Jack Bauer is the quintessential American ethicist. Which is somewhat terrifying when you think of it. He blasts his way through the bad guys, the “sort of” bad guys, and the “I’m-not-quite-sure-if-he’s-bad” guys, torturing and killing as necessary to “get results.” But it’s all good, right? I mean, after all, there’s a massive nuclear warhead in L.A., and if he doesn’t disarm it, millions of people are going to die. For those too squeamish to roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done, Bauer levels this scathing criticism: “You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty.”
So is Bauer right? Do the ends justify the means? Are we able to take any action we deem necessary, as long as it’s promoting the most good for the largest number of people?
The Utilitarian Backdrop
“Nature,” says Bentham, “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.”
For utilitarians, the only good is pleasure (or happiness), and the only evil is pain. From this foundational conception of good and evil, utilitarianism has been reduced to a basic maxim, “promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” And this is the philosophy that drives Jack Bauer through 8 seasons of 24 -- torturing the bad guy will save millions of people, which ultimately promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
British philosopher Bernard Williams put forward a classic case study for utilitarianism. Suppose Jim is trekking along in the Amazon rainforest and suddenly stumbles into a clearing. In the clearing, he sees a man named Pedro and 20 or so natives. The natives are all tied to stakes and ready to be executed (apparently, Pedro heads up some sort of cartel in the region, and the natives have rebelled). Upon seeing Jim and his white skin (something the native aren’t familiar with), Pedro offers Jim a deal. He’ll pretend that Jim is a god, allow him to ritually execute one of the natives as punishment, and release the other 19 in celebration of Jim’s appearance. Otherwise, Pedro will kill all of them. What should Jim do?
Christian Ethics and Utilitarianism
For the utilitarian, the answer is simple- promote the happiness of the 19 at the expense of the one. But as Christians, we have a slightly different approach to the question. Christian ethics begin with the presumption that we are to be conformed to the likeness of God (Rom 8:29). If we are to be conformed to the likeness of God’s son, then that means that we are to reflect the character of God by loving what he loves, and hating what he hates.
So when we approach Williams’ problem, we can start considering the various things that God loves or hates. We can all conclude that God hates ritualistically killing innocent people. We can also conclude that God hates executing the 20 innocent natives. If Pedro kills the 20 natives, he is doing something God hates, but if Jim kills the native, he is also doing something that God hates. So at first glance, it looks like Jim should not kill the native. Now, some Christian ethicists may appeal to Proverbs 24:11 (“rescue those being led away to slaughter”) as justification for killing the native. But even if they make this argument, they’re still thinking very differently from the utilitarian. Rather than considering the question of “what makes the most people happy,” we’re appealing to set moral laws that guide our conduct, laws that are established by God to govern how we should act.
Well, it’s time for me to wrap up, but I’ll leave you with a parting thought. Utilitarianism belongs to a family of ethical theories known as consequentialism. Consequentialists believe that right and wrong is determined by the consequences of an action, not the action itself. So my question to you is this. How much do Scriptural ethics rely on consequences and how much do they rely on unbending rules? A great case study for this is Rahab’s lie in Joshua 2:4-7. Let me know what you think in a comment below.
Posted by Nick Barden
Nick Barden is an 8 year Generation Joshua member, college student and philosophy nerd. He dreams of eventually getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, moving to an ivory tower and spending the rest of his days in philosophical bliss. Until then, he spends his days as a staff worker at Gen J annoying Lucas Mason with quotes from random dead white males, philosophizing with Jeremiah Lorrig and attempting to convince Joel to leave his world domination schemes and pursue a life of peace and personal self-satisfaction (so far, no success). Currently he is confined to his cubicle: The Ivory Cubicle.
Posted by Nick Barden