Paul Hibberd

Although Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are the most well known utilitarians their approach is secular and Christians may feel a greater empathy with the thought of the Rev William Paley who set out his thoughts on a Christian utilitarianism in his ‘Moral and Political Philosophy’ first published in 1785.

As such he was not the first Christian utilitarian, but his developed argument, which remained standard reading for Cambridge students for the next hundred years or so, is readily accessible and demands a response.

Some definition of terms and explanation about utilitarianism is helpful to assessing the question of its compatibility with Christianity. It is also helpful to note what is meant by utility as this has a bearing on how utilitarianism approaches ethical issues. Like all ethics utilitarianism is about how man is to make choices, which may be between two desirable objectives or two evils or perhaps in situations where there is both a positive and a negative aspect. There has to some sort of measurement in these processes. In some situations it may be enough to establish that one evil is clearly less than another but in some instances (for example resource allocation in a health service or other stewardship situations) some attempt at quantification can be necessary to conscientiously make the very best use of the finite resources available. Hence utility has the more precise meaning (as nowadays attached to it by economists) ‘the value that is sought to be maximised in any situation involving a choice’. Indeed some concept of measurement is inherent in the idea of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, otherwise how would you have any idea whether it had been achieved?

Rather than dwell further on abstract issues at this point, it is considered more useful to look carefully at Paley’s approach and see how he dealt with certain conventional objections to utilitarianism and leave other potential objections to a broader discussion of the issues at stake and a general summing up.

Paley, in the eighteenth century meaning of the term, regarded ethics as being a science(1). By that he meant that it was (like Christianity as he saw it) an organized corpus of ideas which was internally consistent. This approach fitted well with his background as a mathematician, so although there certainly are motives, rules and results the whole edifice fits together within a set of logical rules so that the greatest utility is produced if men are motivated to follow God’s will (the rules) rigidly. In this way a utilitarian outcome is the by-product if men follow God, so Christianity is compatible with utilitarianism and if a utilitarian outcome is not achieved then that is because men have not followed God.

The steps in his reasoning investigate motive, the will of God and outcome.

He raised the question ‘why am I obliged to do what is right: to act agreeably to the fitness of things: to conform to reason, nature or truth: to promote the public good or to obey the will of God?’ (2) He continued, ‘to be obliged is to be urged by a violent motive, resulting from the command of another’. The violent motive is ‘the expectation of being after this life rewarded if I do, or punished if I do not, “resulting from the command of another”, namely of God.’ He then asserts ‘This solution goes to the bottom of the subject, as no farther question can reasonably be asked (!). Therefore, private happiness is our motive, and the will of God our rule’. (3)

He then examines the will of God since ‘As the will of God is our rule, to inquire what is our duty, or what we are obliged to do, in any instance is, in effect, to inquire what is the will of God in that instance? Which consequently becomes the whole business of morality.’

He continued ‘Now there are two methods of coming at the will of God on any point:

  1. By his express declarations, when they are to be had; and which must be sought for in Scripture
  2. By what we can discover of his designs and disposition from his works, or as we usually call it, the light of nature.’(4) Going beyond scripture was necessary because it could only lay down general rules. He quotes St. John ‘even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written’ if it was to cover everything.’ and states bluntly ‘Whoever expects to find in the Scriptures a specific direction for every moral doubt that arises, looks for more than he will meet with. (5).

Separating natural and revealed religion from each other was to him absurd as ‘The object of both is the same – to discover the will of God – and, provided we do but discover it, it matters nothing by what means’. (6)

Paley then brings utilitarianism into his model by maintaining that to arrive at the will of God concerning any action it is necessary to ‘inquire the tendency of the action to promote or diminish the general happiness. This rule proceeds upon the presumption, that God almighty wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures; and consequently; that those actions, that promote that will and wish, must be agreeable to him: and the contrary’. He then states that ‘this presumption is the foundation of our whole system’. (7)

The presumption is then justified by considering three propositions ‘When God created the human species, either he wished their happiness, or he wished, their misery, or he was indifferent and unconcerned about both.’ (8) If the first proposition was true ‘he might have made sure of his purpose…he might have made..every thing we tasted bitter; every thing we saw loathsome; every thing we touched a sting; every smell a stench; and every sound a discord’. Of indifference he states that ‘both the capacity of our senses to receive pleasure, and the supply of objects fitted to it’ would have to be attributed to ‘good fortune(as all design by this supposition is excluded)’. These propositions are ‘too much to be attributed to accident’ so ‘nothing remains but the first supposition, that God, when he created the human species, wished their happiness; and made for them the provision he has made, with that view and for that purpose.”(9)

Paley then examines a very broad range of issues (for example promises, contracts, wills, charity, fornication, adultery, the duty of parents etc.) and attempts to apply God’s law as he sees it to them arguing that God’s solution does indeed promote widespread happiness. For example on adultery he argues ‘if we allow of adulterous connections, whenever they can hope to escape detection … we leave the husband no other security for his wife’s chastity, than in her want of opportunity or temptation; which would probably either deter men from marrying, or render marriage a state of such jealousy and alarm to the husband, as must end in the slavery and confinement of the wife’. (10)

Whether or not people agree with Paley on every point the fact is that he has constructed a model for Christian ethics founded in God’s will, with a defined motive (private happiness) and with an intended outcome that is utilitarian (promoting the general happiness).

He has certainly come very close to establishing that there can be a utilitarianism that is compatible with Christianity. I am unhappy however about ‘private happiness’ being the motivating factor in a system of Christian ethics because this does not fit within the prescription of Mt.22 37-39, rather ‘personal happiness’ is the outcome of this prescription. However, this problem could be overcome if agape is substituted for the motivation, the will of God is left in place for the ‘rules’ and Paley’s outcome is also left in place. Ironically this change might also save Paley’s system from a perhaps pedantic technical charge from some utilitarians that his system was not act actually utilitarianism at all as the initial motivation was not to create the greatest happiness, and that this was merely a by-product of his model.

In creating his model Paley has also provided a response to one great criticism of utilitarianism, which is that its approach is teleological. By this is meant that it is merely concerned with a goal without having a basis for deciding that the end is good in the first place. By basing his model in the will of God it combines both an empirical element (the utilitarian outcome) with a rational element (obeying the will of God). Bringing God into it creates an ‘ought’ as well as the happiness is good ‘is’.

Paley has also created a system that deals with the assertion that utilitarianism is all about pleasure and that some sources of pleasure may arise from undesirable practices. On this basis utilitarianism tends to be equated with hedonism. He deals with this problem in two ways: firstly he defines happiness in a way that would preclude this and secondly he makes his whole system subservient to the will of God.

He defines what happiness does not consist in. At the outset he specifies ‘the pleasures of sense, in whatever profusion or variety they be enjoyed’ and these extend beyond the ‘animal gratifications of eating, drinking and that by which the species is continued’. (11) So hedonism is clearly repudiated.

Utilitarianism is also criticised for placing expediency before principle. Caiaphas is often quoted (John 11:49-50). But Paley has taken this objection into account.

He considers the proposition ‘Whatever is expedient is right. It is the utility of any moral rule alone which constitutes the obligation of it.’ (12) He notes the plain objection to this ‘viz. that many actions are useful, which no man in his senses will allow to be right’ and gives an example ‘It may be useful to rob a miser, and give the money to the poor; as the money, no doubt would produce more happiness, by being laid out in food and clothing for half a dozen distressed families, than by continuing locked up in a miser’s chest.’(13)

He continued ‘What then shall we say? Must we admit these actions to be right, which would be to justify assassination, plunder and perjury; or must we give up our principle, that the criterion of right is utility?’ (14). Unsurprisingly his answer is that ‘It is not necessary to do either. The true answer is: that these actions, after all are not useful, and for that reason and that alone are not right. To see this point perfectly, it must be observed that the bad consequences of actions are twofold, particular and general. The particular bad consequence of an action, is the mischief which that single action directly and immediately occasions. The general bad consequence is, the violation of some necessary or useful general rule. (15)

To demonstrate the general bad consequence he cites the case of an assassin. ‘The assassin knocked the rich villain on the head, because he thought him better out of the way than in it. If you allow this excuse in the present instance, you must allow it to all who act in the same manner, and from the same motive.’ He argued this would ere long ‘put an end to human society, if not to the species’ (16). An attention to general rules, he argued, was ‘included in the very idea of reward and punishment’ so he asserted that God would proceed ‘in the distribution of it by general rules’. (17) Whether or not you find this convincing it is clear that his system of Christian ethics could not be criticised for placing expediency before principle.

Some biblical passages might also be seen as being critical of a utilitarian approach, for example Lk 15 3-7 (the lost sheep) and Mt 26 6-12 (the woman who anointed Jesus’ head). The issue is, what are these passages actually saying? I incline to the view that the parable of the lost sheep says that all of God’s children count and the episode with the woman indicates that Christ felt that gestures of praise and worship were really significant. (I also think it fascinating that this event shows Christians thinking in a utilitarian way at that time!).

So Paley has done quite well, enough I think to show that a utilitarian approach can be reconciled to Christianity. That is not to say that I believe his model to be perfect or that there are not significant difficulties.

His whole approach seems to be geared to justification by works. Maybe faith is just assumed but in that case why is man trying to gain credit with God as if he is attempting to pass some sort of examination. He states ’The Christian religion hath not ascertained the precise quantity of virtue necessary to salvation’ (18). This seems at variance with John 3 16 and one’s name being recorded in the book of life when we get to Revelation 20 12.

His system also seems to lack a personal relationship with God. The Holy Spirit seems to go unmentioned in his treatise and prayer is described only in petitionary terms. So there is a complete lack of seeking God’s guidance in particular situations, and maybe, without becoming a situationalist, greater utility might be achieved if a degree of flexibility was identified in God’s will, because it is in His nature to be merciful.

Again, his understanding of God’s will might be refined by more recent studies, for example the attempt to achieve an integrated understanding comprising both the Old and the New Testaments. (19)

There are also conceptual issues, is his view of happiness too narrow? – for example ‘the more refined pleasures of music, painting, architecture, gardening, splendid shews, theatric exhibitions and the pleasures ..of active sports’ are excluded as well as the animal gratifications (20)

The problem of measuring happiness is also mentioned by him. He recognised that we are all different and that ‘All that can be said is, that there remains a presumption in favour of those conditions of life, in which men generally appear most cheerful and contented. For though the apparent happiness of mankind be not always a true measure of their real happiness, it is the best measure we have’. (21)

Turning to practicality, there is also a great problem in that although Christians would assert that they try to follow the will of God, they commonly have different ideas as to the conduct required. Christian Socialists like Maurice and Ludlow and many US Republicans all apparently have or are following Christ, yet it seems almost the case that wherever two or three are gathered together there are differences of opinion as to what God’s will requires, so a system of Christianity utility based ethics might well produce happiness but how far it would actually produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number would be conjectural. It is also true that our actions will not always have the consequences that we predict.

Nonetheless an agape based approach would seem to point to happiness and there is interesting evidence that at least in one area (economics) God’s thinking may have been more geared to a human happiness approach than most people would have imagined. Mills discusses the Old Testament system of jubilee and concludes ‘The economic model set out in biblical law transcends the persistent debate about whether efficiency or equality ought to be pre-eminent in economic policy making. By adapting property rights and factor markets, biblical law seeks to maintain universal access to the means of production and a rough equality in their distribution, without introducing state intervention or interfering with economic incentives. As such it represents a radical ‘Third Way’ that is genuinely different from capitalism and socialism. The uniqueness and subtlety of the economic model set out in biblical law is a further sign of God’s providence and the inspiration of Scripture. Only after 250 years of economic thinking and numerous experiments with various alternatives are we beginning to grasp the depth of its wisdom when applied to the technologies and conditions of its day’(22). Mills concluded that it prompted the surprising conclusion that God is, after all, an economist. I would say that it also provides strong support for Paley’s view that God does indeed wish for man’s happiness, a very utilitarian idea.

I believe that besides a utilitarian approach being compatible with Christianity provided that it is set with a Christian framework, it can also help to produce a more ‘joined up’ approach to Christian ethics because it shows that there are linkages between different ethical issues. What may appear desirable in one context may appear less so from another perspective. For example keeping people in prison for life is a drain on public resources, so that the consequence might be that healthcare is withdrawn in certain situations so that effectively a ‘death penalty’ is applied in another context for say being obese, which is not officially a crime at all. Again, repairing the church tower might be at the expense of mission or overseas aid. It forces Christians to recognise that all the time choices are being made, whether people like the idea or not. I am not saying how the choices should be made, but a utilitarianism approach does provide a useful yardstick for identifying and weighing up choices.

It also helps Christians in talking with the rest of the world because these modes of thought are commonplace in secular thinking, whether explicitly, here is our ‘cost-benefit analysis’, or implicitly, as in arguments like everybody should send their children to the state school because that is in the best interests of society as a whole. They will also be aware that secular utilitarianism will be different insofar as it is not based in a Christian context so that perspectives on matters such as abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research may well be different, and Christians may well find that they can communicate their views with greater impact if they can show that actually, on a longer term view, the secular utilitarian analysis is not as good as good as people think it is.

The lynch pin in arguing for a Christian utilitarianism is taking on the writings of Kant, who has commonly been regarded as at the opposite end of a spectrum from the empirical utilitarians, and the problem is difficult, partly because of obscurity not just I have found in his writings. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Watson, ‘these are deep waters’. However it is clear that some of Kant’s statements have a utilitarian flavour to them: he refers to ‘the supreme end, the happiness of all mankind’ (23) and urges ‘Act on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’(24) There is much more, there are certainly utilitarian elements in Kant and R M Hare in ‘Sorting Out Ethics’(25) argues persuasively that Kant’s thought is compatible with a utilitarian approach even though he might not have actually been a utilitarian!

It so happens that Kant’s ‘Metaphysics of Morals’ was published in the same year, 1785, as Paley’s volume. Two great Christian writers focusing on utilitarianism at the same time. Yet since that time secular utilitarianism has been overwhelmingly to the forefront.

So what went wrong? Writers like Halevy have presented Bentham and Mill as being exclusively concerned with personal happiness, making utilitarianism into a merely egoistic phenomenon. However, Francisco Vergara in ‘A critique of Elie Halevy’(26) by carefully examining the original texts has shown evidence of an altruistic utilitarianism in the thought of both Bentham and Mill. Paley was aware that ethics was drifting away from Christian theology. He noted ‘Mr Hume, in his fourth Appendix to his Principles of Morals, has been pleased to complain of the modern scheme of uniting Ethics with the Christian theology’. His reaction was to suppose that any thing akin to altruism would be an insufficient motive ‘to withhold men from the gratification of lust, revenge, envy, avarice, or to prevent the existence of these passions’ (27); hence Paley looked to sanctions as the motivating force in his model. Had he shown a little more imagination he might have noted that altruism is not a million miles from agape and that particularly with the power of the Holy Spirit agape may indeed be a motivating force for man. There was a great opportunity for synthesising the two approaches that was not taken, and perhaps a more imaginative Christian approach to utilitarianism might yet help to heal the gap between the spiritual and temporal realms.



All Paley references come from the sixth edition corrected of ‘The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy’, 1788.

(1) op. cit. p.1
(2) op. cit. p.56
(3) op. cit. pp.59-60
(4) op. cit. pp.62-63
(5) op. cit. p.5
(6) op. cit. p.63
(7) op. cit. p.65
(8) op. cit. p.66
(9) op. cit. p.67

(10) op. cit. pp.309-310
(11) op. cit. p.23
(12) op. cit. p.70
(13) op. cit. p.71
(14) op. cit. p.71
(15) op. cit. p.72
(16) op. cit. p.74
(17) op. cit. p.75
(18) see ‘The use of the Bible in Social Ethics’ (Grove Booklet 51 pp.21-24)
(20) Paley p.23 (21) op. cit. pp.31-32
(22) Paul Mills, ‘The Divine Economy’ p.4 (Cambridge Papers Vol.9. Number 4)
(23) Kant (Kr. V A851 = B879 = 549)
(24) Kant (Gr. BA52 = 421)
(25) ‘Could Kant Have Been a Utilitarian?’ R.M. Hare, in ‘Sorting out Ethics’, OUP.
(26) ‘Philosophy’, Jan. 1998.
(27) Paley p.64