Arbitrariness and the Divine Command Theory 2: Utilitarianism and Modern Morality

Read Part 1 before proceeding further, or you will feel very lost!

One can examine utilitarianism, a prudential ethic, and discover a similar conclusion. What end should all persons attempt to obtain? “The greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.” Why should I pursue this end? The only honest answer consists of practicality. The greatest happiness principle, as utility has been called, wishes to constrain the behavior of individuals to benefit humankind as a whole – such a system is only a form of control. The principle of utility seeks to place an arbitrary equality among each individual human being without any justification. As a criterion for moral behavior, “happiness” has a different definition for everyone – any action could have justification, since any action could produce “happiness” in various cultural contexts. Thus, to force a person, against his/her will, to perform a violent action for the “greatest happiness” even if such an act does not reflect their personal happiness, violates the idea of free will.

To add to this problem, the decision as to what constitutes “the greatest happiness” arises out of thin air; there is, much like the categorical imperative, no proof for utility but the principle of utility itself. Certainly, one could use Bentham’s numerical calculations, but adding arbitrary numbers to a system already lacking meaning exacerbates the core problem. If this is the case, then to declare the actions of a utilitarian “arbitrary” would be no exaggeration. Utilitarianism arises out of fear of the extraordinary, that perhaps some persons may be superior, in some sense, to another. Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, states this clearly:

There is a point of diseased mellowness and effeminacy in the history of society, at which society itself takes the part of him who injures it, the part of the criminal, and does so, in fact, seriously and honestly. To punish, appears to it to be somehow unfair – it is certain that the idea of “punishment” and “the obligation to punish” are then painful and alarming to people. “Is it not sufficient if the criminal be rendered harmless? Why should we still punish? Punishment itself is terrible!” With these questions gregarious morality, the morality of fear, draws its ultimate conclusion. If one could at all do away with danger, the cause of fear, one would have done away with this morality at the same time, it would no longer be necessary, it would not consider itself any longer necessary!3

In effect, Nietzsche sees the utilitarian as a denial of individuality, embracing a morality of equality out of fear. The moment one has done away with emotions such as fear that bring this morality into being, it no longer needs to exist. If utility, fear, or emotions alone constitute this morality, utilitarianism has no foundation; any emotion could lead to any action being “morally justified.”

Both deontology and utilitarianism, as well as the general morality of society, are simply remnants of a Christian worldview. Bentham, Mill, and Kant all worked from a metaphysics that affirmed the idea of the Judeo-Christian God, even if their views were not particularly Christian. Certain presuppositions arise from the assumption of objectivity that their culture provided. They would not have been able to see these problems because it was ingrained in their thought processes. Without God, these systems have little sense in trying to convey “meaning” within their ethical codes; such reasoning simply provides a camouflage for something that essentially makes humans “feel” as if their actions toward one another mattered in some grand scheme.

Morality just happens to be an arbitrary list of rules for societies to “live together”, to not kill each other like wild animals, and to remove us from a state of nature and bring in a Hobbesian social contract. Summarily, to accept morality on prudential grounds remains the best option for civilization to continue its functions. The decision to “act morally,” whatever that might mean, remains an individual’s decision. How other people feel and act in response to an individual’s actions are nothing but practical considerations for one’s own existence, consciously or subconsciously.

A person may only follow the law of a government authority for their own survival. Without a religious background, most moral systems descend into prudence regardless; why accept them when the alternative of social contract performs the same function without chaos? As Nietzsche would say of Kant, although it equally applies to all moral systems that regard set actions as “morally correct”:

An action stimulated by an instinct of life, is proved to be a proper action by the happiness that accompanies it: and that nihilist with the bowels of a Christian dogmatist regards happiness as an objection…What is there that destroys a man more speedily than to work, think, feel, as an automaton of “duty”, without internal promptings…without joy? This is the recipe par excellence of decadence and even of idiocy…4

We will continue this discussion in Part 3.


3 Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Geneaology of Morals,” in A Nietzsche Compendium, trans. Horace B. Samuel (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc.), 87.

4 Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist” in A Nietzsche Compendium, trans. Anthony M. Ludovici (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc.), 391.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.