I used to be a utilitarian: that which produces the most amount of benefit for the most amount of people is morally good.
In my early years, I’d connect it to God.
“God knows everything. If we follow him, we’ll have a better earth: most amount of good for the most amount of people. We just all need to trust God.”
But trust what? The Bible? I don’t believe that anymore. The book has been used to commit some horrible atrocities like the Crusades, the Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, slavery, misogyny, homophobia.
This is the point where Christians slide into my comments.
“That’s not what that verse means.”
“The church is no longer like that.”
“That’s why (insert flavor of Christianity they don’t like) aren’t Christians. They’re dark-sided! They’ve gone astray!”
Said everyone to the generations before once they got enough distance to other themselves.
“That’s not who we are now.”
Said every generation still committing horrible shit we haven’t wrestled with that’s empowered by the Bible, the most recent being antisemitism (Protestants hated and treated converted Jews as second-class citizens till WWII), misogyny, racism and now homophobia/transphobia.
Just give it a few decades. We’ll say it was contextual and then generations in the future will hate on this one, saying how they weren’t actually following God.
Behind every horrific act is a man (and let’s be honest, 90% of the time it’s a man) thinking he’s doing a good thing for his God, for his country, for his family, believing he’s producing the most amount of good for the most amount of people or the things he loves. A classic example: Pat Robertson, televangelist who passed this passed weekend, who believed he needed to be homophobic because the sin of homosexuality caused horrific events like 9/11 (yes, he actually said that).
Robertson and so many other Christians are ultimately utilitarians, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. In fact, most would say they are not, and they’d claim an ethical framework of Divine command: that which God commands is morally good.
But underneath current evangelicalism is utilitarianism. Why do they give money? Sure because they believe God said, but also because you get money back. Why do they want prayer in schools? Sure because they believe commanded prayer, but also because they believe it’ll stop school shootings.
The idea is obey God, and the nation prospers. (This rhetoric also motivates Christian nationalism because you believe if everyone obeyed your version of God, the nation “will be blessed. Again, utilitarianism.)
It shows up in their morality, their beliefs about the end of the world, their beliefs in their politics. They must do this in order to bring about the most amount of good, God’s good. Now sprinkle Jesus on top.
I used to be a utilitarian, but I am no longer.
Beyond nerding out on ethics, I like to read fantasy. My current fixation is everything Brandon Sanderson, and his pièce de résistance is the Stormlight Archives.
In this series, the main characters gain special powers by committing themselves to an ideal: loyalty, truth, law.
To betray an ideal is to betray oneself, and your powers go away.
I no longer want to betray myself for morality. I don’t want to give away my power and energy. Rather, I want to develop myself and my character to align with my morality through every choice I make.
Here’s how that’s different than utilitarianism:
In a utilitarian’s mind, it would absolutely make the most sense to murder Hitler before he were to commit atrocious acts against humanity. One death would mean millions of others would be spared.
Most amount of benefit for the most amount of people. Utilitarianism.
But my question, when holding a gun at Hitlers head would be, “What are the ideals I hold onto and would pulling the trigger align with who I want to be?”
If I value justice or security as my highest value, murdering Hitler would make a ton of sense, and it wouldn’t violate my values. However, if I value nonviolence, I may not pull the trigger because it doesn’t align with who I am or want to be. It’s not about the ramifications of my choice; it’s about the choices that are forging me into the person I want to be.
Because here’s the thing: we craft who we are choice by choice.
We don’t have innate character. We don’t exist in a vacuum.
Our identity is a product of all the choices we’ve made and the choices enacted upon us, whether directly or indirectly, intentional or accidental, and you are forging yourself with every choice.
Now let’s make it a bit more practical and return to Pat Roberson.
Over the course of the past few days, I’ve seen hundreds of posts thanking God for the death of Robertson, saying karma finally got him, that his death was a gift to the gays for Pride, that the world is a better and safer place with him gone.
In all honesty, the world likely is a safer place because he’s gone.
And if your values are retribution or justice or allyship, it would completely align with you to celebrate his death.
But I won’t be.
Not because the guy deserved it. He doesn’t. Not because me not dogging on him produces more good in the world. I think it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to be excited for Robertson’s death because it’s not something I value or the type of human I want to be.
I want to be a person that extends grace on my enemies. Not because God told me to or because it would make the world better. But because that’s who I want to be. That’s the person I want to build myself into.
This happened more recently in a more practical sphere, a sphere that cost me money.
There was a human that completely copied my research on why people are leaving Christianity. I made $150 off that post with Baptist News Global. The man who copied me made well over $450 on Medium.
I reported the post. Medium banned him. The man lost a primary source of income for him and his family of five (or so he told me over Twitter as he panicked).
It was completely in my right to say, “Tough luck. Go be a better human so you don’t starve.” It honestly has justice attached to it.
But a value I want to forge into my identity is mercy. So I called Medium and asked them to reactivate his account as long as the writer would properly credit me and link the article to my work.
Most people would say this is dumb and that he deserved to be banned.
Sure. And you’re likely a utilitarian or one of your values is justice.
Me choosing to reach out to Medium has nothing to do with the consequences or outcomes of my choice; it has everything to do with who I want to be.
Often, we waste so much time and energy thinking about how every choice and word will affect those around us, how it will be perceived, what consequences will ensue, when we could make the best plan and it could all fall apart. Then we feel like shit because the outcomes didn’t go the way we wanted.
But if we make our choices about who we want to be, then the pressure is released. I’m no longe responsible for the outcomes. I’m responsible with my identity.
So here’s my question to you: Who do you want to be? What the values you want to be known for? It doesn’t happen over night. Our identities are not found but forged with every choice: every deed, word, or thought.
Who do you wanna be? (To steal an old Switchfoot lyric.)
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Much love! Thanks for reading!
Cover image by Caleb Jones