While Christianity is often considered to be a rather general religion, a label covering many different belief systems rather than a specific set of ethics, its best forms have certain philosophies that can be carefully examined as such. Below, these philosophies will be compared with those of utilitarianism, an ethical system not necessarily related to religion. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the similarities between utilitarianism and Christianity, and then to show how the latter is different from, and, in fact, superior to the former. This will be accomplished through an examination of what the utilitarian and Christian ideas of pleasure are, what role absolute rules have in both sets of ethics, the sacrificial nature of the two, and finally, how the ultimate focus of each make them distinct. Understanding what these ethical beliefs are, how they are similar and different, and which, if either, is a better system is of the utmost importance in modern times. Both Christianity and utilitarianism, in their various forms, are common today, and are often put at odds with each other, when they should actually each be viewed as complex systems that overlap more than many people think.
In order to begin with a clear understanding of the basic ideas under examination, the terms presented should be defined and explained as they are understood in this paper. Utilitarianism, in general, is the belief that one should act in such a way as to provide the most pleasure for the greatest number of people possible. Christianity here refers to the teachings of Christ, upheld by the Roman Catholic Tradition, on the way humanity ought to act and care for one another.
Utilitarianism may appear immediately incompatible with Christianity due to its focus on producing pleasure. The Christian practice of self-denial and sacrifice seems opposed to a system entirely concerned with hedonism. What has to be understood here is what is meant by pleasure: whether base and fleeting pleasures are sought after, or higher ones. While it is true that some utilitarians surely are more concerned with immediate gratification, there is room in this philosophy for the striving towards higher levels of happiness. As J.S. Mill says to those who dismiss utilitarianism as degrading, it is in fact the latter “who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.” Could it not be said that any objective good that Christianity elevates as worthy to attain can fit into this system, replacing the ambiguous term “pleasure”? Consider a man who is faced with the choice of either committing a robbery or living without some luxury he desires. Suppose that this robbery would also benefit several of this man’s friends, while it would only hurt the one victim of the theft. One might say the utilitarian would naturally choose the robbery as the better option because it would give the most pleasure to the majority of people, but that is only if you believe that luxury is the greatest pleasure. Wouldn’t most people agree that the joy of a clean and pure conscience is a greater pleasure than that of any luxury the world could supply? The man could very well choose to control his desires, providing the pleasure of innocence to himself and his accomplices, and the pleasure of maintaining his goods to the potential victim. In this way, it is clear that utilitarianism need not be dismissed on the grounds that the values it upholds are opposed to Christianity.
One concern that a Christian might have in the consideration of utilitarianism is that, in the latter philosophy, there might be a time when the objective evil of one action is so far outweighed by the great benefit it could provide, causing the choice of this evil to be a good. Such an extreme case may be only theoretical, but its possibility remains troubling. Although Mill suggests that there is almost never such a thing as an absolutely good or evil action when he says: “It is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs, that rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of action can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable,” it is a reasonable stance to take that there must be some things that are never justifiable. For those in agreement with this stance, there is a practice of utilitarianism called “rule utilitarianism,” in which certain morals are laid down as guidelines for the specific workings of the method. This allows certain evils, which are agreed to be illicit in all cases, to be taken out of the pool of ethical responses to a situation. Suppose a rule utilitarianist who believes that murder is objectively wrong is faced with the choice between this evil and an overwhelmingly convincing amount of good for a majority. Even if his conscience could be convinced that the murder would be a good, his rule against murder would save him from having to choose this evil. This system seems to allow the philosophies behind utilitarianism to be retained, while not letting them be the last judge of morality. Also, this looks quite a bit like Christianity.
The self-sacrificial nature of both utilitarianism and Christianity is striking. While the central idea of Christianity is based around sacrificing oneself for others, utilitarianism also has the theme of suffering for the sake of the good of others. A utilitarian must not only concern himself with his own pleasure, but with the pleasure of all. If his own displeasure causes pleasure for the majority, it is right and noble to suffer that displeasure. While this seems compatible with Christianity, it raises some questions. Suppose there are only two people involved: whose pleasure is most important? If Person One must either be pleased while Person Two is displeased, or displeased while Person One is pleased, it seems each option is as equally balanced as the other. In that case, it seems that the utilitarian would have no problem in picking the more selfish choice of the two, content in being pleased, while also keeping the pleasure as balanced as it could be. But is this how a Christian should act? Another question: when it comes to sacrifice, must the sacrifice only make sense if there is an immediate and obvious gain of pleasure in others? Mill implies that one would not sacrifice his safety or life “if the hero or martyr did not believe that it would earn for others immunity from similar sacrifices.” This implies that sacrifice for an ideal or a principle could be senseless, and the holy martyrs, whose martyrdoms may, in fact, have led to further persecution, acted stupidly, if not unethically. On the other hand, the claim could be made that the sacrifice of a martyr would cause such an abundance of holy pleasure in his soul, and by example, in the souls of those who witness his sacrifice, that his actions would be justified. Regardless, this nature that both philosophies share emphasize the parallels between the two, and, depending on your perspective, can look identical within them.
So after considering these similarities, why might one believe Christianity to be superior to utilitarianism? What it comes down to is that utilitarianism is concerned with numbers and not people. As long as the mathematical equation that a certain situation presents is optimized, the ethical code of utilitarianism is satisfied. Christianity, on the other hand, requires that love be shown to each individual simply because it is what is good for them. While one philosophy has a bird’s eye view, looking out on humanity like ants in an ant farm, the other strives to connect with each person for their own sake, to make that all-important human encounter. Notice the distinction made here: it is not that the physical result of these two methods need be all that different, it is the philosophy behind the actions that is in question. Pure utilitarianism will cause an intellectual glitch in one’s motivations, causing noble actions to become misguided and cynical. Consider a man who might go through his life worrying whether Person One and Person Two are receiving an equal amount of pleasure, but forgets that he is going to this trouble in the first place for the reason that both of these people are good, and that their happiness is good.
In conclusion, while many aspects of utilitarianism can be squared with Christianity, and while the former ethical system may actually be beneficial to those who consider its merits, the philosophy behind the two beliefs differ fundamentally, and there is positive evidence to suggest that Christianity, in its focus on the human person rather than the human species, is the better method of the two.
This paper was written for my Spring 2015 Foundations of Ethics college class. All references are from J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.