My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, so I studied all the major philosophical topics you might expect: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and so on. More than that, I work at Grand Canyon University as an Instructional Assistant for professors of philosophy, so I get to revisit everything I learned at my work, as well. Though my real passion is in theology, and though I conceive of philosophy ultimately as a kind of handmaiden to theology (like any good Thomist) and a praeparatio evangelica, I still value philosophy for its own sake. My opinion is that thinking clearly and having a coherent basis of first principles is important for anyone who wants to live a thoughtful Christian life.
Towards the end of the semester, my students at GCU were studying different normative ethical theories, specifically utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. The thought occurred to me, as it had at previous points in my life but not with this profundity and detail, that utilitarianism is a deeply ungodly and immoral ethical theory. 'Utilitarianism,' as I am using the phrase here, is understood to be a consequentialist moral theory that defines good action in terms of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for all agents affected by an act. In other words, the key to acting rightly, on the view as I am considering it here, is that you do what you can to make the most possible people feel the most possible pleasure and the least possible pain by what you do.
The problem with this moral theory is not necessarily its consequentialism (I don't want to get into that issue per se) but its insistence that pleasure and pain are the only moral absolutes of good and evil. Thinking like this will, sooner or later, turn you against all true religion and against the demand of Christ that you pick up your cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). If you think that only pleasure is worth pursuing for its own sake and only pain is ultimately to be avoided, you cannot be a perfected Christian and you cannot make considerable spiritual progress. Inevitably you will find yourself inclined to draw back when the going gets tough, and it's been promised that the going will get tough: It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). More than that, a person whose primary object in life is to enjoy herself cannot love God for his own sake. He only wants pleasure which he might get from God -- and as Catherine of Siena says, such a person is far from the truth and liable to fall away.
The alternative vision of the bible is Christ's own ethic. Its fundamentally anti-utilitarian, anti-hedonist essence is encapsulated nicely in this, my favorite verse from the whole bible:
For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Rom 15:3).
Christ did not seek his own pleasure! His own enjoyment was hardly on his mind as he went through Galilee and Judah, preaching the gospel and calling sinners to convert from their evils. The announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God, rather than bringing pleasure to Christ, instead brought him much suffering and opposition. The culminating point of all this was the crucifixion of Jesus, which it turns out was precisely the reason for which he came into the earth!
Christ did not seek his own pleasure. So what motivated him? What was able to give him the strength and the motivation and the impulse to seek the salvation of the world through his own immense suffering? The answer, of course, which has been given by all the saints and theologians of the history of the Church, is: his tremendous love for humankind. Consider what John says:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:7-10).
Look at what John is saying here. Christians are called to love one another (rather than to seek their own pleasure!) because love is from God. And all of the different aspects of becoming a Christian -- being born of God, being inwardly transformed and changed through the Holy Spirit, the ontological change that affects a person being converted; as well the epistemological change of coming to know who God is -- all these things are ordered towards the fundamental change of disposition: the Christian must be enabled and taught to love. The presence or lack of love in the life of a Christian is the primary evidence of whether that person has had real contact with God! Thus John says that whoever doesn't love, doesn't know God. And why is that? Because God is love!
Love, as it is being understood here, is far away from the pleasure-seeking utilitarianism of our day. This is because love must be in accordance with the truth (1 John 3:18). God, in his love, does not simply create for us a hedonistic paradise on earth so that we can enjoy ourselves without any pain or hurt. Neither does he approach the matter of our salvation in a way that doesn't cost him or hurt him. Rather, it is through the Cross of Christ and his suffering and death that redemption is accomplished for the whole world. Love lead God to suffering, not away from it.
John's lesson is that if we are not similarly willing to suffer for each other out of love, we are not yet there; we have not quite come to know God's love in our own lives. If I have extra food and you are starving, it's loving for me to share with you. But that hasn't cost me anything, since I have enough for myself as well. But if you are starving and I have enough only for myself, and I decide to give it to you anyway, then my love is sacrificial. Then my love will be like Christ's love. Then I have matured past the immature hedonist utilitarianism of the day, and have decided that it is better to embrace suffering and pain for the good of the other person out of love.
It is clear that living up to this example perfectly is far away from most of us. Surely I fall short in a million ways. But I don't help myself any by deluding myself into thinking my comfortable life is still good enough, that more is not demanded of me. I think utilitarianism is attractive to so many people because we have a natural bent towards the pleasant and pleasurable. But to make pleasure the be-all, end-all of morality is the height of impiety. No person who loves pleasure for its own sake and everything else only for the sake of pleasure can be godly. That kind of attitude and thinking will never give the strength voluntarily to undertake suffering for God's sake, and for the sake of your neighbor.
For this reason, I am all the more skeptical of moral philosophers and politicians whose platform and mindset is broadly utilitarian. Some philosophers justify even the crudest and most disgusting vices on utilitarian grounds. Peter Singer, for example, defends "consensual" bestiality on utilitarian grounds. When you think that the only thing worth pursuing is pleasure and the only thing to be avoided at all costs is pain, your thinking will be badly distorted and you will justify anything on the grounds that you're not harming anyone. Without getting into any eschatological debates and without affirming any position one way or the other, I will make this provocative statement: the antichrist will be a utilitarian. Concerned with minimizing pain and suffering, he'll get a reputation for being a "good guy," who just wants to "do good" in the world. But minimizing pain was not God's first concern, and it was not Christ's first concern, either. The utilitarian antichrist quickly sets himself up against God, then, as the "true" savior of man on this false premise.
It goes without saying that we should not cause others pain unnecessarily, but the primary good is not pleasure nor the primary evil pain; rather, the primary good is, as Augustine said, to cling to God in love, and the primary evil to live in sin apart from God. The pursuit of pleasure for its own sake and the avoidance of pain at any cost, being an intrinsically self-interested and self-oriented pursuit, is the quickest way to distort your moral sense and to make yourself into a child of the devil.