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 teeth of evil thus displaying, for the world to see, how far superior he is. He does not have to “go around” 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.

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2 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.

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