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What is utilitarianism?

Question: "What is utilitarianism?"

The essence of Utilitarianism is in 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 the focus on outcomes. 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 pass muster with God. Now, obviously, we cannot see the intentions of others. We are not even capable of completely discerning our own intentions. But that does not excuse us because 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. It does not fluctuate with the passing trends of human desire or the passage of time. Furthermore, by equating good with pleasure, there is the risk of defining good as simply the satisfaction of our base, fleshly desires. As is evidenced with people who succumb to this type of lifestyle—hedonism—the more one indulges in a pleasure, the more one has to indulge to achieve the same stimulation. An example of this is drug addicts who progressively experiment with stronger and stronger drugs.

A third problem with Utilitarianism is the avoidance of pain. Not all pain is bad or evil. It’s not that pain in and of itself is good, but it can lead to good. The history of humanity is the history 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 to be avoided is naïve. God is more interested in our holiness than our happiness. His exhortation to His people is for us 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 existence than just this life on earth. If all we are living for is to maximize pleasure in this life, the bigger picture is being missed. Jesus told us 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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What is utilitarianism?