What is utilitarianism?Question: "What is utilitarianism?"
Answer: The essence of Utilitarianism is its concept of pleasure and pain. Utilitarian philosophy sees “good” as anything that increases pleasure and reduces pain. It is a philosophy of outcomes. If the outcome of an action serves to increase pleasure and reduce pain, then the action is considered good. At its heart, Utilitarianism is a hedonistic philosophy. The history of Utilitarianism can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, but as a school of thought, Utilitarianism is often credited to British philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
What are some of the problems of Utilitarianism? First is its focus on outcomes. In reality, an action is not good just because its outcome is good. The Bible says that “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God is not as concerned with outcomes as He is with the intentions of our hearts. Good actions with bad intentions do not please God. Obviously, we cannot see the intentions of others. We are not even capable of completely discerning our own intentions. But that is no excuse; we all have to come before God and give an account of our actions.
A second problem with Utilitarianism is its focus on pleasure as opposed to what is truly good. Pleasure is a human definition of good and, as such, can be very subjective. What is pleasurable to one may not be pleasurable to another. According the Bible, God is the definition of good (Psalm 86:5; 119:68), and since God does not change (James 1:17), the definition of good does not change, either; it is objective, not subjective. Goodness does not fluctuate with the trends of human desire or the passage of time. Furthermore, by equating good with pleasure, we risk defining good as simply the satisfaction of our base, fleshly desires. As is evidenced by people who succumb to a hedonistic lifestyle, the more one indulges in a pleasure, the less intense the pleasure becomes, and the more indulging is needed to achieve the same stimulation. It’s the law of diminishing returns, applied to pleasure. An example of this cycle is drug addicts who experiment with progressively stronger drugs to achieve the same high.
A third problem with Utilitarianism is the avoidance of pain. Not all pain is bad. It’s not that pain in and of itself is good, but it can lead to good. The history of humanity is full of learning from mistakes. As many say, failure is the best teacher. No one is advocating that we should actively seek out pain. But to say that all pain is evil and should be avoided is naïve. God is more interested in our holiness than our happiness. His exhortation to His people is to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:15-16). The Bible also says that we are to count it all joy when we face trials of all kinds (James 1:2-4), not because the trials are joyful, but because they lead to greater perseverance and faithfulness.
All in all, the philosophy of Utilitarianism is focused on making this life as pain-free as possible for as many people as possible. On the surface, that seems like an admirable goal. Who would not want to relieve the suffering of people throughout the world? Yet the Bible tells us that there is more to our existence than just this life on earth. If all we are living for is to maximize pleasure in this life, we miss the larger perspective. Jesus said that he who lives for this life will be greatly disappointed (Matthew 6:19). The apostle Paul says the troubles of this life will not compare to the glory we will receive in eternity (2 Corinthians 4:17). The things of this life are transient and temporary (v. 18). Our focus should be on maximizing our glory in heaven, not our life on earth.
Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
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Questions about Theology
What is utilitarianism?