by Joshua Clemmons
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Back in college I had a remarkable course on ethics and recall our professor parsing theories with insightful categories. My professor spoke of each school of ethics having its own “theory of the right” and “theory of the good.” The right and the good are braided together to form various schools of ethics.
One might espouse, for example, a consequentialist theory of the right. The consequences of any act will be the sole criterion in answer to what is the right thing to do. One’s acts are judged based on consequences alone, apart from intentions or the actual thing you’ve done as a means to the end, which, for the consequentialist, is to reduce aggregate evil and increase the aggregate good. Most movie villains operate on this kind of principle, justifying their plan under the auspice of a greater good.
If you have an opportunity to increase the good, you are obliged to do so, but what is “good”? Here is where we have to have a “theory of the good”. One particular school or species of consequentialism is utilitarianism. The utilitarian theory of the good is hedonistic. The good is pleasure (and that with varying qualities). Evil, then, is pain. This theory of the good is pretty commonplace, even unconscious. It isn’t uncommon that the primordial “problem of evil” is sometimes called the “problem of pain,” assuming an equivalence between pain and evil.
I have come to believe that utilitarianism is one of the most insidious of ethical theories. Its starting points sound benign, but there are innumerable problems. In practice, to calculate scenarios would require a godlike base of knowledge of the butterfly effect of one’s agency through history. Is there somehow a best scenario that maximizes aggregate pleasure? What is my obligation in any given act? One is led to either an indifferent agnosticism as to the meaning of one’s activity in the world, or to an anxious and impossible scrupulosity as one is driven by conscience to do the right thing. One faces one’s moral situation with either presumption or despair.
There are two kinds of presumption, really. Perhaps one does not give up on the effort to divine future consequences, becoming indifferent, but instead gives into the hubris so ready at hand in the abstractions of mathematical models of soft sciences? Herein lies a problem at root in our managing ourselves as a society – we are often overconfident that an evil means will ultimately lead to the best of outcomes. We can do any number of heinous things in the name of the greater good. We can think ourselves prudent when we’re just cunning. We can think we are good guys, when we’re villains.
In fact, these critiques of utilitarianism are applicable to any ethics for which the theory of the right is consequentialist. From the perspective of Christian faith, one finds a counterfactual ready at hand. Considering the greatest good for the human race is wrought in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we’d have to allow that Judas would be one of the best of men. It isn’t the evil he did, but the good that came from it by which his action would be judged. The idea of a Christian consequentialism is an oxymoron.
So, the utilitarian theory of the right seems off, but what of its theory of the good? Briefly, one might state that hedonistic theories of the good are the default position of our urge to pleasure. Our dopamine system is inclined to it, or in the Christian tradition, our concupiscence assumes it. Our desire for pleasure is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it is supposed to be subordinate to something of a higher order. As an exploration of this, one can look to Pope St. John Paul II’s classic Love and Responsibility which has an insightful critique of utilitarian ethics on the level of its theory of the good. There is a hierarchy of goods, with “common goods” being the highest and private goods holding a lower position. Since pleasure is subjective, it is always a private good. Common goods are goods that are participated rather than distributed or traded. It isn’t a privately enjoyed thing, but is shareable without being in any way lost in the sharing. Pizza can be shared, but when you give a slice away, you have one less slice.
That’s not to say that the private good isn’t a good, it is just that it needs be subordinated to something higher. For example, one may open up an avenue to a higher common good, like friendship forged over a shared meal. The meal is lost in consumption but the friendship is participated – it’s not lost when shared and is a good use of pizza. Truth is like this too. One does not become dumber when teaching – knowledge isn’t lost in the sharing. Pleasure, on the other hand, is not in itself shareable. Though we might derive some delight from participation in a common good, it isn’t pleasure that makes the good pursued, good. This is the problem with hedonism and with utilitarianism – and unrestrained concupiscence as well.
Ironically, it is because that which we pursue is good in and of itself that we can have pleasure as a byproduct. The more self-consciously hedonistic your pursuit, the more difficult it is to derive pleasure from it. Pleasure has a higher quality when it is a side-effect. This is one reason why heaven is called the Beatific Vision. The joy that derives from such vision is just that – derivative. Nonetheless, it is the greatest delight.
Another angle of parsing this idea of the common good comes from Pseudo-Dionysius who says that the good is diffusive of itself. That is, the more a thing communicates itself, the more it is self-diffusive, the higher the good. Whatever the highest good, it must be the most self-diffusive, the most commonly participated. The cascade of being that we call creation is a qualified participation in the highest Good. Christians have always rooted goodness in being. The very core from which all creation springs is a self-diffusive Creator whose name is I AM. Jesus tells us that “No one is good but God alone” (Lk. 18:19), and Genesis puts on God’s lips the affirmation, again and again, that creation in its various steps and processes is good. When it reaches his image and likeness, it is very good. Beyond the private sphere of God’s self-diffusive Trinitarian goodness, he goes public, as it were, communicating himself in a free act of creation. The goodness of God is manifest beyond God’s inner life. Creation participates as a finite reflection of the infinite Being and Good – God.
This is the appropriate understanding of what “glory” means in the Christian context. To be glorified is to be widely known and desired, and it is the True God that is to be known and the Good God that is to be desired. All, “for the greater glory of God.” Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, sometimes rendered AMDG is the motto of the Jesuits, founded by my patron saint, St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is good for any Christian who agrees with St. Paul, who said that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). It is a Christian “right and good” turned into a veritable battle cry. It destroys hedonism in its wake. Pleasure is not the Christian banner we lift, but the glory hidden in its opposite – a cross.
There is something almost medicinal to our wild craving for pleasure and our own glory, that God’s greater glory is shared and participated only in following the Crucified as our exemplar of true ethics, in whom we pass from a theory of the good and right to its fullest practice and manifestation. For our concupiscence, we have crucifixion. For our vanity, derision. Instead of our own calculation of outcomes, we are to cast ourselves into the dark night of faith, entrusting to God not only our lives, but our deaths.
May Peace be with us all.