SECOND OPINION: The utilitarian temptation

A few weeks ago, I was reminded in a news article that Judge Paul Pressler had actually said, at the beginning of the Southern Baptist controversy, that his side must “go for the jugular.” This is an image of slaying the enemy, of doing whatever you must do to win. The theme came up again as I was reading about internal debates in the Obama campaign over whether to “hit” Hillary with attacks. Hillary has opened the door with her own “hit” jobs on Obama during their protracted struggle.

The moral philosopher in me sees in all of these issues the means-vs.-ends problem in ethics. Is it morally permissible to employ any and all means to accomplish a goal one considers worthy? Do the ends, in fact, justify the means? Or are there moral rules or principles that set limits on what we might do even to accomplish laudable ends?

Those who define what is moral primarily by the goals or consequences of an action are called utilitarians. Few Christian ethicists formally embrace utilitarianism because of its obvious problems, mainly its lack of binding moral rules governing actions in all circumstances. And yet especially in moments of stress and conflict, Christians are among those who are tempted to slide into utilitarianism. To win the denomination, win the campaign, or win the “war on terror,” we must do what is necessary, right?

Actually, no. At least not if we are Christ-followers.

Martin Luther King faced this issue when considering whether to revert to violence in the struggle for basic civil rights for black Americans. Certainly he and his movement experienced many provocations to violence, and he could have cited a long moral tradition of justified revolution in endorsing such violence to redress centuries of injustice.

Instead, like Gandhi before him, and Jesus before both, King was convinced that means and ends are inextricably intertwined. King often argued that we cannot accomplish just goals using unjust means. The descent into violence would compromise the nature of any “victory” attained. It would irreparably damage the relationships between black and white Americans. And it would do harm to the character of those inflicting the violence.

One might say that King believed that just goals can only be accomplished by just means employed by persons of just character whose actions preserve the conditions of a just community. So what are often treated as four separate moral considerations (goals, means, character and community) in the end cannot be disentangled.

There are theological and not just philosophical issues raised by the utilitarian temptation. For Christians, most fundamental is our willingness to disobey the concrete teachings of Jesus Christ in order to pursue what we believe to be a righteous goal.

This amounts to the belief that we know better than Jesus the Incarnate God what pattern of behavior is the right one in the “real” world in which we live. And it suggests that we do not trust in the justice of God. We take matters into our own hands in order to determine the outcome in a way pleasing to us. In its starkest and most terrible form, we disobey God in order to do what we believe to be God's will. Not even a philosopher can make that work.

The result is predictably disastrous. The winner ends up losing. Everyone ends up losing. “Going for the jugular” (in a denomination, a presidential campaign or a “war on terror”) invariably involves the employment of tactics that violate the concrete teachings of Jesus Christ and in some cases the most obvious demands of a civilized moral code. These tactics at times prove “effective,” but the use of unjust and ungodly means damages the individual and collective character of the community, whether it is Baptist, Democratic or American. It elevates into positions of leadership and influence persons who gain power because they are effective practitioners of the dark arts of mortal combat rather than having more appropriate qualifications for their roles.

In the end, the means-and-ends connection that King noticed proves true -- always. And the descent into utilitarianism introduces unanticipated spiritual toxins into the community's bloodstream that take a long, long time to flush out.

This is why we need a commitment to Jesus Christ above all. And it reminds us of why we also need both moral rules and civil laws that set boundaries on our actions. These are absolutely necessary to prevent the evils that always result from our descent into utilitarianism but which we usually ignore as we pursue the goals that are so precious to us at the moment.

David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.. He may be contacted at This article is distributed by ABP.