Utilitarianism and Human Flourishing: Does It Matter?

Utilitarianism and Human Flourishing: Does It Matter? March 15, 2021

This week I’m reflecting on one of the logical outcomes of utilitarianism as it relates to personhood and beauty.

I want to review utilitarianism in brief. I’ll begin with a brief look at Aristotle and jump to the modern era so as to get a handle on how we tend to view it in our own age.

Aristotle’s View

Utilitarianism, one of the most influential ideas of modernity, deals with the summum bonum, or the highest good. The modern sense of the word comes to us from Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.E.) Nicomachean Ethics. “Therefore,” writes Aristotle, “the Good of man must be the end of the science of Politics.” (Book 1, chapter 2)

For Aristotle, matters of the polis enfolded things like rhetoric and economy and strategy, but these endeavours all contributed to man’s ultimate happiness or pleasure. Aristotle was intent on sketching what a flourishing culture looks like. The Good, says Aristotle:

“… is that for the sake of which everything else is done. … The Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues in conformity with the best and most perfect among them.” (Book 10, chapters 12-16)

Aristotle employs the word eudaimonia, meaning “happiness” or “flourishing.” So the summum bonum is what we seek in life and eudaimonia, or happiness or flourishing is that highest good or goal. Aristotle also says that the gods possess a pure kind of eudaimonia and this activity of flourishing is contemplation. So true happiness relates to something divine.

Contemplation, for the modern mind, does not sound very practical or useful. Quite the opposite, in fact. But can it not be argued contemplation is itself a useful and virtuous activity? Perhaps it’s not viewed in the way because of how we tend to ascribe worth and use to activities. I’ll come back to this in another post. Moving on.

A Theological View

The concept of summum bonum is also a theological term that positions God, not happiness, as the highest good. So, it should be noted from the outset this concept might be interpreted differently by a secularist and someone from the Christian tradition. Or will it?

Over the last two decades, evangelicals and other Protestant Christians use the term “human flourishing” as a cultural aim for all humanity. Who are we if we do not seek the flourishing of everyone?

I believe God desires “flourishing” for humans and for all of his creation. But I think we run into problems when we emphasize flourishing over the worship of YHWH. We’ll touch on this more in coming posts.

A Modern View

In John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, the summum bonum is used in a general political sense: the highest good for the most people or “the greatest happiness principle.” Mill says the greatest happiness equates to pleasure and the absence of pain. And by pleasure, he does not mean simply sensual pleasure or pleasure of sense.

He includes psychological, intellectual, and spiritual pleasures as well. The utilitarian doctrine, according to Mill, is that “happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.”

But what about things like virtue or music or money or beauty? Is virtue not desirable in and of itself? Is it not desirable as an end? Mills says yes and no. The pursuit of virtue in life becomes part of a person’s happiness. So, in this way, yes, it is a desirable end. But only insomuch as it relates to a person’s happiness. (p.35-37)

Concluding Thoughts

The idea of “utility” sounds negative at face value. It ranks the use of things and people and outcomes from an impersonal perspective. Can’t some things in this world be valuable despite their lack of use?

By ranking outcomes, it reduces those outcomes to a quantity. This rails against our innate sense that certain things in this life maintain intrinsic value or worth.

From a Christian standpoint, the summum bonum or highest good reaches beyond questions of ethics. The Highest Good begins with the worship of YHWH.

This creates a tension between a person who seeks human flourishing as the ultimate good and the person who views worship as the beginning of human ethics. Can the two views be reconciled?


The Toolshed is a place to hammer out answers to tough theological and philosophical questions. I intend it to be a running dialogue between me and you. I’m grateful to have you along. Please feel free to leave your thoughts if so moved.

 

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