The Scientific Cul-de-sac of Utilitarianism

by Feb 4, 2013

True religion can make no peace with a false philosophy, any more than with a science that is falsely so-called; a thing cannot possibly be true in religion and false in philosophy or in science. All methods of arriving at truth, if they be valid methods, will arrive at a harmonious result.

J. Gresham Machen


The title of this paper implies that utilitarianism, which is currently tied tightly to what is considered mainstream economics is a scientific dead end. Indeed, if the Bible is true, this must be the case because the biblical conception of humanity is markedly different from that embedded in utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a manifestation of behavioral determinism, which at best provides a conception of human nature that is seriously flawed. From the standpoint of this view, the human being is at best nothing more than another animal that reacts to various environmental stimuli. If this were true, then individual choice is a meaningless concept and the idea of responsibility for one’s actions is eliminated from consideration. For this reason, the uncritical acceptance of the utilitarian methodology in the study of economics has resulted in a point of view that is at odds with biblical truth.

Alternatively, throughout the Bible, the individual person is conceived of as someone who is an image bearer of God and who by his nature transcends the natural order of things in a way that animals never can. The Bible offers a view of the human being as a moral creature who makes choices and is responsible for the choices that he makes. The person is not merely a creature who responds to various environmental influences as a machine or as some kind of animal, but as a creature capable of reflecting some the most profound attributes of God himself. Men reflect God in their powers to think, will, and act. We reflect God in regard to the moral natures that we possess. We reflect God in our self-awareness and our ability to act as free agents who are self-determined. However, at root, all forms of behaviorism must deny this kind of free agency in favor of embracing some form of mechanical determinism.

While it is true that we as human beings do respond to various stimuli, it is not true that this is the whole of the story. Human beings possess the capacity to choose our responses. In addition, while it is true that human beings seek to gain utility in choice, the concept of utility offered by the utilitarians is truncated and void of relevant meaning. This provides an opportunity for Christian professors to articulate a more robust understanding of the concept of the human person, of utility, and of economic action that might more nearly tell the economic story. It is my purpose here to compare and contrast Christian anthropology with utilitarian anthropology and to discuss some of the differences that a biblically consistent methodology will make in how we approach the study of economics.

Christian Anthropology vs. Utilitarian Anthropology

To compare and contrast the difference between a Christian view of man and that of utilitarianism, an examination of what utilitarianism is and where it came from will prove useful. Utilitarianism is a term coined by John Stuart Mill who penned a book by that title. Mill was influenced in this direction by a rather strict educational upbringing at the hands of his father and of Jeremy Bentham. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Bentham proposed a radical new approach to moral philosophy which had ramifications for the direction of public policy. Bentham was very much influenced by the Enlightenment and his aim was to overthrow the prevailing moral philosophies of the time. Such traditional views appealed to natural or divine law and on this foundation asserted that human beings possessed fundamental rights. Bentham claimed that no such rights existed. Rather, he argued, all that did exist were people who sought pleasure and avoided pain. As such, he held that the real moral imperative was to promote the greatest amount of pleasure while minimizing the total amount of pain in society. In essence, Bentham proposed a social mandate known as a hedonistic calculus.

While the concepts of utility and hedonism were well known beforehand, Bentham redirected and combined them to assert this new moral imperative. Indeed, apart from utilitarianism, the idea of utility was, and always will be, fundamental to any consistent study of economics. Nonetheless, Bentham’s assertion was that ethical behavior is essentially that which promotes “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” This idea departed radically from traditional ethical philosophies. As Frederick Copleston put the matter, “Bentham did not invent the principle of utility: what he did was to expound and apply it explicitly and universally as the basic principle of both morals and legislation.”[1] By arguing this way, Bentham was a social reformer who aimed to change the world. He attacked traditional morality and rejected the concepts of both natural law and natural human rights.

It should be clear that Bentham’s position put him and his followers at odds with Christianity. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always held that though man is made in the image of God, he is a fallen creature given to sin. For this reason, his desires are not godly and this results in the pursuit of pleasure in the wrong kinds of things. While such behavior might bring immediate pleasure, the long term consequences of sin are always death and destruction. As such, the Bible teaches that a man ought to learn self-discipline and ought to order his behavior in light of God’s commandments even though doing so may mean enduring some immediate pain. On Bentham’s terms there is simply no way to evaluate such tradeoffs, but Scripture everywhere points to the reality that they exist throughout our lives and this fact gives rise to the necessity of making a choice either for or against God. Moreover, practical realities point to the same thing. People engage in all kinds of activities that involve short term pain, which they believe will bring long term gain. This is why people visit gyms regularly and save money for their futures. However, there is no way to discern which kinds of tradeoffs might be best on the basis of a hedonistic calculus.

There are many other problems associated with Bentham’s doctrine, including our inability to make interpersonal comparisons along with the impossibility of actually measuring utility, but the important point to make is that it is fundamentally opposed to consistent Christian thought. Nonetheless, Bentham’s viewpoint has become widespread in our culture and it serves as the bedrock of a great deal of mainstream economic analysis. This is especially true when economists engage in modern day cost-benefit analyses based upon welfare economics derived from equilibrium modeling. The way in which this happened is largely owed to John Stuart Mill.[2] Mill’s father was a disciple of Bentham and aimed to raise his children to inculcate in them utilitarian ideas. For this reason, he undertook to personally supervise the education of them and set them on a rigid agenda. John Stuart was forced to master the classic languages at an extremely early age and completed his formal education when he was only fourteen years of age.

However, the demands of his father took a toll in his life and the young Mill suffered an emotional breakdown at the age of twenty. During this time he was influenced by the writings of a variety of socialist reformers of his day. Nevertheless, he maintained the utilitarian outlook that had been ingrained in him during his childhood. He even coined the term utilitarianism and wrote an entire book on the subject. Just the same, the impact of the social reform movement on Mill can be seen in some of the policies he supported. For example, he was one of the first to advocate a death tax to redistribute wealth. He couched his argument within the context of utilitarianism by promoting the idea that such redistribution is necessary in order to level the playing field so that the greatest gains might be had. But this argument goes against Scriptural teaching. Of fundamental importance in this regard is Scripture’s prohibition on theft. Such a prohibition must carry with it the notion of private property and the concept that it ought to be respected and protected. For the government to intrude into such affairs for utilitarian ends is certainly inconsistent with the Scriptural conception of the purpose of government. In addition, the writer of Proverbs tells us that, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children…”[3] Moreover, throughout the Bible we can find mandates for people to look to the future and to provide for their own families, but nowhere will one find mandates that suggest the power of government should be used to undercut the property rights of people for the purpose of redistributing wealth. Despite all of this, Mill was a giant in the profession and his views on the subject became more and more shared by his students.

This brings us to a fundamental problem of implicitly assuming a utilitarian ethic in one’s analysis of policy options. Namely, doing so embraces a kind of collectivism that is also at odds with Scripture. Edmund Opitz has rightly observed that utilitarianism with its “greatest happiness principle” completely neglects the spiritual dimension of human life. It “asserts that men are bound together in societies solely on the basis of a rational calculation of the private advantage to be gained by social cooperation under the division of labor.”[4] However, this position is seriously misguided. Theft has always been the first labor saving device and, because of sin, people have always demonstrated their willingness to resort to it to get the things they want. Likewise, the utilitarian principle will tend to lead to the collective use of government power to redistribute income as long as someone might argue that it serves to promote the greatest good. In the years since Mill, we have seen the rapid expansion of government as people have engaged in rent seeking behavior of every kind. Arguments for these policies have invariably been built on the notion that it will provide for the greater good even though it necessarily implies the violation of the private property rights of some people. “Utilitarianism, in short, has no logical stopping place short of collectivism.”[5] “If morality is ultimately had by making the individual’s happiness subservient to the organic whole of society, which is what Bentham’s utilitarianism asserts, then the human rights of the individual may be violated. That means property rights may be violated if it is assumed to promote the utilitarian end.”[6]

J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian theologian of the early twentieth century, saw very clearly the damage that this kind of thinking can have upon people. He understood the importance of liberty in promoting spiritual growth. In his defense of traditional Christianity against the liberalism of his day he wrote:

The whole development of modern society has tended mightily toward the limitation of the realm of freedom for the individual man…. It never seems to occur to modern legislatures that although ‘welfare’ is good, forced welfare may be bad. In other words, utilitarianism is being carried out to its logical conclusions; in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds. The result is an unparalleled impoverishment of human life. Personality can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted…. When one considers what the public schools of America in many places already are—their materialism, their discouragement of any sustained intellectual effort, their encouragement of the dangerous pseudo-scientific fads of experimental psychology—one can only be appalled by the thought of a commonwealth in which there is no escape from such a soul-killing system…. The truth is that the materialistic paternalism of the present day, if allowed to go on unchecked, will rapidly make of America one huge ‘Main Street,’ where spiritual adventure will be discouraged and democracy will be regarded as consisting in the reduction of all mankind to the proportions of the narrowest and least gifted of the citizens.[7]

What Difference Does it Make?

As has been pointed out thus far, sound Christian doctrines are at odds with the utilitarian ethic. Therefore, to the extent that the discipline of economics has embraced utilitarianism implicitly, it has headed down a dead end street. Indeed, the presence of the utilitarian ethic is widespread in mainstream theory. What is needed in the profession is a reassessment of itself. The truth cannot be arrived at if the methodological approach to the study essentially denies God. As the Psalmist understood well, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God.’”[8] For this reason, what the discipline of economics needs is an approach that is consistent with Christian anthropology. Toward that end, we must consider what we need to give up in regards to modern economics and what might be saved? Put bluntly, what differences will there be?

While it goes far beyond the scope of this paper to wrestle with all possible differences that might arise, some initial comments can be made that are worthwhile. To begin with, it is not necessary that economists jettison the concepts of utility or of marginal analysis. These terms can be employed entirely apart from utilitarianism. However, these terms must be understood in a much broader way. We need to reconsider how they were originally used. The term utility historically meant the usefulness of something in helping someone achieve some end. Since human beings are created in the image of God, we are creatures who act with purpose. One aspect of this is that we value ends and we develop and employ tools that are useful in helping us achieve those ends. We value some of these ends more than others and pursue the achievement of them using the scarce resources at hand. As a result, we choose to achieve those ends that are relatively more important and make decisions at the margin of importance. The value of goods is fundamentally the outgrowth of human values. The work of Carl Menger is especially useful in this regard because this is how he introduced marginal analysis and conceived of human action. For this reason, much of the work of the Austrians has been done in a fashion that is consistent with Christian anthropology. Hence, the concepts of utility and choosing at the margin remain, but they remain in terms of the relative importance that people place on certain desires. Theologically speaking, we always choose according to our highest affections at the moment of choice.

However, this understanding is quite a bit different from the notion that human beings are simply calculators choosing according to some utility function. This formulation treats the human actor as nothing more than a machine that maximizes the numeric value of this function subject to some kind of constraint. This is not an accurate description of human behavior as it is rooted fundamentally in behavioral determinism. For this reason, we ought to recognize the clear limitations of mathematical modeling. That does not necessarily mean that such modeling must be abandoned altogether, however it does mean that we should heed the warnings of Alfred Marshall who understood those limitations. Reflecting on the use of mathematical models, Marshall wrote:

I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules—(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This last I did often.[9]

Beyond the issue of mathematics, is the issue of the importance of private property and the development of the free market. Christianity has traditionally embraced the concepts of private property and free trade because they are consistent with Christian teachings prohibiting theft. Alternatively, under the terms of utilitarianism there is no such commitment. In fact, according to utilitarian doctrines, private property should be violated if such violation increases the sum of net happiness in society. The ramifications of this has resulted in the growing size of government as endless arguments are made to justify the ever expanding redistribution of property on the bases of fuzzy appeals to the common good or the general welfare. All along the way the successful political efforts have resulted in greater damage done to the moral fiber of the nation and the undermining of free enterprise.

In his book, Ideas Have Consequences,Richard Weaver compared the situation to that of a spoiled child. As Weaver put the matter:

The spoiled child has not been made to see the relationship between effort and reward. He wants things, but he regards payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold for it. His solution…is to abuse those who do not gratify him…. The truth is that he has never been brought to see what it is to be a man. That man is a product of discipline and of forging, that he really owes thanks for the pulling and tugging that enable him to grow…. This citizen is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind…. [If he could realize the reality that something greater than himself exists, if he could recognize the virtue of God] and not simply respond to coercion—he might genuinely realize human progress.[10]

This is a serious problem because it tends to undercut our ability to effectively communicate the gospel message in a culture where people believe that they should be treated mercifully as a matter of justice. Moreover, this kind of understanding has been advanced in our society under the guise of science.

One excellent example of where this is true in economics today is in the treatment of externalities. Modern textbooks treat positive and negative externalities in a symmetric fashion. Hence, positive externalities are extraneous benefits that ought to be promoted through subsidy while negative externalities are extraneous costs that ought to be discouraged by taxes. But such a conclusion rests solely on the implicit acceptance of utilitarianism. A normative argument must have a normative principle and that principle in this case is the hedonistic calculus of Bentham and Mill.

In his book, Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard critiqued this mainstream argument.[11]  In his critique, Rothbard pointed out that the value laden nature of argument. In fact, the implicit assumption of all welfare economics as it is currently conducted is that the standard of ethical judgment in policy debates ought to be decided on the basis of a hedonistic calculus. In the case made for government intervention to promote positive externalities it is argued that such a situation is needed because without such intervention a sub-optimal solution is said to exist. This is exactly the kind of hedonistic calculus that Bentham had in mind.

However, if we approach the issue of positive and negative exeternalities from a different point of view, we find that they are not symmetric at all. In his critique of the mainstream view, Rothbard asks his reader to consider the issue from a property rights perspective that embraces a more traditional view of ethics. When viewed in this way, one finds that there is a very real difference between a positive externality and a negative one. They are not merely the flip sides of the same coin. Rather, they are two radically different events. In the case of a negative externality, the cost imposed on the third party amounts to a violation of the third party’s inherent property rights. In this case the failure that has taken place is not a failure of the market, but a failure of the governing authority to adequately protect the property rights of all the participants of the market. The remedy needed in such cases is the need for greater clarity and definition of private property.

On the other hand, in the case of a positive externality there is no violation of private property. When two people engage in some act that spills over to the benefit of a third party, the gift received by the third party amounts merely to his good fortune. Any attempt on the part of government to extend such benefits could only be accomplished by violating the private property rights of some people in order to increase the external benefits. Despite this obvious fact, working from the standpoint of the externalities offered by the mainstream, proponents of government action argue that violating private property in this way is necessary for the common good.

These provide just a few examples of the differences that arise from embracing a different moral philosophy behind the scenes of the study of economics. Such presuppositions make all the difference in the world in regards to how questions are framed and analyzed. Regrettably, in today’s academic environment they are being framed and analyzed from an ungodly point of view. If ever there were a time when Christian professors of economics needed to step up to the plate, this is it.


[1] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, (London: Burns and Oates Limited, 1966, vol. 8), pg. 4.

[2]  For a brief history of  John Stuart Mill see, Robert Ekelund and Robert Hebert, A History of Economic Theory and Method, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 4th edition, 1997), pp. 170-193.

[3] Proverbs 13:22.

[4]. Edmund A. Opitz, Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies, (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1992), pg. 131.

[5]. Ibid., pg. 132.

[6]  Paul A. Cleveland, “The Failure of Utilitarian Ethics in Political Economy”, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Fall 2002, pp. 57-68.

[7]  J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934), pp. 10-15.

[8]  Psalm 14:1.

[9] Ekelund and Hebert, op. cit., pg. 342.

[10] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[11]. Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, Inc., 1962, vol. 2), pp. 883-890.

Paul Cleveland

Boundary Stone was started by Dr. Paul Cleveland. Working as a professor for over 35 years has allowed him to study and think deeply about issues of political economy. He has discovered ways to communicate these sometimes illusive concepts to today's students, often through story telling, which makes understanding these principles more accessible to all of us.


Do you need tools for educating students in government or economics?

Our curriculum for government and economics gives you all you need to teach a semester of each. Curriculum bundle options are available at discounted rates. See the difference natural law foundations make.

You may also like…

Log in below to access your courses.
Forgot Password
Enter your email address or username and we’ll send you instructions to reset your password.