Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and John Piper

Emerging Christian Ethics
Part 1: Modern Approaches to Ethics
(b) Utilitarianism

A major ethical system that sprang from modernity is what is called Utilitarianism. It is the ethic that says we can be good through accepting the motto (to use Steve Wilkins’ "bumper sticker"), “The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number.”

Utilitarianism grew in popularity in the 18th and 19th Centuries when science became the most important of all the academic disciplines. Western culture had bought into the idea that we can better society by means of science and reason; and we could determine that which is most beneficial to society by rational, objective, scientific means. Utilitarianism is the epitome of a modern era ethic.

In the pre-modern world, we looked to authority (the Church, the King) to tell us what the “moral good” was. In the modern world, we believed we could determine for ourselves what is good by way of Reason and scientific inquiry. We looked to measurable consequences in order to determine what is good. And the question “What is GOOD?” was answered as, “That which makes life better for the most number of people.” Or, “That which makes the most people live a pleasurable and happy life.”

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), was a British philosopher and jurist who introduced an ethic that could be measurable mathematically. He developed the “Hedonistic Calculus” in order to determine the amount of pleasure vs. the amount of pain that any given situation may have. Bentham wrote, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do.” Therefore, we know what is good based on maximizing pleasure, and minimizing pain, and we can scientifically determine this by measuring the consequences of our actions. This was modernism's ultimate ethical system: trust in science to create a mathematical formula for ethics.

A hedonistic approach to ethics (that bases our actions on the happiness for myself and others) is not foreign to Christian thought. Twenty years ago, John Piper wrote Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Piper sees hedonism as a good thing, that God has created us to seek pleasure. He insists, like atheists Bentham and John Stuart Mill, that happiness is our ultimate telos (end) of mankind; the reason we do anything is because we seek pleasure in doing it—and that’s okay. Piper claims that this is the way God has wired us. But Piper makes this qualitative distinction: Ultimate happiness is found in God alone. The problem is not that we seek pleasure, but that we seek it in the wrong things—we wrongly seek pleasure in things that do not ultimately satisfy. Food, drink, vacations, money, worldly accolades—all these are fleeting pleasures. God has created us to seek pleasure, and the only pleasure that truly satisfies is God Himself. I first read Piper a decade ago, and his “Christian Hedonism” greatly shook the way I saw my personal Christianity—I truly resonated with it.

But now I’m wondering:
As helpful and biblical Piper’s view of the Christian life is, is it holistic enough? Though he has written many volumes explaining the implications of this theology in all aspects of life, I wonder that if we start with ME and my seeking pleasure in God, does this skew my ethic away from the love for others and my love for God’s Creation? Can we, indeed, become so heavenly minded that we can become less effective in our life on earth? Don’t get me wrong, Piper’s focus on the glory of God and our seeking pleasure in relationship with God is indeed a main focus in the Christian life, But Jesus Himself did not say that that was the only thing: When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered, Love God AND love others. Both.

Not that Piper denies this, but for those of us who seek to live a Christian hedonistic life, we tend to default into a hedonistic reductionism: The only ultimate happiness is found in loving God, experiencing God, becoming immersed in the pleasures of God and God alone.

When I hear that, I want to affirm it and say, “Yes, AND…” God has created us not only to be concerned with our own pleasure—even if our own pleasure in experiencing the pleasure of God. He has also created us to love others and be care-takers of his creation. The reality of doing these two latter things is very much filled with happiness, but it is also often filled with difficulty and heartache. So, we often default to simply wanting the glorious experience of God and God alone, and we forget that the life we live in the mundane day-to-day life here on earth is just as significant for humans created in the Image of God. (Again, Piper would hate it if we misunderstood his teaching to say this—but by default, many evangelicals [including myself] have fallen into this mode of operation).

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Scot McKnight said...

Good points about utilitarian ethical systems: it takes again its roots in human nature rather than in something good (even if we all choose something else).
Piper's theology tends to be a God/Me relation, though not always, so I resonate with a slight poke in his eye on this one. Vertical shapes horizontal, but both need to be emphasized properly.

Bob Robinson said...

I hope my post is seen as a "slight" poke in Piper's eye, and not a full-fledged 3-stooges DOINNNNGGG! in the eyes. I respect Piper a lot. It's just that when I've personally tried to live out the Christian Hedonistic thing (and as I've seen the people I've been around do the same), we always default to an individualistic "Me and God" gospel. If we state UP FRONT that it is more than that, we may be able to nip that in the bud.

marc said...

Good Post Bob,

As a member of Piper's church, I agree this is THE danger with Christian Hedonism. You rightly point out that Piper would be the first to cry out if peole took it to mean excluding the work of Christ among our neighbors.

Our Human tendancy seems to be to reduce anything to its simplest, legalistic form and "do" that "thing". Taking real, ultimate joy in God and his glory WILL lead us to service and obediance to the scripture and the holy spirit.

Byron said...

Bob Robinson suffered an aortic aneurism in the wee hours of Thursday night/Friday morning. Emergency surgery went well, but this is a serious thing. A fuller report is on my blog, www.byron-harvey.com. PLEASE PRAY FOR OUR BROTHER AND FRIEND.