When defending and commending Christian ethics… we need get good at moving beyond utilitarianism. So long as the conversation around Christian views on controversial ethical topics, remains focussed entirely on harms/benefits, Christians can run into trouble. There may be some gains, some evidence, some ways of showing the harm associated with going against God’s ways. But this evidence at least can be contested, often is at least questionable and sometimes there really are some very strong counter-arguments to weaken the utilitarian case.

If we accept the premise that the primary or sole reason for a moral position is the demonstrable good or harm that results from an action, Christians will struggle to be persuasive about biblical ethics.

But almost everybody agrees in theory, or at least acts in practice as if it’s true, that there are other factors that feed into making something good/bad, right/wrong.

Many introductions to ethics draw this out. An accessible Australian evangelical example is Joined-Up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works by Andrew Cameron, the director of St Mark’s Theological Centre, Canberra.

Andrew outlines to a range of factors that feed into somethings rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness:

  • Because God says so,
  • because of the nature of how God made the world,
  • because of God’s character,
  • because of the positive/negative consequences,
  • because of a need to factor in the sinfulness and cursedness of this current age,
  • because of what we know about Jesus’ work of salvation as a climax in God’s self-revelation and saving purposes and
  • because of how belonging to the community that Christ is calling bringing into being shapes how we live and
  • because of what we know about the ultimate purpose and fulfilment of all things,

“Why do Christians insist on this, when it’s not hurting anyone?”; “Why do you restrict people when they could be so much happier if they were free?” If we only ever answer the question on the assumption that something has to have self-evident and close to universal positive/negative impacts in order for it to be morally good/bad then we are not giving a full answer.

Why not try saying something like “Something isn’t only good or bad because of its consequences. What about human rights? Dignity? Justice? What about human nature? What about how a life of purpose shapes our moral code?”

There are a range of social values we draw on and moral judgments we all make, whether or not we are Christian, or even religious or conservative. These judgments and values tap into some of these things that Andrew Cameron outlines. When the heat gets turned up in an ethical debate, things might drift back to seemingly evidential, utilitarian proof as the coup de grace, but this is often a rhetorical move that should be resisted. After all, no empirical study is perfect, some even get overturned or substantially revised, all of them need interpretation and application.

So when things drift back to brute utilitarianism, perhaps we could point it out: “Hold on, going beyond simple outcomes, what are the core matters of…” and then return to the discussion of justice, human rights, values—whatever you were talking about before things switched back to a more simplistic framework of harm/benefit.

To persuasively illustrate this, I think it would be a helpful exercise for us to think about a range of ethical questions where many people, from a range of perspectives, agree that other factors are worth considering, beyond simple harm/benefit:

  • the goodness of maintaining a child’s connection to their family of origin and culture of origin;
  • the value of the arts, education, some deeper sense of meaning/values/spirituality;
  • the legitimacy of personal autonomy, personal opinion, private property and personal privacy;
  • the recognition of some things as worthy of dignity/respect/sanctity.

We could go on, perhaps drawing on my list summarising Andrew Cameron’s book, above—you could think of others. I’d be keen to hear what you can think of.

Now no matter what you come up with, you’ll be able to find whole groups of people, whole schools of thought, who oppose it. Of course. That’s not my point. My point is that these other elements of moral reasoning are in the conversation for almost everybody, apart from the most determined purists (and even they doubtless have inconsistencies). Although people may find ourselves sliding back to justify the ethical judgments listed above (and others besides) in terms of benefit/harm, many will people admit that they are not championing them solely for that reason. We are just so used to sliding back to utilitarianism, it’s a default habit of mind, we need some practice to rise beyond mere utilitarianism.

Each of these other forms of moral reasoning have their flaws, just as utilitarianism does. When we look back at conservative Christian moral and political engagement over the also few hundred years, for example, arguments for the preservation of natural/social order often produced, it seems in retrospect, a lack of mercy for those who fell between the cracks of society; a lack of self-awareness of where universals end and cultural peculiarities begin; and a lack of flexibility, given the complexity and fallenness of the real world. So also, modern libertarian arguments in favour of free speech and privacy property can easily be leverage by powerful social groups to resist inclusion and empowerment of the disenfranchised; they can lack the subtlety to realise that some public restraint on freedom brings more benefits, especially in the enormous and transient populations of our modern cities and nations.

So we need to own the flaws of all forms of moral reasoning when used in isolation, and the challenge of synthesising them well. At the same time, pointing out the worst implementation of utilitarianism or rights-discourse or libertarianism or essentialism… that can end up becoming a ‘whataboutism’, that dodges a valuable insight, by showing how it can be distorted.

Keen to hear your thoughts on this approach. Examples where you have seen/heard it done well. Questions or suggestions about how we might apply it to thorny issues of our day.