What if the moral code we live by is not based on an objective moral standard but rather is just based on what hurts and pleases people or what is good or bad for society? What if there is no need for God because morality can be empirically identified and capitalized on for the progress of humans? Do we need an overarching law-giver if we, as humans, can identify what provides the most amount of good, for the greatest number of people, with the least amount of harm? This is the main tenet of a moral code known as Utilitarianism—a product of two Enlightenment thinkers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Though they differed on their approach to Utilitarianism, it is undeniable that Bentham and Mill’s moral system has had a united influence on society.
Problems with Utilitarianism
The first problem with Utilitarianism is that under such an ethical code, it seems morality is arbitrary. On Utilitarianism, there is no way objectively to determine the importance, nature, or value of outcomes. In other words, how does anyone know what are “good” and “bad” consequences? People could simply act in a seemingly immoral fashion but would be justified in doing so because it maximizes utility. For instance, if a businessman knew he could sleep with his boss, without his wife and kids ever knowing about it, to gain a 10 percent pay raise, would he be wrong? It is hard to see why from a utilitarian point of view; by sleeping with his boss the man could use the pay raise to put towards his kid’s college funds, save for retirement, pay down more financial debt, incur less financial stress. His wife could potentially work part-time (which means more time with the kids). They could travel more, etc. Or suppose, to deter crime in your local city, the police and judicial system prosecuted an innocent person and then assigned the person death by firing squad. Over the long haul, the action could maximize utility and allow people to flourish with a substantially lower crime rate. But wait! The person was innocent! Your point? Utilitarianism says go for it!
The second problem with Utilitarianism is that the majority could enslave the minority. For instance, suppose that to save resources, pay down the national debt, invest in military engineering, etc., a government decides that people with disabilities (Down syndrome, diabetes, Huntington disease, spinal Bifida, ALS, etc.,) would be killed at the age of 25. If the majority agrees with it, and in doing so would serve the overall utility of that nation, why would it be wrong—on Utilitarianism—to implement such a plan? If the majority holds power, the utility is maintained, and the nation flourishes, why is it wrong?
Finally, utilitarianism devalues human beings. The book of Genesis says God created each person in His image (Genesis 1:26). Thus, mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation and is endowed, therefore, with natural rights, a soul, will, and dominion over the entirety of creation. On a biblical world view, humans are intrinsically valuable; they are ends in and of themselves. Utilitarianism diminishes mankind by treating people simply as means to an end. On Utilitarianism, the only value of people is extrinsic or instrumental—it is seen in their ability to provide utility to society. For instance, in the previous illustration, the person with a handicap, incapable of contributing to the economy or military weapons research, is less valuable than the person who has the faculties to do so. Therefore, the elimination of the former is not a significant loss because, after all, they provide no utility to the country.
While Utilitarianism sounds like a stable moral system, in that it is morally arbitrary, drives against our moral realities, and devalues humans, we must conclude that this approach to morality is neither consistent nor practical. A Biblical worldview, on the other hand, values all people, appeals to objective moral values and duties, is coherent and can be lived out consistently. And, the person sitting on the fence between Utilitarianism and Christianity should be inclined to choose Christianity.