King's Evangelical Divinity School

19 November 2009

Utilitarianism in the Bible?

Over the weekend, much to the acute consternation and collective groans of my poor family, I watched The Wild Geese (with Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris) for the umpteenth time. It’s a 1970s war film about mercenaries hired by a mining magnate to rescue a politician held by a corrupt African regime in order to secure mining concessions. However, the mercenaries are double-crossed by their employer who, negotiating a better financial deal, abandons them to the local militias to save having to pay their contract. They are faced with fighting their way across hundreds of miles of bush pursued by the cruel regime’s bloodthirsty troops, with only a handful of the mercenaries surviving. Mercenary involvement in Africa’s wars of the 1960s and 1970s fascinates me, so I keep going back to this film (much to my family’s misery). When we’re undecided over what to watch and I start torumage through our DVDs, my family immediately guess what's coming and all chorus in unison, “Oh no, not The Wild Geese again!” and disappear with alacrity. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched the film other than alone.

Anyway, in the movie there’s a scene where several soldiers are mortally wounded and will die in just a few hours. To save them being captured by the bloodthirsty Simba, who will “cut them into little pieces” Richard Burton shoots the wounded men under his command. Towards the end of the movie he also kills his best friend Richard Harris for the same reason (demonstrating if you fight with Richard Burton make sure you never get wounded).

This concept of killing someone like this to bring about a greater good troubles me. Of course, the portrayal in the movie is rather black and white (die quickly and relatively painless now, or else die agonisingly and slowly in a couple or three hours), compared with many real life euthanasia scenarios which are far from being so black and white. Also, this approach to taking life draws on a philosophy known as utilitarianism, which Christians find problematic for various reasons. Utilitarianism argues that which is good or moral can be determined by what brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. In other words, if the good outweighs the bad, then an action is justified, even moral and good (in short, “the end justifies the means”). Thus, goodness is not an inherent quality in itself but rather, it is determined by outcome which, for Christians, is hugely problematic because such a philosophy argues goodness is relative, not absolute ( is not constant, but changes according to circumstance). Utilitarianism, then, arguably seeks to construct an alternative moral system which is not based on divine revelation. I also believe utilitarianism, which is a predominantly Anglo-Saxon philosophy (and thus somewhat looked down upon by our Continental cousins, who tend to aspire to more lofty intellectual philosophising) has degenerated within English-speaking Western society (whose culture increasingly influences the rest of the West) into downright hedonism, or the worship of pleasure. You see, by emphasising the outcome and the greatest good to the greatest number of people, as well as arguing goodness is relative, anything that brings widespread pleasure is deemed good and to be encouraged. The result in Western society is pure hedonism, promoted through consumerism, sexual freedom, a particular view of liberty and independence, and an eschewing of responsibility.

(Conversely, I would add pleasure in itself is not wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact. After all, God gave us senses, without any of which life becomes infinitely more miserable. Moreover, the Church’s traditional teaching about the afterlife is one of eternal bliss. Too often Christendom, whether Catholic or Protestantism, has frowned upon the notion of pleasure being something to be valued in itself, or else so reacted against the world’s abuse of pleasure – the world’s version of pleasure often brings misery and destruction – that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and we are all expected to walk around with miserable faces if we are truly spiritual. I also think it is in human nature to want to control people and tell them what to do, whether in the religious sphere (i.e. legalism), or political or social realms).

Anyway, back to utilitarianism. So as we have noted utilitarianism presents a series of problems for the Christian. But then, as I dwelt on it, I got to thinking how, in fact, the Bible contains all manner of utilitarian scenarios. (By this stage the movie was mostly forgotten, with the chattering of machine guns and men shouting serving as a gentle, blissful background to my philosophising). So what are some examples of utilitarianism, where the outcome determines whether an action is good, in the Bible? Examples include the Hebrew midwives who lied to save Israelite babies, and were specifically blessed by God for doing so (Ex 1:15-21); Rahab helping the spies in order to save her family (Jos 2, esp. v 12-13, 6:22-23); Ehud’s assassination of Eglon in the Book of Judges (Jdg 3:12-23); David and his companions eating the consecrated showbread (1 Sm 21:1-6); and Jesus healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Mk 3:1-6). These are just a few, and readers might not agree that every one is the best example of utilitarianism (for example, as well as wanting to save her family Rahab also helped the spies because she knew God was with them), but you get the picture. If you can think of any more I’d be interesting to hear them.

As I continued to think of further examples of utilitarianism in the Bible (by this stage the movie had ended, the room was in darkness, and apparently everyone had gone to bed, leaving me downstairs as punishment for daring to watch The Wild Geese for the third time this year) I distantly recalled a statement in the New Testament where the High Priest Caiaphas said, “better for one man to die for the people than the whole nation perish”. This is utilitarian language at its most explicit. But of course Caiaphas was a “baddie”, one of those responsible for having Christ tried and executed, so this instance of utilitarianism didn’t really count as a biblical example (just the Bible reporting an evil man embracing utilitarianism). Or did it? In John 11:49-52 we learn Caiaphas made the statement prophetically. In other words, whatever his personal view, he expressed God’s view and plan: better for one man to die for the people. In John 15:13 Jesus tells His disciples, “No greater love has any man than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (cf 1 Jn 3:16), telling them they were His friends. Moreover, the whole Gospel is based on the fact that Christ gave His life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28 cf 26:28, Heb 9:28). In other words, the sinless Son of God who was blameless and knew no sin was willingly crucified for the greater good. He did not deserve to die - while the whole of humanity did - yet His sacrifice and subsequent resurrection brought the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Paradoxically, then, Christianity rejects utilitarianism’s efforts to construct a moral system without divine revelation, yet a utilitarian scenario divinely actuated underpins the very essence of what Christianity is all about. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now I'm not saying we should all rush out and buy copies of Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill and become avowed utilitarianists. As Christians we still believe goodness is divinely established, not relative according to outcome. But in an imperfect world in which we see all manner of suffering and horrible things caused by sin, maybe we have, on occasion, overemphasised the means at the expense of the ends. Maybe an emphasis on a greater good is not always a wrong approach, provided our definition of good draws on divine revelation. Indeed, might utilitarianism work better within a Christian worldview, rather than apart from it? These are things for us to discuss if you wish. In the meantime, as one reads through Scripture it is encouraging to learn of some cases where either the end justifies the means, or else where God has taken something bad and turned it into something good. Either way it gives us hope.

To wrap up, let's go back to The Wild Geese ("Oh no", shout my family). Is ending life in the black and white scenario detailed in the movie acceptable? I could only think of one biblical example coming close, when King Saul, who was mortally wounded, asked his armour bearer to kill him. But he refused so Saul killed himself with his own sword. So not much light shed there then. Any other insights on this issue gratefully received.


Anonymous said...

Hi Calvin - One thing I wrote about in 'Restoring the Ethics of Creation' is that ultimately the gospel is about love - a utilitarian argument. For the joy set before him Jesus Christ endured the cross to save mankind. God has now written the law on our hearts - therefore we have an obligation from the heart to treat with respect all that have value - both moral agents and moral patients - not just a Kantian rights/duties ethic based on ability for rational thought.
There is incidentally a new book out on creation and evolution
Andrew Sibley

Beth B said...

You have an extremely broad definition of "utilitarianism." Philosophically, this term refers to the ethical position that calculates all moral action according to the following rule/principle: "Do that which causes the greatest happiness (that is, PLEASURE) for the greatest number of people."

For a great, readable introduction to various styles of ethical reasoning, see
Steve Wilkens' "Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics," Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity, 1995.

Fitting utilitarianism into Christian faith is like trying to fit in a Procrustean bed. It can be done, but not without stretching or lopping off important parts.

May I suggest Virtue Ethics as a much better approach for Christians. There's a chapter in Wilkens' book that explains this approach. Or better yet, read Peter Kreeft's "Back to Virtue."

Calvin L. Smith said...

Thanks for the suggested books, I'll look them up when I get a chance.

What I'm getting at here is consequentialism as a determinant of morality. Besides, didn't JB's understanding differ from JSM's more pleasure-orientated definition? Indeed, utilitarianism IS now incredibly broadly defined, isn't it?

Unknown said...

I'm thinking that there is a utilitarian dimension to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. All laborers get the same daily wage, which maximizes the benefit in the aggregate, even if some think it's unfair. David Ball,

Unknown said...

I'm thinking that there is a utilitarian dimension to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. All laborers get the same daily wage, which maximizes the benefit in the aggregate, even if some think it's unfair. David Ball,