The utilitarian approach to ethics is important for its commitment to equality.
There are no special interest people or groups. The happiness of each person is measured in an equivalent manner.
This characteristic appears commendable in giving voice to the voiceless and addressing the disproportional influence of wealthy individuals and corporations.
The commendable principle of equal value may require some qualifications in its implementation.
For example, in a time of crisis, there are moral expectations that parents will give priority to the safety and well-being of their children (while bearing in mind the needs of others). The same ethical responsibility has daily implications for families.
Furthermore, there is a moral question about the happiness of minority groups that have been marginalized because of past events and social forces.
Such groups may need special assistance that recognizes a history of injustice and offers prospects of gaining dignity and hope.
The “happiness count” of people in the borderlands may not register as particularly significant in the larger context of a city or region.
However, a biblical ethic always moves us to meet the widow, the orphan and the stranger in the margins of our social locations.
Many Christians will be troubled by the absence of considerations of virtue and character in utilitarian ethics. Using the “end” to “justify the means” can feel dangerous.
Slavery was used to justify an economic system based on oppression. The Indian Residential Schools in Canada were justified as a means to “take the Indian out of the child” and facilitate social integration.
Every regime that practices torture has articulated a moral justification. The utilitarian approach to ethics, when used exclusively, can be perverted by personal ambition and abuses of power.
Finally, the quality of the heart seems to be an essential aspect of morality.
Many of us are reluctant to separate motivations from actions. We would praise someone that risked his life to save five children who were held hostage.
Our admiration might be tempered if we discovered that the rescuer had been offered a $1 million payment per child. The action might seem more mercenary than moral in nature.
In the parable of the sower and the seed, the people that bear abundant fruit hold fast to the word with honest and good hearts (Luke 8:15). After a grievous moral failure, a psalmist of Israel seeks from God a clean heart and a new spirit (Psalm 51:10).
These texts, along with the weight of personal experience, lead us to conclude that faithful living requires the difficult inner journey of the heart.
Despite its flaws and drawbacks, the utilitarian approach to ethics should be part of our toolkit for the task of analyzing moral dilemmas.
This perspective will help us to rise above personal and in-group interests in order to consider the general well-being (happiness) of our communities.
However, we should balance utilitarian ethics with other approaches to morality so that we avoid inflicting injustice and pain based on dubious arguments that the end justifies the means.
Gordon King serves as Canadian Baptist Ministries’ resource specialist and is the author of “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.