Utilitarianism is a system of ethics in which the thing that is the most useful is the most moral or ethical. Generally, utilitarianism holds the belief that “pleasure is good, and pain is bad,” (Jaquet, 2018). Ergo, the thing that is the most useful is the thing that causes the most pleasure. A refined utilitarian will clarify that it is not always the most immediate good that is the “best” good. When applying this general principle to actual life scenarios, the belief system has its problems. Usually, therefore, it is combined with other belief systems to create a more plausible morality narrative.
Utilitarianism has practical applications for some of the heathen philosophies. For example, I suggest that there is general consensus among humans that it is wrong to kill people. However, this is a problem for atheists who reject a supreme being and with it that particular basis for morality. Utilitarianism has sometimes been used by them (atheists, etc.) as a base for the moral instincts against murder, lieing, stealing, etc.. in other words, Christians suggest that moral instincts come from a creator God who has implanted us with a natural, though often corrupted, moral leanings. Atheists will argue that morality simply exists as a system of social or even personal beliefs that “helped our ancestors to survive” (Jaquet, 2018). It is that last bit that is basic utilitarianism.
A utilitarian would probably argue that if all society stole with impunity then the society would fall apart. Security and the ability to store up goods, they would argue, greatly benefits society (I agree). The argument is made that eventually humans or pre-humans figured out that if everyone agreed not to steal, and stealing was deterred by shame or punishment, then society would be better off and experience more long term pleasure. It is no surprise then that utilitarianism and Christianity generally share moral maxims. For, if Christianity is true, then the morality espoused by it would in fact be that morality which, when society follows it, promotes the best “survival” of that society. But these are general statements filled with exceptions.
Enter now the “what if” brigade. Would it still be wrong under utilitarianism to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family? The utilitarian says at least that morality requires one to give the starving family bread. One of the difficulties of utilitarianism is how to arrive at the concept of universal benevolence in which everyone’s well-being is given equal consideration (Jaquet, 2018). For, this idea of caring for other people contrasts with the evolutionary argument since evolution would suggest a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. This concept is explored by the aforementioned source and Jaquet points out that there are instances of strangers sacrificing their lives for strangers, which seems to run afoul of the basic evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest.
We mentioned earlier that utilitarianism saves its bacon by avoiding the immediate game. Utilitarians have learned that it is easier to make their case if the morality of “what is useful” should be looked at as a long-term game. Instead of “what does the most good now,” the question is asked, “what does the most overall good, overtime.” As suggested above, one shouldn’t steal because a world where everyone steals would be harmful to me. They argue that in order to not create a harmful environment for myself or the propagators of my DNA, I do not steal, and neither should you.
Utilitarianism should not be confused with utility in general. Those that have lived within or close to the Mennonite and Amish communities will note that in an attempt to be separate, things have been banned that are only now allowed because they have reached a certain level of utility. It is difficult for me to speak for the Amish community, but the use of cell phones for work or the building of phone shacks out by the road comes to mind. Mennonites have the awkward instances of allowing the internet while banning the TV. Why? Probably because the internet is necessary to function in the modern age - utility. Importantly, this must not be seen as a pure adoption of the utilitarian ethic. Rather, it is an example of utility changing the ethical calculation of a thing. Watches are generally permitted because they serve a function. That functionality takes them out of the realm of “purely decorative” and thus they don’t fall under the category of “adornment.”
Utilitarianism derives its ethic from a thing’s utility. In an upcoming post we will cautiously explore Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos and it’s utilitarian vibes. To be fair, I haven’t heard him claim utilitarianism as an ethics system. However, “because it’s practical” is a large part of his reasoning for recommended conduct. One of his rules is “Always Tell the Truth or at Least Don’t Lie.” In that chapter he gives several practical reasons not to and I generally agree with them. However, for the Christian, that is not why we don’t lie. We don’t lie, simply put, because we are commanded not to. The backstory story as to why we don’t lie has more to do with why we believe and follow the dictates of the Bible than it does the practical implication of a truthful society even though a truthful society is the most useful. It is a happy coincidence that the Christian ethic often turns out to be the most useful and produces the most long-term good. Or is it?
by Ryan Yoder
Jaquet, F. (2018). Evolution and Utilitarianism. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 1151-1161.