Utilitarian ethics approaches a moral dilemma by asking a critical question: What action will result in the greatest happiness for the largest number of people?
This first part of my article will describe utilitarian ethics and provide a biblical example related to Torah regulations of land ownership. Part 2 will offer a brief perspective on the public issue of a carbon tax in Alberta, Canada and some reflections on the use of utilitarian ethics by followers of Jesus.
My presentation began with the defining question posed by the utilitarian approach to ethics. We can make several initial observations:
- Attention is focussed on the result or impact of an action.
- Considerations of personal benefit (ethics of egoism) are replaced by a concern for the majority of people.
- There is no deliberation about moral values (virtue ethics).
- The motives of key actors or decision makers do not enter into the analysis.
We are familiar with government use of utilitarian ethics. The legal right to private property can be trumped through the legal expropriation of private land with the purpose of building a highway. In such cases, the perceived happiness of the majority is given greater weight than the pain or discomfort of a limited number of landholders. The approach of utilitarian ethics also has been used to justify the torture of a suspected terrorists with the purpose of eliciting information. The reasoning is that the happiness of the general public outweighs the pain and indignity inflicted on the individual. The contravention of international laws against torture is considered secondary to the need to protect innocent people. The basic principle of utilitarian ethics is easily grasped by most people although the implementation is challenging.
Biblical Example of Utilitarian Ethics.
The Torah’s instructions on property ownership and sale can be considered using the approach of utilitarian ethics. We recall that the Mosaic Law was given in the setting of the wilderness for the time when the former slaves would establish communities in the promised land. Modern readers must remember that the ownership of productive farmland was the main form of security in a pre-industrial agrarian society. Therefore, a landless person likely would be destitute and hungry.
The Torah principle, expressed in Leviticus 25, was that all the land belonged ultimately to God. Families simply held property as a trust. The Mosaic Law envisioned that calamity, crop failures, and other adverse circumstances could strike an family. As a consequence, affected people might be forced to sell their traditional property to survive. However, such a transaction was not to be permanent. The property was to be returned to the original family owners (or their descendants) in the year of Jubilee (celebrated every fifty years). The intent was to avoid creating a permanent class of landless peasants and to limit the economic disparity among community members.
The utilitarian approach to ethics, as mentioned earlier, seeks to ensure the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. In the case of ancient Israel, the freedom of a potential wealthy minority to expand landholdings was considered secondary to the common good (happiness) of the majority of people that would live in egalitarian communities. (My book Seed Falling on Good Soil shows how the economic elite in the time of Jesus used peasant debt with the purpose of enlarging their rural estates.)
Description of Utilitarian Ethics
The discipline of utilitarian ethics is usually associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 -1873). In our time, Peter Singer has become one of the most influential proponents of this approach to moral issues. Many readers will not be familiar with their written works but will feel somewhat at home in their process of reasoning. The basic principles of utilitarian ethics can be expressed as follows:
- Utilitarian ethics considers the common good rather than personal advantage. The perspective of self interest is not totally lost; the self simply finds its place among other people affected by a moral decision.
- In utilitarian ethics, each person is of equal importance regardless of social class, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and religion.
- Utilitarian ethics attempts to quantify happiness and pain. The first is the desired consequence of a moral decision; the second is to be avoided.
- Utilitarian ethics distinguishes between happiness as an intrinsic good and those factors that are instrumental means in achieving happiness. Education, employment, adequate housing, and healthcare are instrumental goods that are generally related to the end goal of happiness.
- The analysis of options related to a moral dilemma will consider several factors: What people or groups will be directly and indirectly impacted? How many people will be happy as a result of an action? How many people will experience pain? What will be the intensity and duration of the happiness and pain? What is the probability of the anticipated impacts? How are short-term and long-term results to be calculated?
Based on these five principles, one concludes that the analytical work can be complex and somewhat speculative. For example, one might think of the challenges of a utilitarian ethics approach to the moral issue of ensuring basic healthcare for all Americans.
The second part of my presentation will provide an overview of an issue that is debated publicly in Alberta, Canada. I will conclude with a few reflections on how followers of Jesus might consider the utilitarian approach to ethical issues.