Is God a Utilitarian?

A blogger posted a question summarized here:

“If Christians say God had to use evil to achieve some goods such as justice, mercy, forgiveness, grace, etc. then doesn’t that make God a utilitarian? And doesn’t that mean God is not all-powerful to where he could just do good without any instrumental evils? Couldn’t he teach people forgiveness, mercy, justice, grace, etc. without having to open the door for all kinds of evils between people?”

This is a good question. I’ve been thinking about that problem for several years now. I think the first question can be answered by addressing the second question. God is NOT necessarily a utilitarian (i.e., acting such that “the ends justify the means”) and this is possible since we can admit that there might be other ways to achieve many of the redeeming goods on earth otherwise wrought by evil means.

Here’s how. God does not HAVE to allow evil to achieve good, BUT it is a more marvelous display of his greatness to show how even the worst kinds of evil can be redeemed through transcendent goods where heaven, fellowship with God, victory over sin, final justice, renewed heaven and earth, etc. provide such an overwhelmingly grand “end” that even the worst evil’s this world has seen fail to count against the great meaningfulness of the final eschaton.

Put more simply, God’s grandeur is more gloriously displayed by achieving victory with (so to speak) one arm tied behind his back, down by 42 points, in the fourth quarter. He steals victory from the jaws of evil defeat thus displaying, for the world to see, how far superior He is. He does not have to “go around” the evil he can plow right through it to achieve his great and glorious ends.

God need not be a utilitarian nor limited in power. God could achieve many if not all of those character-building virtues through non-evil means, but that manner would not display the beauty of his glory as fully. And it is better for God’s glory to be displayed than to be muted. The ultimate good is not human pleasure, nor the ultimate evil human suffering. If the God in question is the God of classical theism, roughly the same as the Biblical Christian God, then the ultimate good is God and the ultimate evil is blasphemy against God. God’s power is more greatly displayed in overcoming evil than in merely avoiding evil.

6 thoughts on “Is God a Utilitarian?

  1. You say “God could achieve many if not all of those character-building virtues through non-evil means, but that manner would not display the beauty of his glory as fully.” So you are conceding that God’s goal (end) is displaying His glory fully. Allowing evil is the means he uses to achieve that end. This is utilitarian.

    1. That’s a shrewd observation, and a good question. I can see why it would seem that God is a utilitarian if He is achieving certain “ends” by apparently questionably means. I’d suggest, however, that a there are a few key differences between what I described and utilitarianism.

      1. While I affirm, and so does most every realist ethicist, that “ends” can carry moral weight/value, I do not affirm the typically utilitarian view that ONLY the ends do so. There are other goods involved in that equation besides just “the ends.”

      2. Contrary to utilitarianism, a hedonistic sense of “pleasure” is not the sole determiner of good in view here. Even if we expanded our utilitarianism to include other natural states of value besides just hedonistic pleasure (J.S. Mill), utilitarianism is still ill-equipped to account for supernatural or transcendent goods which aren’t strictly reducible to pleasure; for example, meaning, purpose, well-being, health, wholeness, ontic goodness, etc.

      3. Different ethical systems can predict the same outcomes, even if they arrived at those outcomes by a different value-framework. Utilitarians and divine essentialists can agree that X is good, and that Y is a justified means on route to X. But that doesn’t mean that those value-frameworks are the same thing.

      4. Dilemma contexts can blur boundaries. While a utilitarian does not have to wait for a dilemma context before using some “evil” means to help maximize pleasure for the most people, everyone else has to wait for a dilemma where those “evil” means are the only options left. Every ethics system needs to account for dilemmas in this way.

      1. I don’t think you can simply say that the presence of non-hedonistic goods absolves God of being utilitarian in this case. Quite frankly in all the years I’ve pondered this question, I’ve never once thought that utilitarian ethics is limited to only evaluating things based on hedonistic goods so it’s surprising for me to see you think that this is somehow core to what utilitarianism has to be.

        In the case in question, (per Thomas in ST I.49:2) God is acting as the per accidens cause of all sorts of material and moral evils as a means toward an end that he calculates to be a greater sum of good in the universe than had he not acted in such a way. He thinks the end outcome justifies the actions (means) regardless of how much natural and moral evil result accidentally from his actions.

      2. It sounds like you are referring to consequentialism broadly, instead of utilitarianism specifically. Consequentialism is the parent category, encompassing all “outcome-based ethical systems.” But utilitarianism is a brand of consequentialism which defines “good” according to pleasure (ex., Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, etc.). The different camps of utilitarianism part ways over over questions like whether there are different kinds of pleasure to consider, and whether the “pleasure calculus” can distill into functional rules (rule-utilitarianism). In that way, utilitarianism is, in its essence, a hedonistic system.

        Your objection, however, can be maintained by relocating your reference point from “utilitarianism” to “consequentialism.”

        Compared to consequentialism, Christian ethics can still stand apart from that framework by pointing out that God’s “ends” are not simply “outcomes” (i.e., the consequences in consequentialism) but also His goals as in the “final causes” guiding His actions. Both the cause and effect, are morally charged. In Christianity, there is some overlap with utilitarianism because outcomes do matter. But they are not all that matters. We are not limited to an “outcome” based metric, referring to only the outcomes as the ultimate goods or good-making property. God (and biblical Christians) can recognize other morally-weighted elements among the causal priors for example, (a) in the moral act itself, (b) in the will/choice, (c) in a person’s character, (d) in a person’s intention, (e) in the goal/telos, (f) in the instrument/means used, and so on. In this way, we can judge some things to be genuinely evil, even if they are used to achieve good outcomes. In consequentialism, on the other hand, those “evil” means aren’t evil at all since they are redeemed by their effects (achieving a greater good).

        To use a biblical example, consider Job. In the book of Job, we can rightly identify his diseases as natural evils, his isolation and personal loss as social evils, and so on. We do not have to call those things “good” or even “neutral” even if they were instrumentally valuable towards a redemptively good outcome. Even if those evils were necessary to achieve some greater good, those evils are still evils – according to a realist Christian ethic. They may be used in a redemptive way, forced into servitude within a larger salvation story, yet they themselves are still evil.

        Even the cross of Christ is horrific evil, a terrible tragedy, and a paradigm example of wrongdoing. It is factually and morally sound to call that crucifixion evil. Yet, redemptive goods can still operate on, in, and through those sorts of evils. But let me be absolutely clear, the unjust and torturous death and desecration of the Son of God is a terrible evil. If I were a utilitarian or a consequentialist, I couldn’t make that judgment – I couldn’t call that injustice “evil” because it might serve some greater justice in the long run. I couldn’t call that murder evil because it might help save more people than were lost. I couldn’t call that torture “evil” because it might help reduce more suffering later. In consequentialism, I’d have to suspend all judgments until I have a set time frame so I can see whether the outcomes, at a given time, are “better” than the priors. The crucifixion can be evil, and good, and then evil again, all in the same moral sense, if it accomplished more evil than good in 33 AD, then accomplished more overall good in 330 AD, but reverted to more evil outcomes in 1030AD.

        It seems a more coherent and responsible ethical option is to identify goods and evils among the causal priors (i.e., torture, injustice, and murder are evil; but sacrificial love is good), and also identify goods and evils among the outcomes (i.e., rejecting salvation, and blaspheming Christ are evil; but reciprocating His love and becoming save are good). We don’t even need to know the effectual outcomes to recognize good and evil causes. In this way, God, and Christian ethics, can take the best parts and leave the rest utilitarianism and consequentialism. God and Christian ethics can go beyond the constraints of consequentialism since we can recognize moral weight on a wider scope than can consequentialism.

        I know you are making a point about the problem of evil, and it’s not entirely invalid. You have some substance in your objection, but for now I only have the time to clarify how God’s relation to evil is not utilitarian. Even though He acts towards accomplishing the greatest good (outcome), He also operates within all the ethically weighted prior-stages as well. There are goods and evils operating in the “befores” and the “afters.” A great book on this subject, that really dives into the ugliest form of the “Problem of Evil” is Marilyn McCord Adam’s book, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” I highly recommend reading if you want to find the strongest form of the objection you’re raising. You might also appreciate my other, more extensive, post on consequentialism here: “The Evil Outcomes of Consequentialism” (https://intelligentchristianfaith.com/2015/08/18/1316/).

    2. So, the point is God is not a utilitarian, but a narcissist? It’s all about glorifying Himself at humanity’s expense? Not sure which idea is worse.

      1. Narcissism makes sense for human psychology but it’s a weird fit when applied to God. For us it’s wrong to treat ourselves like the most important thing in the universe, but for God it’s factually correct. When we recognize the highest value for who He is we are just agreeing with reality.

        Also, God made us to delight in Him as He delights in us. That’s what healthy love relationships are like. As a father to his children it’s okay for Him who enjoy us as we adore Him.

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