In this excerpt from 50 Ethical Questions: Biblical Wisdom for Confusing Times, J. Alan Branch explains why utilitarianism isn’t sufficient for a Christian moral framework.
Mr. Spock: It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh …—Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
Captain Kirk: … the needs of the few …
Mr. Spock: … or the one.
Many people argue that we should make decisions that result in the most good for the greatest number of people. This is called utilitarianism, a system of ethics that attempts to build a moral framework based on the presence or absence of pain or happiness. Utilitarianism suggests one constant duty for everyone: Each person should anticipate the consequences of one’s moral action and make a choice that maximizes the aggregate happiness of humanity. Utilitarianism is appealing because all of us are concerned about the consequences of our actions. Maximizing happiness and minimizing pain seems noble. So, what’s wrong with basing our ethics on what promotes the greatest good for the greatest number?
Biblical Ethical Principles
While we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Bible provides rules, such as the Ten Commandments, to guide Christian conduct. Knowing God is equated with being obedient to his commands: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). Theologian and philosopher John Frame comments on this verse, “When Scripture describes the knowledge of God that comes by grace, that knowledge is always accompanied by obedience and holiness.” From a biblical perspective, our first obligation is not to search for the greatest good for the greatest number but to be obedient to God’s moral commands.
Happiness and the absence of pain is another name for pleasure, and pleasure is an insufficient starting point for ethics. Pursuing pleasure for its own sake does not result in greater happiness, but frustration. For example, Ecclesiastes 2:1–11 describes the pursuit of wine, accumulation of wealth, beautiful surroundings, and sexual encounters, only to conclude by saying, “And behold all was vanity and striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). The Bible also cautions us that happiness and pleasure can become idolatrous goals that lead us to sin. In the parable of the sower, Jesus warns about people who are “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). When love is misdirected toward our own pleasure instead of God, our moral thinking becomes distorted.
Utilitarianism also wrongly assumes that fallen, finite humans can predict with accuracy the full consequences of our actions. In contrast, Isaiah 46:10 says God declares “the end from the beginning” and 1 John 3:20 says God knows all things. Humans are not omniscient and we will never know all the many consequences of our choices, thus limiting the viability of utilitarian moral calculus.
Obedience to God’s commands does not mean we overlook the consequences of our ethical choices. For example, the prophet Ezekiel stressed that God’s people had to bear the consequences for their moral rebellion (Ezekiel 23:35). Similarly, Paul appeals to the consequences of sexual immorality as a reason for the Corinthians to live in purity (1 Corinthians 6:12–20). But the consequences of our actions are always seen in light of God’s standards and are not evaluated on the basis of our own pleasures and desires.
Suggested Moral Stance
While Christians are certainly concerned about the consequences of our actions and should consider carefully how our choices affect others, utilitarianism as an ethical system should be rejected. Because we are not omniscient and can never fully predict the consequences of our choices, God has provided moral parameters for our good in the Bible. Christians should always define what is good in light of God’s word. Our default position should first be to search diligently for the biblical commands and principles most applicable to our moral questions.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “I only know that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Hemingway’s attitude sums up the subjective and practical problems with utilitarianism as a system. Measuring pleasure and pain inevitably boils down to someone’s tastes, preferences, and experiences. But Scripture warns us that because of the fall our desires are broken, one of Paul’s main points in Romans 1:18–32. It is quite possible for fallen humans to feel very good after committing acts God says are sinful and deplorable.
Furthermore, utilitarianism fails its own test when historical examples are considered. Some of the most heinous acts in the last two centuries have been justified on utilitarian grounds. In the name of promoting the greater good for the greatest number, forced sterilization, euthanasia, abortion, and a host of other evils have resulted in the death of many innocent people. What happens to those who aren’t in the greatest number? Too often, they become expendable for the sake of the purported greater good of society.
Questions for Reflection
- How might our own sinful nature skew our perception of what is good?
- When considering the consequences of our actions, why is it important to begin with what God says about right and wrong?
This post is adapted from 50 Ethical Questions: Biblical Wisdom for Confusing Times by J. Alan Branch (Lexham Press, 2022).