“The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number”?

Assessing Utilitarianism

by Paul Copan

How should the Christian respond to utilitarianism? Consider the following eight assessments. 

Who Doesn't Want To Be Happy?

How often have you heard, “Just as long as it makes you happy. …” Or, “It's for the greater good”? The late quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve of Superman fame said in a CBS interview, “I still believe that the purpose of government is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And that's a great concept.”1 These comments express the most common element in ethical theory embraced by Western academics and by our culture in general — utilitarianism.2 It is a consequence-based ethic that looks at what will bring the “greatest happiness” to the most people. Whatever brings happiness is “good”; and, the more happiness, the better it is. In this ethical view, the outcome or consequences are more important than the means of getting there.

Well, who doesn't want to be happy? Christians are not opposed to this. Even the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal — and before him, St. Augustine — said all human beings seek happiness, which they ultimately find in God. And while it may be possible to adopt a theological or Christianized version of the “greatest happiness” principle if very carefully qualified,3 most contemporary utilitarians have a secular or naturalistic outlook. It is this viewpoint I critique as I continue my series of ethical perspectives. We will see that, when we exclude God from utilitarianism (or any other ethical system), serious difficulties arise.

Understanding Utilitarianism: Two Philosophers and Two Distinctions

Utilitarianism affirms that consequences matter more than means, motives, or character. What produces the greatest happiness — or “well-being” or “flourishing” — for the greatest number is “good.”

1. Two philosophers: Two prominent utilitarian philosophers approach this matter differently, though. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was a quantitativeutilitarian, advocating that we ought to maximize as much pleasure and minimize as much pain aspossible (which is called “hedonism”) to produce the best results for human beings. We can make moral decisions in a “scientific” manner by measuring a pleasure's intensity, purity, duration, certainty, fecundity (fruitfulness), and propinquity (nearness) — factoring in the numbers of persons involved.

By contrast, the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–73) advocated a qualitative utilitarianism. He disagreed with Bentham when he said: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Rather than using Bentham's crass pleasure-pain hedonism by which to judge good or bad outcomes, Mill concluded that there are long-range and higherpleasures such as cultural and intellectual pursuits that include art, literature, and music. These pursuits take much work to master and appreciate, and there is not immediate gratification (short-range,lower pleasures), but the pain is worth the result. They produce a greater and deeper pleasure in the long run.

2. Two distinctions: There are two types of utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism affirms that there is no such thing as an inherently good or bad action. Rather, an act is good if it produces more good consequences than any available alternative acts. While there may be some helpful rules of thumb that generally guide us about consequences (for example, when someone rejects the rule, “It is wrong to commit adultery”), we should focus on the consequences of acts.

By contrast, rule utilitarianism states that actions governed by a general set of rules can be called “good” if following them would lead to greater usefulness (utility) for society than it would with any available alternative rules. We can evaluate acts by the usefulness or utility brought by the results. So, we should outlaw rape because of the bad outcomes that have resulted from rapes in the past.

The most high-profile utilitarian today is Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer. He is strongly opposed to the biblical ethical perspective of God's image in all human beings and the idea of intrinsic human rights. He claims it is ethically permissible to abort unborn children with Down syndrome and to kill handicapped infants or the elderly suffering from dementia. (Singer calls them “humannonpersons.”) By contrast, healthy chimps and orangutans (“nonhuman persons”) could bring greater benefit to society than handicapped humans.

How should the Christian respond to utilitarianism?

Assessing Utilitarianism

First, utilitarianism does emphasize a correct ethical point — that consequences are one factor in ethical decision making. Christians should recognize that while some acts are inherently wrong or evil (e.g., rape or torturing babies for fun) and that we have a duty to refrain from such actions, consequences are not unimportant. Jesus said, “ ‘By their fruits you will recognize them' ” (Matthew 7:16). The problem comes when consequences are the only consideration in ethics.

Consider the postimpressionistic painter, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who abandoned his wife and children in Europe and headed off to Tahiti. There he pursued his “dream,” where he could paint tropical scenes and topless women. Perhaps the utilitarian might say that, because of the sorrow he caused his family (the consequences), this act was wrong. But others might argue, on aesthetic grounds, that Gauguin's art has brought more benefit to humanity than harm to his family. So his action was good.4 We intuitively recognize, however, that we should not neglect fundamental duties, commitments, and loyalties, even if good results happen. Joseph's brothers were wrong to sell him into slavery, even if God brought about good results through this evil act (Genesis 50:20).5 It seems we must know what is intrinsically good to be capable to judge the consequences of an action.

Second, how can we measure the well-being of society without considering the well-being of individuals? We cannot separate the two — much like we cannot separate the building up of the body of Christ without considering the building up of individuals within that body (1 Corinthians 12). Part of utilitarianism's problem is that it tends to view human beings as a means to benefit “the greater good” rather than having intrinsic value themselves.

Third, why should we reject the basic, common-sense moral insight that humans have intrinsic value in favor of a utilitarian view of human beings that strikes us as counterintuitive and utterly false? Given utilitarianism, certain humans become objects or instruments that we can potentially sacrifice for the “greater good” of society.6 So, what if a group of Nobel Prize winners were in need of organ transplants to survive? One needs a heart, another a kidney, another a set of lungs, and so forth. These scientists and economists, we could well assume, could do much good for society. Now what if the Nobel committee, to “help” these Nobel laureates, considers using a healthy but aimless street person in Oslo, Norway, who has no family? Maybe doctors could harvest his organs to help many more people. What would be wrong with bringing benefit and happiness to a number of lives by sacrificing one (potentially wasted) life? Or why shouldn't a government engage in a “noble lie” to keep an uninformed people compliant and cooperative — or perhaps to mobilize a nation toward a particular course of action it deems best? For example, why not find a scapegoat of minority people to help rally a society's economic recovery — for example, a Nazi government blaming Jews for Germany's economic decline?

For utilitarians — Nazis or otherwise — humans are like a pot or a cup used to carry food or fluids. Once the pot is cracked and no longer does its job, we can dispense with it. But with such a host of problems and contradictions and dangers, we should dispense with utilitarianism— not our basic moral intuitions.

Fourth, because of their essence or nature as God's image bearers, humans have dignity and worth. Utilitarian ethicists emphasize function over essence or nature.They will argue that a human has value because he is self-aware, thinks rationally, has various social skills, and generally contributes to society rather than being a drain on it. This makes him a “human person” rather than a “nonperson human,” as Singer says. But this is confused language since all humans are persons.Think of a person in a coma. He may not be able to contribute much to society, but he may also emerge from a coma operating at full capacity. Or what about persons who are sleeping? Surely they are not thinking rationally, are not self-aware, and so on. Surely they do not cease being persons in their sleep, do they? We readily recognize that humans have dignity and worth apart from any consideration of social consequences.

Fifth, another way in which utilitarianism defies common sense is that it ignores motives and focuses only on consequences. Two acts can be identical — two people giving a gift to their grandmother, for example. And the outcome can be the same — Grandma is very happy. But the motives may be starkly different: one grandchild gives a gift because he loves his grandmother, and the other does so only because she wants to have her name in her will. Motives can be evil or good, regardless of the outcome, and we judge acts to be good or evil partly because of the motives.Utilitarianism cannot be right in overlooking this important feature of a moral act.

Sixth, under utilitarianism, voluntary heroic acts — which are not duties — actually become duties or obligations. We may praise those who give all their money to the poor; we commend the person who throws himself on top of an explosive device to save the lives of total strangers. But while these are good actions with good outcomes, these are not duties. Acts that go beyond the call of duty — which are not actual duties but are more like heroic acts — are called supererogatory acts. But utilitarianism cannot make this distinction because it can only judge the rightness of an act (and thus a duty) based on consequences. Heroic acts become actual duties given (act) utilitarianism. If a dying patient is in need of a kidney replacement, and I am able to help this person through my act of donating one of my kidneys (thus bringing benefit to another human being), I must give this kidney. But this is strange: while such a supererogatory act is good, it isn't a duty. There is no good reason to turn heroism into a duty.

Seventh, utilitarianism tends to eliminate the natural importance of family loyalties and deep friendships in favor of a level playing field for all humanity. The utilitarian William Godwin (1756–1836) wrote that, if he had to choose between saving a maid and the French benefactor and Archbishop of Cambrai, François Fénelon (1651–1750), he would save the archbishop because of his value to society. When asked if the maid were his grandmother, he said he would still save the archbishop over his grandmother.7 But is this right? One philosopher correctly asks: Why should we do the “right thing” according to the utilitarian if this requires us to treat those who are special to us as though they were not? Utilitarianism violates our deepest sense of family commitments and loyalties. But it is utterly counter intuitive to treat family and close friends on par with everyone else. The apostle Paul said that even unbelievers know that they ought to take care of their own family members (1 Timothy 5:8). Are we really obligated to care for other children more than our own simply because they have a greater need than our own children? If utilitarianism's version of doing the right thing requires us to treat those who are special to us as though they were not, then utilitarianism must go — not family loyalties and commitments.

Eighth, utilitarianism is morally problematic in its obvious discrimination against the helpless. Given utilitarianism, why not just cut to the chase and eliminate compassion from our list of virtues? Have we been wrong all along about Mother Teresa who cared for the sick and needy in the streets of Calcutta?

Ironically, Singer teaches at a university where his own views are in violation of the school's ethics policy, which forbids abusive or harassing behavior that “threatens” or “injures” a person — including people who have a “handicap.”8 As someone aptly put it, whether it is infants born with handicaps or the elderly suffering dementia, Singer targets those who cannot hit back.

There's a further contradiction in Singer's approach. Singer claims that if you favor humans above animals, then you are a speciesist — arbitrarily favoring your own species over other animals. But hasn't Singer singled out certain humans for abuse and injury — namely, the handicapped young and the enfeebled elderly? Is not he being the speciesist by favoring “persons” and diminishing the “species” of “human nonpersons”?

When it comes to Singer's own family, he cannot practice what he preaches. Although he advocates putting to death the elderly who are suffering from dementia, he made an exception when it came to his own mother, Cora, even though she lived with dementia.9 She had even told him that when she could no longer tie her own shoelaces, he should go ahead and have her euthanized. But he refused to do this, and Cora received compassionate healthcare despite her son's ivory tower pronouncements. In fact, Singer rather sheepishly justified his actions by claiming he was employing people to care for his mother, which is good for society. Death for everyone else's mother with dementia — but not his own.


While utilitarianism does rightly emphasize the place of consequences in ethical decision making, this is not the only consideration. Duties, motives, circumstances, and character also figure into the equation. Despite its pragmatic appeal, utilitarianism poses many dangers and threats to human well-being, as we see illustrated in the thinking of Singer.

Dr. Seuss gets it right in his book, Horton Hears a Who: “A person is a person, no matter how small.” How we treat human life — from the unborn in the womb to those dying while under hospice care — is an indication of how civilized or uncivilized we are. Our caring for the weak and vulnerable is a test of not only society's moral integrity, but also its social durability. And this value is rooted in the existence of a good God who creates humans in His image. God makes far more sense of our commitment to universal human value, human rights, moral responsibility and duties than if we lived in a godless, valueless, purposeless, deterministic, material world.


1. “The Political Christopher Reeve,” CBS News.com (31 October 2000): http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2000/10/31/entertainment/main245551.shtml [accessed 11 July 2013]; see also USA Today, “Christopher Reeve Addresses Vermont Grads” http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/people/2004-05-24-reeve-speaker_x.htm[accessed 11 July 2013].

2. Gordon Graham, Eight Theories of Ethics (London: Routledge, 2004), 132.

3. It is possible to be a “Christian utilitarian” of sorts. Some Christian thinkers have argued that God himself is concerned with bringing the greatest good to as many of His image-bearers as possible (William Paley and R.M. Hare, for example). Also, in light of the fact all people seek happiness and that God desires our happiness when we are satisfied in Him, pastor John Piper adopts the view of “Christian hedonism” (Christian pleasure-seeking) in his book Desiring God. Rev. ed. (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah, 2011). Piper, a staunch Calvinist, argues that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Yet this really only applies to the elect; in the case of the nonelect, it appears that God does not strongly desire that all humans would be “most satisfied in Him” since God has already damned them according to the pleasure of His will.

4. Gordon Graham, Eight Theories of Ethics (London: Routledge, 2004), 138.

5. Some of my comments here are taken from chapter 7 in Graham, Eight Theories of Ethics; Stephen Layman, The Shape of the Good (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 70–84; chapter 12 in Arthur F. Holmes, Fact, Value, and God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

6. Note: John Stuart Mill was committed to individual human rights, although this is not the view of many naturalistic utilitarians today.

7. Mentioned in Graham, Eight Theories of Ethics, 160.

8. See Princeton's policy at: http://www.princeton.edu/pub/rrr/part1/.

9. See Gordon Preece, ed., Rethinking Peter Singer (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2002). See my discussion of Singer's utilitarianism in chapters. 9,10, How Do You Know You're Not Wrong?