In this post, after explicating utilitarianism, I will show how theism can help a utilitarian from one of the major objections that utilitarianism faces. Theism and utilitarianism shall be defined as the following:
Theism: A being which is omnipotent, omniscient, all-benevolent, personal, and spiritual. Utilitarianism: G.E. Moore states, “it is a moral theory, declaring that an action is good if and only if it causes a greater balance of pleasure over pain.”(1)
Despite giving these two definition right from the start there are still potential misunderstanding that need to be addressed. First, by theism I do not mean any particular religion such as Christianity or Islam, I only mean what the definition above states. Second, by utilitarianism I do mean more than the definition says. It is difficult to have utilitarianism defined simply and succinctly, thus the definition above should be understood as the bare essentials.
Utilitarianism is more than a moral theory stating what actions are good. It always states which actions are evil. It states which actions we ought to do and what actions we ought not to do. To clarify let us examine some possibilities: (1) actions A produces a value of 10 pleasure and a value of 9 pain. Given our definitions thus far (1) is a good action and therefore ought to be done. However, if action B is also an option at the same time as action A , and action B produces a value of 15 pleasure and a value of 5 pain (numbers are arbitrary), then A is no longer morally permissible. This is assuming that A and B are exclusive. That is if A is done then B cannot be done, and if B is done then A cannot be done. A morally good agent should do action B. This means that the greater balance of pleasure over pain must be understood not just for one particular action but for the set of possible actions at time t.
While some possible confusion is now clarified there is one more problem within this definition. Take this example: person S is debating between doing action A, B, or C, at time t. A is clearly inferior to B. The question is what is better B or C. C produces a value of 15 pleasure and 6 pain. Thus, objectively B is the best action. However, imagine if person S is unaware of 1 of the 6 pains caused by action C. This is not because person S is being careless but because given human perspective this kind of pain is unseen. This means that B and C appear to be of equal value to person S who is using their best judgment. According, to our basic definition, person S would be a morally bad agent if they did action C instead of B, but that is intuitively wrong. Person S did all anyone could do when trying to pick the right action. Thus, this amendment is needed: an action is good if and only if a greater balance of pleasure over pain is caused, within the possible set of actions at time t, and the action may be discerned to have a greater net-worth of pleasure over pain. There are perhaps other clarifications or errors within this definition that need to be teased out, but for the present purposes this definition shall suffice.
There is a group of objections against utilitarianism based on the problem there are state of affairs that are obviously morally wrong but utilitarianism says they are good. One trivial example, is there is a alien monster who gets an incalculably amount of pleasure from eating humans. So, the pain that is caused never outweighs the pleasure produces when this monster eats a human. This means that given utilitarianism, people should feed this monster as many people as they can including friends and family. Such a consequences is naturally and rightly looked upon as wrong. In the same group of objections, there another issue of child pornography. Clearly, child pornography is wrong, but in certain plausible circumstances utilitarianism declares it moral. For example, it is theoretically possible that giving one child over to a molester to be recorded and shown to the world and molested could produce a greater balance of pleasure/pain in the long run. Since, it is clear that molesting a child is always wrong, and utilitarianism declares it to be moral, then utilitarianism is faulty.
Theism provides a way out of this problem for utilitarian. First, in regard to the space monster we can fully expect that under theism no such being would ever exist. To the second objection, we only need to imagine the pleasure/pain caused when a person gets raped. Now, the rapist does get some pleasure but this is not measurable compared to the pain caused to both the person raped and their closed loved ones. It is not hard to imagine a mother weeping for days if this was done to her daughter. Nor is it hard to imagine that pain will be with daughter long after the event. Now, if we take into consideration theism which postulates a being which is both wholly good and loving. Who loves each individual as His own children, which means God’s pleasure and pain must be taken into account when it can be. Then we can see that God’s pain may be exceedingly greater than any pleasure produces in these tragedies. Given his pleasure and pain will outlive any of us, that He loves people as His own children, then many actions which would seem to be justified under utilitarianism at first, are not. Thus, utilitarianism has a better defense if theism is true.
(1) Moore, G. E. “Utilitarianism.” Ethics. New York: H. Holt and;, 1912. 11. Print.