The Irony of Utilitarianism

by M. N. Jackson
August 26, 2021
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Perhaps the most difficult hurdle for a secularist worldview is how to define and defend morality. Not only do they not have an eternal, sovereign God, but they also, consequently, don’t have an absolute purpose. As an attempt to fill in those gaps and establish a groundwork for moral expectations, many secularists turn to the ethical theory known as Utilitarianism. This theory postulates that what is right is that which results in the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. Just on the surface, this statement is fraught with problems. 

Firstly, they must make pleasure the highest possible ideal; pain is the lowest imaginable consequence. This is largely because it would be logically incoherent to say “that which results in the greatest good for the greatest number.” Incoherent because it would result in circular reasoning. I.e.: What is good is what results in the greatest good. But pleasure isn’t a definitive word. It can mean almost anything and almost everything at once. Not only can everyone define pleasure differently, but they do. Which means the it would just as meaningful to say “That which results in the greatest __________ for the greatest number.” And not only can everyone define “pleasure” differently than everyone else, but they can define it differently than they themselves did yesterday or tomorrow, or two minutes ago. There is no absolute Pleasure Ruler safeguarded in the Universal Bureau of Pleasures and Pains that all proposed pleasures can be compared to.

Secondly, they must qualify which pleasure they are seeking as “the greatest” because there are lesser pleasures and greater ones, and all kinds in between. In fact, they can’t even know if any particular pleasure really is “the greatest”. By the same token, there is also no viable way to determine if any particular thing is resulting in pleasure for the greatest number. That might have been a more meaningful ideal back before chaos theory and its “butterfly effect”, the connectedness of the entire world, and not to mention Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon. Who is to say if some result is ever the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. And consider the hubris of a person judging that some word or action of their’s is “the greatest for the greatest”! Is it really? Or perhaps it is just the best one could muster given their smallness of mind, reach, grasp, virtue, interest, and commitment. Which means it would be just as meaningful to say “That which results in __________ for the number.” 

Thirdly, they must arcanely truncate the ideal at “number”, for who can say people, or creatures, or sentient beings, or conscious animals. Does the ecology in general matter? The ozone layer? The rainforest? The global climate? And how do each of these in turn effect the number. At one time it would have been acceptable to say “the number of people”, but in our time, that is hardly even close to comprehensive. There is widespread concern about the impact of our decisions on the cosmos, nevermind the carrots, celery, and radishes. Which means it would be just as meaningful to say “That which results in __________”. 

Fourthly, they must presuppose that the result of a decision is, in fact, a result. But is it? We could stipulate that any reaction to an action is a result, but how to know what constitutes a reaction? With an infinite number and a undefinable value and an innumerable population, each also acting concurrently, what exactly constitutes a “result”? Perhaps what is perceived as a result is simply further action, or coincidental noise. Which means it would be just as meaningful to say “That __________”.

Lastly, they assume the use of a pronoun: “That”. But they don’t know if they have a noun or a verb, or anything at all for that matter. Which means it would be just as meaningful to say __________. For the Utilitarian, there is no purpose except that which he conjures for himself; he conveniently fills in the blank. But actually, it is more meaningful to simply say nothing at all. Because saying something, anything, is making a claim to an absolute. But how can there be anything absolute? When mankind lived in a small world that barely extended as far as he could walk in a lifetime, and it hardly penetrated deeper than a comprehension of and appreciation for the most basic necessities, he could pretend to squeeze an absolute out of the ethereal. But as that world has exploded exponentially outward and inward, all at once, what could be assumed to be absolute (for instance pleasure and pain; or sentience; or “others”) is now obviously just another indistinct metaphor symbolizing our desire to fabricate meaning and purpose and an ideal where there is nothing at all.

But how could any of this be true? The fact that we recognize the incoherence of this principle is evidence that there is inherent and universal coherence. Otherwise, by what measure could each of us identify incoherence, and more to the point, by what power could we alert others to that incoherence? Even their language betrays them, for they call it a “principle“. In other words: A primary source; a universal law; an absolute. But when we acknowledge that it is none of those things, that doesn’t prove that there is no such thing as a principle; only that what we looked to was not it. But why were we looking for one to begin with? Because we all know there is one. There must be one. No only because the universal search for a principle suggests that such a principle must exist, but even more conclusively, because without such a principle, nothing that does exist would exist. We are not looking for the principle so that we might determine good and evil, right and wrong, up and down, pain and pleasure. We are looking for the principle because we know good and evil, right and wrong, up and down, pain and pleasure; but we don’t know why we know them. That they are is self-evident. 
It is also self-evident that the principle cannot be one of the results nor one of the number. The principle must exist independently. More accurately, it must preexist independently, and self-sufficiently, and unyieldingly, and indifferently, and opinionatedly, and loudly, and personally. Nothing less will satisfy. Anything less is merely more results, more actors, more variables. Saint John addressed this teleological conundrum. He wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Not a word. A word is what the utilitarians already have. Their version would read, “In the __________ was the __________, and the __________ was with __________, and the __________ was __________.” No. Not a word. THE WORD. The absolute, self-defined, and eternal Word.

M. N. Jackson is a founding elder and teaching pastor of Free Born Church. He was a missionary in Mexico for over 20 years where he was part of a team of church planters. After being deported from Mexico for preaching the gospel, he returned to San Antonio, and continued ministering the word.

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