Morality Not Founded In Utility


Below is a conversation had by Andrew Fuller (F), and an unnamed friend (C). The topic of discussion is whether or not morality is simply a device of utility to produce happiness, which in turn becomes how we justify whether or not something is good. The problem with this thinking is that happiness becomes the dictator of moral goodness. A murderer may assert that his happiness is derived from his homicidal bent. So does that make it morally good for him to commit murder? And should we therefore not intrude on a murderer’s so-called moral goodness? “By no means!” as the Apostle would say. God is the Dictator of what is morally good, not what makes man happy. The fall has corrupted what man views as good and therefore we cannot lean on our own understanding. The introduction is by the editor, Andrew Gunton Fuller, Fuller’s son.

In a late excellent sermon the author combats, with great success, the notion of morality being founded in utility. On looking over some loose papers the other day, I found a short conversation on this subject which took place a few years since between two friends, and which was taken down immediately after they had parted. It will occupy but a small space; and, if you think it worthy of insertion, it is at your service.

C. I have been thinking of the reason why we are required to love God and one another; and why the contrary is forbidden.

F. And what do you conceive it to be?

C. Would there be any such thing as sin in the universe, if it were unproductive of evil consequences?

F. You mean, would there be moral evil, if there were no natural evil arising out of it?

C. I do.

F. I allow that all moral evil tends to natural evil, as disorder in the animal frame tends to pain and misery; but we do not usually consider the effect of a thing as the reason of its existence. Instead of saying it is wrong because it tends to misery; I should say, it tends to misery because it is wrong.

C. What idea do you affix to right and wrong distinct from that of its good or evil tendency!

F. That which is in itself fit or unfit, or which agrees or disagrees with the relations we sustain to other beings, whether Creator or creatures. Thus it is commanded: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

C. Yes, it is “right;” but its being so, I conceive, arises from its tendency to render the universe happy.

F. Then it has no excellency in itself, but merely a relative one. Will you say that, because moral good tends to general happiness, therefore it must needs be what it is on that account!

C. What if I were to affirm this!

F. By the same mode of reasoning I might affirm that truth would not be true if it were not an object of utility; and, as the first of all truths is the existence of God, that God would not exist, if it were not for the advantage of the creation that he should exist.

C. This consequence is certainly inadmissible; but I can hardly see how you make it out.

F. Try it again. If moral good be moral good because it tends to general happiness, why is not truth truth because it is of utility! But further, an action may tend to natural good, though it be performed from the worst of motives, as the relieving of the needy, from ambition; yet with such a motive there is no moral good in it. If therefore you will maintain your position, you must give up all purity of motive as essential to morality; and maintain, with Volney, that intention is nothing. You will also find your opinion largely defended by Hume, who has written a treatise to prove that all virtue arises from its utility; and that, as “broad shoulders and taper legs are useful, they are to be reckoned among the virtues!” I hope you will not be elated with your company.



3 thoughts on “Morality Not Founded In Utility

  1. Classic! “I hope you will not be elated with your company.” First taking the opposite opinion to its true logical conclusion and then showing the infidels who agree with that true logical conclusion is an excellent way to open the muddled mind to the error of their own position when they have failed to think it through. Alas, too many simply grasp on to unsound words simply because they sound good and make them feel good, and do not think through the implications thereof. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

  2. What is fascinating to me is that, despite the ease with which utilitarianism as a moral system can be shown to be totally lacking, the modern atheist movement (the “New Atheists”, or “Militant Atheists”) still attempts to use varieties of utilitarianism in their argument for a source of objective morality aside from God. Ultimately, I believe the very term “utilitarianism” should be discarded in favor of a more accurate descriptor: Desirism.

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