… Except when it’s their opponents who are being stubborn. Then all bets are off, as they say. The case could be made that a utilitarian philosophy of ethics is responsible for the wars between different cultures and unrest between, for instance, the Axis and the Allied powers. But is there any hope of finding a common, reliable ethic, one with sufficient grounding and warrant, that does not beg itself, and that doesn’t end in abject futility?

There certainly is, and it involves denial, just as utilitarianism does. But what I speak of is not an unreasonable denial. Given man’s continual failures to actually improve the state of ethics worldwide, it makes sense we need something more than man’s efforts to do so. And so what we need to deny is the sufficiency of man’s own efforts and man’s own theorizing and musing to recreate the world into something new. And what we need to embrace in turn is the Lordship of Christ, whose Creatorship alone is capable of making good in this world what we have made bad. It requires recognition of our father Adam’s sin, and pursuit of our Father God’s salvation.

As God’s crowning achievement and premier Creation, man has been endowed with the means to reflect the glory of the Creator in a way nothing else in Creation can. Having been created in perfection, having fallen by means of sin, and having been redeemed to an even greater perfection by God himself – this is the divine narrative, and we are given the Script. We’re not left in the dark, but we have been given God’s own Word from the very beginning. It’s not acceptable for man to linger in darkness on his own, and so God has given us his light. And when man strays from this way, there is only war. The history of the world is a retelling of man rejecting God’s Words to varying degrees, and it is a retelling of God’s redemption of men.  Man will make his own rules, and man will break his own rules. Utility is futility.


2 Comments

T.M.Noble

Lets be fair to legitimate thinkers. Most philosophers are not utilitarians, especially of the type you describe. The pitfalls of utilitarianism are well known and are usually mitigated by softer versions which have been proposed by philosophers like Moore and Brandt. This sort of act utilitarianism become unfeasible and awkward.

Modern cognitive psych studies have display the propensity to utilitarian thinking. By asking specific questions and displays of certain vignettes, these studies show that in certain cases, ‘normal’ folk reason in a utilitarian fashion but in other cases reason more deontologically. So sometimes we reason in terms of consequences and sometimes we reason by certain imperatives. This is from J.D. Greene (2006), Cushman, Young, and Hauser (2006, 2009), Mikhail (2000), and many others.
Yet considering these cases, should we then mischaracterize utilitarianism as having only one view? It seems like you have constructed a strawman in order to make your point more salient. These studies show how people DO act and not how they should act. Description and not prescription.

Why then should we fiat a very specific and narrow view of Christianity in order to describe moral action. While it is certainly plausible to do so, good reason must be put forth in order for one to believe it to be true, not just an assertion that one must follow Christian dogma. It seems that even you promote the utility of following Christ in a way to avoid man’s straying away into war. In this sense, utility is far from futile. Utility is the foundation from which you claim to reason as anything outside of a Christian worldview is senseless and requires of God’s nature, the ability to reason sensibly. Seems like a useful tool even through your perspective.

Meh.

Matthias McMahon

Thank you for your reply. I apologize I wasn’t able to respond sooner.

You are right, and I concede that most philosophers worth their salt aren’t [act] utilitarians, though an evolutionary narrative leaves little else from which to work, in my opinion. On the other hand, I intended only to address what I perceived to be one of the most common ways of thinking about ethics, and so I believe I succeeded. I did write it, after all. Whether or not what I have said is as thorough as you would like is not really something I trouble myself over.

I did not mean to imply that act utilitarianism was the only form of utilitarianism, and in fact I anticipated different forms of it when I stated:

Will different cultures have different gauges for utility? Can someone rightfully say that other cultures are wrong in the utility they value? While the former almost certainly seems the case, the latter can only be done by ignoring utilitarianism. But in favor of what?

Any “softer” version, as you say. For what it’s worth, one criticism of “rule utilitarianism” is that it reduces to act utilitarianism.

I do not pragmatically “fiat” a very specific and narrow view of Christianity so much as I am speaking from this position to begin with. And since my intended audience consists of Christians primarily, a reason and justification for this particular ethic is already understood and given. Perhaps you are simply out of the loop. Yes, there is a sense of “utility” in following Christ, in providing incentive and coherent reasons to refrain from war. But the difference between that and Utilitarianism per se is that any “utility” is incidental, and not what determines the ethic.


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