Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The antichrist will be a utilitarian

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.

3 comments:

anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I wonder how a Christian might apply an (let's call it) agape-centered ethic to the famous trolley case. Suppose a Christian who endorses the agape-centered ethic is in the dilemma of choosing to either save the lives of three persons or the life of one person. How would an agape-centered ethic address such a dilemma? Of course, a utilitarian ethic offers strong reasons for why one should choose to save the three lives, reasons which comport with our ethical intuitions. However, it's not clear how an agape-centered ethic could adduce any considerations which bear on, say, why it is right to save the lives of three persons over the life of one person, nor is it clear whether such considerations would even comport with or intuitive assessment. Perhaps you don't really care whether the considerations of an agape-centered ethic comport with our ethical intuitions since you might think that such intuitions are grounded in a hedonistic framework anyway. Nevertheless, it's still an interesting result that an agape-centered ethic doesn't have a clear and cogent application to such an ethical situation, that is, it seems to be limited in scope.

Another question one might have is whether the imperatives of an agape-centered ethic inevitably reduce or yield hedonistic concerns. This question could be articulated in different ways, but at least one iteration of the question could be that, though one's agapic action yields no immediate self-pleasure, perhaps the agapic action yields a maximization of pleasure that is temporally delayed. And just one other iteration of the concern could be that though one's agapic action yields no first-order pleasure (e.g., the pleasure you could have from eating your food), the agapic action might yield a higher-order pleasure (e.g., the pleasure one experiences when one recognizes that one's own voluntary discomfort/pain is instrumental in the maximization of pleasure in some other party). To put the question more generally, is there a coherent way to motivate an agapic-ethic that would not inevitably bottom out or be supported by hedonistic considerations? Even a Christian might think that the answer to this question is negative because the notion of joy also seems to be indicative of Christian action, a concept that is in some sense reminiscent of hedonistic underpinnings.

Steven Nemeș said...

Let me respond to your comment in a few points.

1. I am not principally concerned to formulate a systematic and coherent normative ethical theory. I'm not an ethicist. If anything, I am an evangelist. My concern is to make use of philosophy and theology in such a way as to call people (and myself, more than anything) to repentance. So that is my primary concern.

2. I don't have firm opinions about trolley cases. I am not sure our intuitions are clear, either. The utilitarian says you should kill the one to save the many, but that is hardly an obvious point. Students of mine have had opposite intuitions: unfortunate as the death of the many would be, some students have expressed that their sense was that it would be immoral for them to intervene and actively to bring about the death of anyone.

2a. It's also possible that there simply is no right thing to do in a trolley case; no matter what you do, you are doing something wrong. If the agape-centered ethic doesn't yield a "right" answer to what to do, that need not be a problem for it.

3. I don't think utilitarianism comports in any substantial way with our moral intuitions except in particular cases. Suppose a band of street urchins, misled youth, are roaming the inner city and find a homeless heroin junkie passed out in an alley. He is totally unconscious. They abuse him in various ways for the fun of it and for the pleasure it gives them: piss on him, draw obscene things on his body with markers, and ultimately leave him in a dumpster. For reasons unrelated to this treatment, the junkie dies without ever becoming conscious of what has happened to him. No one else finds out about this and the urchins never feel any remorse for the rest of their days. Act utilitarianism justifies this behavior, despite the fact that our moral intuitions clearly find it abhorrent.

4. It's one thing for actions to be accompanied by pleasure (though I would deny that it's pleasure accompanying some of the acts you considered), and it's another thing for pleasure to be your principal motivation for action. Genuine agape and the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake are diametrically opposed orientations of life. Agape is concerned for the other person, whereas pleasure primarily concerns me and my own enjoyment. Love moves a person to forgo pleasure for the sake of another simpliciter, whereas the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake could never motivate that choice.

anonymous said...

ad 4. What I'm trying to argue (maybe unsuccessfully) is that for a Christian agapic ethic, one's motivation for action is self-regarding at the most fundamental level. At a very basic level, one could ask, "Why care about agape at all?" Your post seemed to suggest that someone should care about agape because God is agape, and insofar as one cares about knowing God and being in contact with God, one should care about agapic action. But notice that the reason why one should care about agapic action is because such action brings one closer into contact with God, and presumably, coming into closer contact with God has a high utility-value for the individual. And so, even if the motivation for one's agapic action to another person is most immediately (epistemically or logically) other-regarding, one's agapic action is fundamentally or ultimately self-regarding.

Of course, the relationship between agape and eros (or the role of eudaemonia in ethics) is a perennial Christian dilemma. Indeed, it was St. Augustine who wrote that, "The primal destruction of man was self-love," and, "you did not love yourself when you did not love the God who made you." For St. Augustine, there seems to be some sense in which self-love is destructive and another sense in which it is spiritually and individually beneficial. (See O'Donovan, "The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine".)

Perhaps we could make sense of this dispute (and here my thoughts are exploratory) if we say that it suffices for agape if the principal motivation for action is other-regarding relative to a synchronic analysis, but then concede that the principal motivation for *all* of one's actions over time is self-regarding relative to a diachronic analysis. What do I mean by this? Well, I am suggesting that, for any particular instance of ethical action, one satisfies agape if one's principal motivation for *that* action is other-regarding; but when you take the set of one's ethical actions over time, it is not incompatible with agape to say that the principal motivation for the set of one's ethical actions over time is self-regarding, because the reason for living ethically is to grow closer to God and growing closer to God maximizes the utility of the individual.

If this is plausible, then distinguishing between synchronic and diachronic analyses of ethical action might positively render agape and eros compatible in Christian practice. The Christian could assent that self-love is not unacceptable insofar as the Christian construes self-love as being in communion with God, which is pursued through a series of discrete agapic actions over the course of one's lifetime.

What you think about this propaganda, dog?