Utilitarianism and Christian Theology

Vesa Hautala and Dominic Roser

Utilitarianism is one of the most straightforward ethical theories: it simply calls for the greatest welfare for the greatest number. Despite its early links to theological reasoning, this moral view has often been sharply contrasted with the outlook of Christians. This entry presents the key features and history of utilitarianism and explores its relationship to Christian theology. Utilitarianism is famous for its radical recommendations when applied to beginning and end of life issues, animal welfare, and poverty. These are discussed and contrasted with Christian approaches. The entry ends by discussing effective altruism, a movement strongly influenced by utilitarian ideas.

1 Utilitarianism as a moral theory

1.1 Key features

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral theory; that is, it holds that the rightness of an act is determined exclusively by its consequences. While any plausible moral view pays attention to consequences, the distinguishing feature of consequentialism is that nothing else ultimately counts. In most versions of consequentialism, motives, virtues, rules, and rights do not matter in themselves but at most as instruments to produce good consequences; and in the few versions that classify rights or virtues as good consequences, they are shoehorned into playing no other role than a good to be promoted. This singular focus on bringing about good consequences leads to a fascinatingly simple theory. However, the simplicity comes at a price, since the claim that any kind of malicious intention, greed, lying, or violation of human rights can be justified as long as the consequences are as good or better than those of any other action is thoroughly in tension with common moral intuitions. Also, the simplicity is deceptive; since the indirect long-term consequences of intuitively bad acts such as lying are, in fact, often bad, consequentialism’s precepts are often less straightforward – and, correspondingly, more intuitively acceptable – than it may seem at first sight.

Utilitarianism is the most famous type of consequentialism. In its classical form, it distinguishes itself from other types of consequentialism by claiming that the only consequence that matters is (net) welfare, that everyone’s welfare counts equally, and that welfare ought to be maximized (it should be noted that, in stark contrast with the philosophical literature, common parlance occasionally uses ‘utilitarian’ to refer to anything that is geared in a calculating way towards practical benefits, often for oneself, rather than the maximization of the sum of everyone’s welfare).

Utilitarianism does not intrinsically care about the distribution of welfare. Ultimately, it is only the total amount of welfare that matters. Many Christian and other non-utilitarian thinkers put much emphasis on the dignity of individuals, their separateness from each other (Rawls 1971: 22–27), the relationships and duties between them, and the idea that the welfare of one individual cannot be traded off in a straightforward way for the sake of another (Williams and Bengtsson 2020: section 2). By contrast, utilitarianism views individuals – in the pejorative language of its critics – merely as ‘containers’ in which welfare can be instantiated.

The concern with maximizing welfare raises the question whether it would not only be good to have more welfare per individual but also more individuals. Unfortunately, the straightforward suggestion to maximize total welfare leads to the so-called ‘Repugnant Conclusion’ (Parfit 1984: 388) – that is, the conclusion that achieving high welfare for, say, ten billion people would be worse than achieving extremely low, albeit positive, welfare for a sufficiently much larger population. Finding more plausible positions in population ethics has proven surprisingly difficult. However, given that hardly any other theory tradition has spent as much effort even looking for answers, this is no strong argument against utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is a family of theories. This entry explores these core themes and tenets, with an emphasis on how they relate to and engage in dialogue with Christianity. The following descriptions capture the paradigmatic forms of utilitarianism. There are consequentialist theories that go under the label of utilitarianism – such as negative, critical level, or perfectionist utilitarianism – which deviate to some extent from the core ideas behind standard utilitarianism, but which cannot be examined here.

1.2 Welfare

If utilitarianism is about maximizing welfare we need to know what welfare is. Unfortunately, in addition to the substantive difficulties, the literature is also plagued by an inconsistent use of terminology. We follow one prominent convention by using welfare, wellbeing, and utility (but not happiness) interchangeably. There are three major ways of understanding welfare.

Hedonistic utilitarians define welfare as pleasure. In their view, welfare thus consists of subjectively pleasant mental states. These cover the whole range of pleasant experiences, from the pleasure of eating tasty food to the joy of spending time with loved ones or the happiness experienced in fulfilling work. Suffering is understood as negative welfare and likewise consists of subjectively unpleasant mental states from mild boredom to the experience of agonizing physical pain.

Hedonistic utilitarianism has been criticized as a ‘morality fit for swine’ (Mill 1863: 10) because it does not make a distinction between different kinds of pleasure, only their duration and intensity. A pleasant life of rolling in the mud is preferable to a rich life with complex and refined pleasures if the sum total of the former pleasures is greater. Even the pleasure of sadistically enjoying the suffering of others counts as a positive. In the eyes of many, hedonism struggles to achieve plausibility not only because it dismisses the idea that different pleasures could have different value but also because it values no other aspects of life apart from pleasure. In a famous thought experiment, Nozick asks us to imagine the option of entering an experience machine which will simulate an utterly pleasurable reality (1974: 42–45). Many people are intuitively hesitant about taking up such an offer. They seemingly prefer actively making choices themselves and carrying out these choices – say, running a marathon – even if this comes with less than maximal pleasure. Hedonistic utilitarianism thus does not only accord no intrinsic importance to autonomy but it also seems patronizing: if people care about other things than pleasure, why should we not respect that?

Enter preference utilitarianism, which defines welfare as the satisfaction of preferences. Preferences comprise the whole range of human desires, from wanting to live a meaningful life or desiring the happiness of others to wishing for a hot bath. Suffering comprises the frustration of preferences in all its forms from the lack of fulfilment of a mild desire for a small physical comfort to soul-crushing existential despair. One advantage of preference utilitarianism is its approach to killing. Hedonistic utilitarianism can only condemn killing on account of the shortened lifespan, the painfulness of killing, and the suffering of others. In contrast, preference utilitarianism sees a more direct problem with killing whenever it frustrates future-oriented preferences.

However, preference satisfaction takes us quite far from the usual understanding of wellbeing. Imagine an eighteenth-century immigrant to the US desiring his friend in Europe to be in good health. Is the immigrant’s wellbeing really higher if the friend is – unbeknownst to him – healthy rather than ill? Apart from the question whether the satisfaction of malicious, trivial, crazy, and misinformed preferences should really count as welfare-increasing, manipulated preferences pose a particular problem. Consider a slaveholder instilling a desire for a quietly submissive life in his subjects, or tobacco companies instilling a desire for smoking in teenagers. Is the satisfaction of these preferences – or even the creation of the preference for the sake of satisfying them – a good thing?

A third understanding of welfare goes under the labels of ideal, objective list, pluralistic, or perfectionist utilitarianism. It responds to the preference view by reversing the perspective: something like art is not valuable because we desire it. Rather, we should desire it because it is valuable. This view understands welfare to be constituted by a list of goods such as friendship, knowledge, autonomy, beauty, and – as items among others – happiness and the satisfaction of subjective preferences. Note that the goods which are brought about by an act can in principle also include features of the act itself or its motives rather than merely its causal effects. It is only a truly utilitarian view if its elements are understood to enhance wellbeing, rather than being intrinsically valuable apart from making anyone’s life go better. This type of utilitarianism risks being paternalistic and universalizing culturally and socially dependent concepts. An ideal utilitarian view is also more complex than a hedonist or preference view in the sense that there are multiple components to wellbeing which must be traded off against each other.

1.3 Evaluating actions

Calculating the utility of every individual action is difficult. When the difficulty is due to uncertainty about an action’s consequences, utilitarianism relies on expected utility. This means evaluating an action by multiplying the value of each of its possible consequences by their respective probability and summing up the products. Thus a fifty percent probability of curing two patients is evaluated as favourably as a one hundred percent probability of curing one. Utilitarianism has a much clearer approach to uncertainty than any other moral theory.

Utilitarianism thus gives centre stage to empirical assessments in applied ethics. However, the welfare loss due to the necessary calculations and the inability to make quick decisions raise the worry of whether utilitarianism is self-defeating. A further concern in this vein is that making the kind of strong commitments that allow us to achieve deep personal relationships is difficult if these relationships are exposed to a constant cost-benefit analysis, rather than being pursued for their own sake. It thus seems like maximizing welfare requires forgoing an evaluation of the welfare consequences of each act one-by-one (‘act utilitarianism’). Rather, it requires relying on general rules (‘rule utilitarianism’). In turn, these rules are evaluated for the expected welfare effects of everyone or most people following them. This draws a wedge between two perspectives on an act: an act’s ‘criterion of evaluation’ consists in whether it maximizes welfare but the ‘decision procedure’ for choosing whether to perform an act is indirect: judging whether the act falls under a rule that maximizes welfare. Thus, lying could be condemned even in instances in which it would have good consequences. Rule utilitarianism faces problems in situations where societal compliance with the rule is low, so conditional clauses about what to do in these cases can be added. However, such clauses – as well as an openness to exceptions in cases where sticking to a rule is overly harsh – come with the risk of collapsing rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism. One advantage of rule utilitarianism is that it allows people to perform suboptimal actions as long as they comply with the rules. This responds to the common complaint that utilitarianism is too demanding.

There are further forms of ‘indirect utilitarianism’ apart from rule utilitarianism. An act can also be evaluated indirectly by whether its motives or the character traits in which it is rooted are such as to maximize welfare. Utilitarianism can also be used as a theory primarily for evaluating institutions, rather than individual morality. Some implications of utilitarianism in the private sphere are particularly counterintuitive. For example, utilitarianism is criticized for demanding that one should care equally about family members and anonymous others. But with regard to public institutions such impartiality is commonly accepted.

Note that rule utilitarianism does not necessarily have to be indirect: rather than defending rule-following as an indirect way of optimizing the consequences of one’s actions, one could turn the focus away from single actions in the first place. Instead, the starting point for moral inquiry could be the rules endorsed by our common moral intuitions or church teaching. The propensity of these rules to enhance welfare would then simply be viewed as the unifying rationale behind them.

2 The history of utilitarianism

2.1 Precursors and eighteenth-century theological utilitarians

The beginnings of utilitarianism are variously traced to Richard Cumberland (1631–1718) or John Gay (1699–1745), but the idea of utility was also important in the modern Epicurean tradition in the seventeenth century, and elements of utilitarian thought can be seen in the thinking of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, among others (Heydt 2014: 22–24; Rosen 2010: 144). More precisely, the inception of utilitarianism can be located in England during 1660–1730 (Heydt 2014: 15).

Today, utilitarianism is strongly associated with a secular outlook, but for its earliest proponents, religion played a considerable role. During the eighteenth century, a strain of moral philosophy called theological utilitarianism developed in England and Scotland. It reached its peak in William Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, published in 1785. This work became an influential textbook in Cambridge, and Paley was seen as the main proponent of utilitarianism by his contemporaries (Le Mahieu 2002: xi; O’Flaherty 2010: 3). Other important figures among the theological utilitarians include the previously mentioned John Gay, John Brown (1715–1766), and Joseph Priestley (1733–1804). Still, during the same time period, there also existed utilitarian thinkers who did not invoke theological concepts as crucial parts of their theories, such as Claude Helvétius (1715–1771; Heydt 2014: 30).

Instead of attempting a comprehensive description, this article will highlight some ways in which theology played a role in the systems of various eighteenth-century thinkers associated with utilitarianism. For some, religion provided an explanation for why the greatest happiness for the greatest number should be pursued: God is benevolent and desires the happiness of all (Paley 2002: 39; Priestley 1774: 25; Gay 1731: xxvii–xxix). This line of thinking was also able to provide a basis for impartiality, as God desires the happiness of all his creatures (Priestley 1774: 26–27). Theology also offers a solution to the perennial question of why one should act for the good of others if it is in conflict with one’s own interests: altruistic behaviour is guaranteed to always be in one’s best interest by the providence of God, who has designed things so that the pursuit of one’s own happiness promotes the greatest happiness of all (Priestley 1774: 27; Le Mahieu 2002: xvi).

In contrast to secular utilitarians, happiness or suffering in the hereafter was a very real concern to these thinkers. God rewards moral behaviour and punishes immoral behaviour in the afterlife (Heydt 2014: 28). This must be taken into account when considering the consequences of actions. The hope of an afterlife also has beneficial effects that contribute to a happy and moral life in the present age. Brown wrote about the role of hope in producing happiness which leads to benevolence (Brown 1751: 221). In Paley’s thinking, active engagement is an essential aspect of happiness, and ‘Christianity, through its promise of an afterlife, offered an incentive to meaningful engagement matched by no other activity’ (Le Mahieu 2002: xv–xvi).

For a number of thinkers who were either among the theological utilitarians or adjacent contributors to utilitarian thought, true happiness lies in human beings fulfilling the goals stemming from their nature, or, in other words, perfecting the human nature God had created. Cumberland, Hutcheson, and Priestley stood in the natural law tradition. Moral discernment using reason was for them about discovering, not producing, moral rules. The source of this natural law was of course God (Canovan 1984: 438–440). Theological reasons guarantee that moral reasoning can be trusted and true moral principles found. The human mind is created by a benevolent creator with the ability to find out his will. This is in contrast to current typical forms of utilitarianism that are commonly traced back to Jeremy Bentham (see next section).

William Paley famously opposed slavery like later utilitarians because he defended impartiality about whose happiness counts (Paley 2002: 135–138), but apart from opposition to slavery, the theological utilitarians were not as reform oriented as Bentham and later secular utilitarians. They rather sought to illuminate what they believed to be the reasons behind existing morality and practices (Heydt 2014: 33).

2.2 Classical utilitarianism: Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) is commonly known as the father of modern utilitarianism. He was first and foremost a social reformer who sought to improve legislation. Bentham’s account of psychology is purely hedonistic: the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain rule all human activity (Bentham 1823: 1). He also believed that pleasure is the only intrinsically good thing and only its quantity matters; Bentham famously stated that the simple game of pushpin was as good as poetry (Bentham 1830: 206–207). Pleasurable experiences can, however, be more or less valuable based on their intensity, duration, likeliness to continue, the number of people they affect, etc. (Bentham 1823: 29–31). The rightness of actions should be evaluated only based on whether they increase or diminish the happiness of those whose interest is affected. Motives cannot be good or bad in themselves, and therefore they only feature in ethical evaluation by their tendency to cause pleasure or pain (Bentham 1823: 2, 102–103). Bentham rejected theologically grounded ethical principles, because he thought appeals to the divine revelation always end up being appeals to other principles in disguise (Bentham 1823: 21–22).

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) followed closely in Bentham’s footsteps. His concept of happiness is somewhat different from Bentham’s. Mill was also a hedonist, but he regarded mental pleasures as more desirable and valuable than bodily pleasures because those who have experienced both kinds of pleasures always prefer the ones involving the ‘higher faculties’ (Mill 1863: 10–14). Like Bentham, Mill applied utilitarianism to societal reform. He was a champion of personal liberty and advocated for women’s suffrage.

Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) developed and refined utilitarian theory and was also more aware of its difficulties. In his magnum opus, The Methods of Ethics (1874, last edition 1907), Sidgwick analyses three different ‘methods of ethics’: egoism, where the right thing to do is what benefits oneself; intuitional morality, which determines right conduct by reference to intuitively known rules; and utilitarianism. By a ‘method of ethics’, he means ‘a rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings “ought”—or what is “right” for them—to do’ (Sidgwick 1981: 1). Sidgwick concluded that both egoism and utilitarianism (but not intuitionism) are reasonable methods. Despite his attempts, he was unable to reconcile the two, which means a tension remains between the two options: firstly, ‘I ought to sacrifice my own happiness, if by so doing I can increase the happiness of others to a greater extent than I diminish my own’; and secondly, ‘it would be irrational to sacrifice any portion of my own happiness unless the sacrifice is to be somehow at some time compensated by an equivalent addition to my own happiness’ (Sidgwick 1889: 483).

2.3 Utilitarianism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

During the 1900s, moral philosophy shifted towards analysis of language. In this vein, R. M. Hare (1919–2002) sought to show that a careful analysis of the moral concept of ‘ought’ leads to preference utilitarianism. He analysed moral statements as prescriptions: by saying something is wrong a person means to tell everyone not to do that. In Hare’s analysis, moral statements are also impartial: truly universal statements cannot be made based simply on one person’s likes or dislikes. Therefore, according to Hare, statements of moral ‘ought’ can only make sense if they are made as impartial, universal prescriptions – only saying things from the point of view of having fully internalized everyone else’s view. Hare distinguished between critical and intuitive levels of moral thinking. The critical level operates under preference utilitarianism, but in their everyday lives humans must operate on the intuitive level which includes rules like ‘do not steal’, because full critical analysis of every situation is simply not possible (Hare 1981).

Derek Parfit’s (1942–2017) Reasons and Persons (1984) is ‘widely regarded as the most important work in utilitarian moral philosophy in the twentieth century’ (Cochrane 2017: 404). His work deals especially with questions of personal identity and laid the groundwork for further discussions about obligations to future people. Parfit introduced the concepts of ‘same people choices’ and ‘different people choices’ (Parfit 1984: 359). The former refers to situations where the same people will exist regardless of what action we choose, but in the latter choices the different actions result in the existence of different people altogether, for example when a person decides whom to marry and have a child with.

Peter Singer (1946–) is one of the most famous contemporary philosophers, embracing both preference and hedonistic utilitarianism at various points of his career. He is particularly well-known for carefully engaging with real-world issues and skilfully communicating radical implications of (sometimes broadly) utilitarian premises to a wide audience. His book Animal Liberation (1975) has had a profound influence on the modern animal liberation movement. His revisionary views on global poverty and the duties of citizens of wealthy countries have been equally influential. He is also a very controversial figure due to his views in the areas of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and disability.

3 Utilitarianism and Christianity

3.1 Utilitarianism and Christianity in dialogue

Utilitarian philosophers have referred to Christianity at various points. The theological utilitarians of the eighteenth century developed their position with explicitly Christian commitments. The strand of utilitarianism following Jeremy Bentham was secular and utilitarianism in general has come to be seen as a secular affair, with many of its well-known proponents – such as Bentham himself or Peter Singer – being atheists. Still, the golden rule received a positive mention by John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer, the former even regarding it as a good fundamental summary of morality (Mill 1863: 24).

It may seem strange that a philosophy with such strong Christian connections in its early stages becomes associated with a secular outlook and even atheism. This might be explained by English theological utilitarianism being strongly connected with the social setting of its time and place and not advocating for fundamental reform (Heydt 2014: 32–33), which could be the reason it did not capture the interest of later generations of moral philosophers in the same way the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill did. However, it is possible that the fading of theological utilitarianism in the nineteenth century and the rise of the classical utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill have different explanations. Regardless of the reasons behind utilitarianism evolving along two separate paths, some scholars argue that the split is so acute that writing separate histories for the two might even be justified (Heydt 2014: 32).

However, despite the association of utilitarianism from Bentham onwards with secularism, these later utilitarians have at times relied on solutions in the vicinity of religious reasoning when it comes to motivating altruistic behaviour. The question why one should behave morally is perennially difficult and it is particularly pressing for those who hold a hedonistic account of psychology. This question was at the heart of the problem Henry Sidgwick identified in his Methods of Ethics. Instead of taking refuge in classical theism, Sidgwick was unique in turning to parapsychology in the hope of finding scientific evidence that altruistic behaviour causes happiness in the hereafter. A century later R. M. Hare thought that in order to act morally, one needs to believe that behaving morally will ultimately have good consequences for oneself. He considered full rational justification of this kind of belief impossible. Instead, he thought of this a ‘blik’, as he called it, as more of a stance on life. This view seems amenable to religious interpretations which is unsurprising given that Hare had an affinity for Christianity, even though his own identification with Christianity was complicated (Hare 1992: 37–39). The early theological utilitarians discussed in section 2.1 did not shy away from thinking that providence had arranged matters so that moral behaviour is worthwhile, and that rewards and punishment await in the afterlife.

Another issue that seems to attract religious solutions are the limits of human knowledge and intelligence, specifically the difficulty of knowing the consequences of our actions. Utilitarians have accepted the use of heuristics and rules to govern everyday life, but a tension remains about the justification of these rules: how sure can we be they are the right ones? This issue is particularly pressing in cases of radical cluelessness about the consequences of our actions (Greaves 2016). A related, wider question is the difficulty of relating utilitarianism with common moral intuitions. Here, again, the theological utilitarians had a straightforward supernatural solution: God knows everything and is able and willing to provide humans with a moral code that is guaranteed to have the best results. And again it was R. M. Hare who proposed auxiliary constructions reminiscent of this theme: a figure he called ‘the archangel’, as the model of a being that has full knowledge of every action’s outcome and that operates only in the critical mode (Hare 1981: 44).

According to situation ethics as promoted by Anglican theologian Joseph Fletcher (1966), only love matters and all ethical decision making is situational, so nothing is intrinsically right or wrong. Love wills the neighbour’s good and only the most loving result justifies the means. Thus, Fletcher’s situationism is in practice act utilitarianism expressed in the language of Christian love. A movement called proportionalism seeks to implement a more consequence-oriented outlook within the natural law tradition. According to it, there are moral rules derived from the natural law it is never right to go against, unless there is a proportionate reason to justify it (Hoose 1987). The papal encyclical Veritatis splendor (1993) refutes this development in Roman Catholic theological ethics.

Christian commentary on utilitarianism has often been abundantly negative. The Neo-Orthodox theological ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr denounced in the Christianity of his time what he saw as the ‘utilitarian tendency’ to use Christianity as a means to an end (Niebuhr 1946). Utilitarianism was condemned in the papal encyclicals Summi pontificatus by Pius XII (1939: para. 55) and Veritatis splendor by John Paul II (1993). The latter rejects judging the morality of acts based only on consequences, as this rules out including the proper objects of actions that are very important in Roman Catholic moral theology. The object of an action is the end towards which the act in itself is ordered, distinct from what the person intends to ultimately achieve with it; for example, murder would be considered to have the evil object of killing a person and thus wrong even if the ultimate intended consequence was something noble. According to the pope, utilitarianism cannot absolutely prohibit any particular kind of behaviour and so goes against the principle that evil may never be done for the sake of greater good, formulated by the Apostle Paul in Rom 3:8 (paragraphs 74–78). Christian ethicists and philosophers have frequently rejected utilitarianism (for example Hollinger 2002: 34–36; Moreland and Craig 2017: 441–458) or consequentialism in general (Geisler 2010: 15–17, 30), sometimes finding in it some partial truth (Niebuhr 2013: 203–205; Holmes 2007: 50–51). The strongly anti-utilitarian sentiment of Christian moral thinking is confirmed by the fact that after the eighteenth-century beginnings there is no single prominent theorist or text unambiguously espousing both utilitarianism and Christianity. In terms of seeking a constructive dialogue between Christian thinking and utilitarianism, Charles Camosy’s work over the last years stands out (in particular Camosy 2012).

3.2 Consequentialism

Moral theory attempts to provide a systematic account of the principles behind the guidance on how to live and to answer related questions, such as what reasons there are for living morally or what it means for an injunction to be moral (Lovin 2005: 19). Utilitarianism is a moral theory systematically built up from basic and simple philosophical premises. In contrast, Christian scripture presents ethics in a multifaceted, narrative way. The biblical texts do not provide a moral theory in the modern sense; instead, they tell us what to do and what kind of person to be without explicitly giving a fundamental rationale which ties all the different pieces of guidance together.

Utilitarianism is a purely consequentialist moral theory where other kinds of moral consideration matter only to the extent that their adoption has good or bad consequences. Systems of Christian ethics, on the other hand, routinely make use of concepts relating to duty and virtuous character. Numerous biblical texts, particularly in the Old Testament, speak about ethical rules being established by God’s commandments and about the importance of obedience to God’s law (e.g. Lev 18:5; Ps 119). Routinely, acts are portrayed as evil without reference to their consequences. In Rom 3:8, Paul seems to take it for granted that it is problematic to reason ‘let us do evil so that good may come’.

For those who assume there to be a veritable chasm between the Bible and utilitarianism, forgiveness can serve as a particularly clear case in point. For utilitarians, acting wrongly means acting so as to achieve a suboptimal level of welfare. One can thus act wrongly, but one cannot wrong someone (Nelson 2015). Without such directed duties the central Christian idea of forgiveness is hard to incorporate. Forgiveness by those who end up with less welfare than they would in the optimal situation could possibly be seen as a pragmatic means for serving societal harmony. But since utilitarians do not consider duties to be about right relations between individuals – but rather about the relation of the individual to the good – forgiveness would not be a practice in which a wronged party has the moral power to waive rights for compensation or retribution or to eliminate guilt.

Another point in which a chasm between standard utilitarianism and biblical thinking becomes visible is the concept of supererogation. The Bible references the familiar concept of going beyond the call of duty. For example, Paul recommends virginity but does not command it (1 Cor 7:1–7). Supererogation is a widely acknowledged concept in both church teaching and common moral intuition. The Bible seems to draw a contrast between ‘merely’ avoiding wrongdoing and going over and above a minimal standard. To utilitarians, even the contrast between duty and supererogation is alien except as an instrumental rule or psychological hook that helps achieve utilitarian goals in real-world contexts.

These are examples of deontological strands in the Bible. In secular moral theory, consequentialism is typically contrasted not only with deontology but also with virtue ethics. And the latter, too, is prominent in scripture, not least in the various lists of virtues and vices (e.g. Gal 5:19–23; 2 Tim 3:1–5; 2 Pet 1:5–7). When Jesus criticizes the legalism of the Pharisees, he contrasts it with justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23), reminiscent of similar contrasts in the Old Testament (e.g. Mic 6:6–8). Perhaps most pointedly, 1 Cor 13:3 sees something lacking in a kind of altruism that gives all possessions to the poor but does not exhibit the supreme virtue of love.

It is noteworthy that what seems like the paradigmatically anti-utilitarian passage of the Bible is actually less so upon closer inspection. In the alabaster jar pericope (Matt 26:6–13 and parallel passages) the disciples voice a very utilitarian-sounding complaint about pouring a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus, saying it could have instead been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus scolds the disciples for troubling the woman and says she did a beautiful thing to him; ‘the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me’ (Matt 26:11). However, Jesus acknowledges the disciples’ concern for the poor as valid and the disciples did not seem to expect Jesus to be surprised by their reasoning. Rather, the situation is so exceptional that it overrides this concern.

More generally speaking, despite all the non-consequentialist features of Christian scripture, consequences do of course have a role in determining the rightness of actions. In many key cases – such as the prohibition of killing or the injunction to help the needy – this may be too obvious as to be explicitly noticed. The relevance of consequences may be more salient in cases where rules seem to be (approvingly) broken for the sake of good consequences. The Egyptian midwives who lied to the Pharaoh to save Hebrew infants are praised in the text (Exod 1:15–21). David and his men break an explicit commandment of the Torah by eating the showbread while fleeing Saul (1 Sam 21:1–6), which Jesus uses as an argument to defend his disciples plucking grain on Sabbath (Matt 12:3). It is notable that the good consequence in question here is something as blunt as satiating hunger. Jesus heals on the Sabbath numerous times and even tells a healed man to carry his sleeping mat (Matt 12:9–13; Luke 13:10–17; John 5:1–9), and criticizes the Pharisees’ disapproval of his actions by appealing to a verse from Hosea, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matt 9:6; 12:7; Hos 6:6). In fact, a strict and superficial focus on rule observance is given a critical treatment throughout the Old and New Testament, at least with respect to ritual rules. To some, this might seem similar to utilitarianism’s promise to rid morality of historical accretions, though a more nuanced theological analysis reveals the matter to be more complex.

Love is at the centre of Christian ethics, and it could be argued that love has a consequentialist quality since it seeks what is best for its object. Some have seen in this emphasis on love a link between Christian ethics and utilitarianism (Scarre 1996: 33–37) and even thought of utilitarianism as an extension of Christian agape (Gregory 2014: 193). However, while beneficence is plausibly one aspect of love, equally plausibly love goes beyond promoting the welfare of the loved ones (Helm 2021). In addition, even if universal, love is directed at particular persons. Thus, an ethic of love is hard to fully assimilate with utilitarianism.

It is interesting to note that many attempts to explain why certain destructive actions of God in the Bible – like the flood of Noah or the annihilation of the Canaanites – were morally right, rely on consequentialist reasoning; the actions would be justified and compatible with God’s omnibenevolence because ultimately they had good effects like stopping the spread of evil, etc.

The Bible’s attention to consequences does not make its outlook consequentialist, especially considering that it does not present a worked out philosophical moral theory. Most moral theories pay attention to consequences; the distinguishing feature of consequentialism is the exclusive attention to consequences. Also, flexibility about rules in exceptional situations is standard for deontological theories. Ethical systems based on virtue also have prudence – practical wisdom about the situational application of virtue – as a necessary part of virtuous life.

There is a possible general rejoinder to any non-utilitarian reading the Bible. God’s omniscience can be invoked to explain any action or rule that does not seem to be maximizing the good. If we would have access to all the information, the argument goes, we would be able to uncover a utilitarian rationale behind every seemingly suboptimal action of God or rule he commanded (especially considering the existence of an afterlife). Such a rule utilitarian interpretation of scripture is what the eighteenth-century theological utilitarians suggested. This view becomes more tenable if consequences such as righteousness, holiness, and communion with God are taken to matter in addition to happiness and preference satisfaction. Still, seeing a consequentialist rationale behind everything in scripture has to overcome strong initial impressions to the contrary. While it is hard to give decisive counterarguments against this view, it is equally hard to give scriptural evidence for it.

3.3 Divine command theory and natural law theory

Despite the Christian scriptures not providing a moral theory in the modern sense, there have been numerous attempts to present a moral theoretical account of Christian ethics. Two prominent approaches are divine command theory and natural law theory, which both differ from standard utilitarianism.

Divine command theory posits that moral obligations are based on commandments of God. Strong divine command theory considers God’s commandments to be the only basis for calling something good. Restricted divine command theory separates what determines value from what determines moral obligation. ‘Good’ does not depend on God’s commands but is rather determined by his essentially good character, whereas human obligations depend on his commands (Quinn 2013; Timmons 2012: 23–25, 30–33). Divine command theory is appealing in light of the numerous biblical texts that speak about moral obligations as established by God’s commandments. The theory pairs naturally with the duty- or rule-based approach of deontological ethics, so utilitarianism as a consequentialist theory would seem incompatible with it.

If utilitarianism is taken purely as a theory answering the question ‘which actions should we perform?’, it would be compatible with a version of divine command theory where God commands us to maximize utility, as this would demand exactly the same actions as utilitarianism. This is not a standard form of divine command theory, but theological utilitarians like William Paley have historically held such views. Utilitarian theories that take pleasure or preference satisfaction to be intrinsically good, contradict strong divine command theory where goodness is based only on God’s commandments. Restricted divine command theory and different interpretations of wellbeing leave more room for attempts at reconciling the theories.

The paradigmatic form of natural law theory is presented by Thomas Aquinas (Murphy 2019: section 1). He states that there exists a law given by God that naturally binds all humans and is knowable by them. In Aquinas’ formulation, this law’s core principle is that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided. What is good for humans is determined by human nature. That which perfects humans as beings of a rational nature is good. From this arises a catalogue of basic goods that includes life, procreation and care for descendants, knowledge of God, and living in society (Summa Theologiae I–II 94, volume 2; 94, volume 3; see 1920). An action is right if it responds to good in a nondefective way, and some of the proper or improper reactions to good can be expressed by general rules. Within the natural law tradition there are different proposed ways to determine which responses to good are defective (Murphy 2019: section 2.4). Some of these correspond more with deontological ethics and others more with virtue ethics. Natural law theories find scriptural support in, for example, Romans 1 and 2 where Paul argues that all human beings are aware of a divine moral order in creation, and that acting in a way that upends the natural order of creation is sinful. Some eighteenth-century thinkers associated with utilitarianism stood in the natural law traditions (Canovan 1984: 438–440) and in a sense provide a bridge between utilitarian and natural law thinking. As in utilitarianism, in natural law theory the good precedes the right: what actions are right is determined by their relationship to the good. However, natural law theories differ from utilitarianism in that maximizing the good is not the criterion of right action. For example, an action that is directed against a good cannot be right even if it is done for the sake of another good.

3.4 What is ‘good’ and how to respond to it

Beyond the relation of natural law theory to utilitarianism there are more general questions about the form and content of the good. Utilitarianism is monist about value in the sense that it considers there to be only one intrinsically valuable good, namely welfare. Welfare is most paradigmatically understood as happiness or preference satisfaction, although, particularly in an objective list theory, welfare itself can consist of plural elements. In any case, all other goods – such as hamburgers, knowledge, or democracy – are comparable and commensurable with each other in terms of how much welfare they contribute and they should be traded off against each other with only this contribution in mind. Christian theology and scripture seem to value multiple things: love, justice, holiness, the glory of God, life, freedom of will, etc. One question of compatibility between utilitarianism and Christian ethics hence becomes whether all of these can be thought of as contributors to a singular good and whether it is appropriate to call this good welfare.

In Christian theology there is a long tradition of thinking of God as the summum bonum, the greatest good that is the source of all other goods. Everything else that is good is so because it participates in this ultimate goodness. This participatory view is different from the utilitarian type of value monism unless we adopt a view of wellbeing as participation in God’s goodness. Such a view of welfare fits well with perspectives where humans are thought to have communion with God as their natural ultimate goal, but is distant from usual hedonistic or preference utilitarian notions of welfare. It could be argued that full participation in the goodness of God is the greatest pleasure and could therefore be considered the best thing from a hedonistic perspective, though contrary to hedonism, which sees subjectively pleasant mental states as the ultimate good, a participatory view would consider separating the pleasure and the union impossible.

In addition to what is good, there is also the question of the proper response to good. Here utilitarianism is again very straightforward: there is one right way to respond to what is valuable and that is to maximize it. Christian scripture and tradition on the contrary seem to recognize various other ways of responding to the good. For example, throughout scripture it is very important to respect the sanctity of the sacred, but the response to sacredness is not to maximize it, but to honour it and not pollute or violate it. Another response to value is to embody it. This is the case with virtues; courage is good, and the proper response to this is to be courageous. The glory, goodness, love, and justice of God are also very valuable things. The scriptural response to them is praise, worship, respect, and living in a way that reflects them in one’s life. As previously, in principle a certain conception of Christian ethics and utilitarianism could be made compatible with each other with regard to the proper response to value, if it were appropriate to think of the various Christian responses to value as aspects of ‘maximizing’. Candidates for such an interpretation would be to see these responses as maximizing participation in God’s goodness or bringing maximal glory to God.

3.5 Impartiality

Impartiality is an important aspect of utilitarianism. In maximizing welfare, everyone’s welfare is to be given equal weight. Impartiality is also important in biblical ethics. All human beings are equally created in the image of God (Prov 22:2); numerous Bible verses state God is impartial in his judgment (Rom 2:11; 1 Pet 1:17), that he cares for all (Matt 5:45), that he loves the whole world (John 3:16), and desires the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4). Other passages stress that humans should also be impartial, especially in judgment (Lev 19:15; Prov 24:23). The parable of the good Samaritan – which is specifically about the question of whom precisely one is to love – expands the concept of neighbour to an ethnoreligious group despised by the original hearers. The Sermon on the Mount also teaches love for enemies based on God’s universal care for both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:43–48), making a clear connection between God’s impartiality and behaviour expected of humans.

There are, however, also points of divergence. For one, Christian views of impartiality would typically focus on impartiality among humans, rather than impartiality among all sentient beings (see section 5). Another point of divergence is that utilitarians focus on impartiality between units of welfare whereas Christian views would seem to focus on impartiality between individuals. The two stances diverge when we are faced with individuals with different capacities for welfare. Utilitarian impartiality implies that one should do more to save the life of a person whom we can expect to go on to add much welfare in their life and the life of others, than someone with little potential for having or creating future welfare, such as certain old persons in a coma. Special obligations are a further difference. These refer to obligations that are not owed to every person in time and space but to particular people based on family ties, geographic closeness, friendship, promises, etc. Utilitarians suspect the idea of special obligations to be merely a rationalization of an underlying partiality. While Christians can agree that this is sometimes the case, Christian ethics has traditionally recognized special duties based on one’s position in life, expressed in the Bible for example in household codes (Eph 5:22–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1, etc.), passages detailing the proper relationship to leaders in the congregation (1 Tim 5:17–18 etc.), and to state authorities (Rom 13:1–7). Rule utilitarianism can accommodate rules of loyalty, special care for close kin, or civil obedience in many cases. However, Christians might well look for further and less instrumental rationales for special obligations than their tendency to promote utility, for example rationales grounded in the central place that relationships and community have in Christian ethics.

4 Bioethics

Utilitarians have always been very interested in practical applications. In the following sections, four issues are discussed in which the agreement and disagreement with prominent forms of Christian thinking is particularly stark, starting in this section with beginning of life and end of life issues. Utilitarianism presents a distinctive approach to both euthanasia and abortion which puts it not only at odds with prominent Christian approaches but also with widely held intuitions in the broader public.

4.1 Euthanasia

Euthanasia means intentionally ending a life in order to relieve suffering. It becomes an issue when continuing life would not be in someone’s best interest, which can be understood as the patient’s future welfare being net negative. Utilitarianism approves of euthanasia in these cases. For utilitarians, life has no intrinsic value except as a site for welfare to occur. Neither do they recognize rights – including a right to life – except if such a recognition is justified by positive welfare consequences. Thus, painlessly ending a life is permissible when it prevents a loss of welfare. This is particularly clear in cases of voluntary euthanasia. But it is also so in cases of non-voluntary euthanasia, i.e. situations in which someone is permanently incapable of giving consent and presumably also has no concept of their future and hence has no preferences about continuing to live. Involuntary euthanasia where a person wants to continue living, in contrast, is problematic from a utilitarian perspective because it would frustrate a preference to live, which is strong evidence that the person’s life is to them worth living (Singer 2011: 177).

Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church condemn euthanasia. Many Protestant churches and Christian ethicists are similarly negative about it but they exhibit a broader range of opinions, with some taking more nuanced or permissive views. Regardless of stance, the Christian discussion on euthanasia generally relies on concepts that are alien to the utilitarian perspective. Documents outlining the stances of churches appeal to the dignity of human life (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2277, see 1993; A time to live, a time to die? 2011: 84–85). Human life as created by God may be thought to have a purpose which goes beyond experiencing welfare and which can thus be frustrated by euthanasia, at least partially. Human life can be understood to belong to God so that no human has the right to take an innocent life, even if the person wants to die. More permissive Christian stances employ concepts of autonomy, responsibility, and self-determination, often linking these to the ‘image of God’ (Dutney 1997: 17–20).

Some Christians might evaluate active and passive euthanasia as significantly different from a moral point of view. Many would also accept actions that hasten the death of the patient based on the doctrine of double effect. However, the doctrine of double effect does not allow actions that intend the death of the patient, only actions that may have the hastening of death as a side effect, such as the use of large doses of painkillers or withholding strenuous treatment in terminally ill patients. In any case, making a difference between active and passive euthanasia or hastening of death as an intended or unintended effect of an action is fundamentally at odds with utilitarianism, which evaluates welfare consequences no differently depending on whether they came about due to an act or an omission, intentionally or unintentionally.

In practice, the difference between a utilitarian position approving of euthanasia and Christian positions critical of it may be smaller than it seems at first sight (Camosy 2012: 41–82). Some utilitarians are also critical of legalization of euthanasia because they believe the indirect effects of its legalization would be negative (Tännsjö 2015: 158–162).

4.2 Abortion

The most familiar forms of public debate about abortion cast a rights-based stance critical of abortion against rights-based arguments in favour of its legal toleration or moral permissibility. Christian arguments against abortion often proceed from arguing for the humanity of the foetus and against drawing a line between humanity and personhood (e.g. Geisler 2010: 131–132, 147). On this basis, they argue for rights and full moral status for the foetus. Humanity is seen to come with an entitlement to protection. Rights-based arguments for the pro-choice side, both Christian and secular, typically emphasize the rights of the woman over her body. But Christian stances on abortion must not necessarily rely on rights, and rights-based language can even be considered unhelpful (Bauerschmidt 2011). Opposition to abortion can be based on compassion for innocent life, obedience to God’s command, or respect for God’s creation. Christian arguments for the permissibility of abortion can make use of categories like justice, identity, and moral agency (Peters 2018; Kamitsuka 2019).

All these approaches differ from utilitarianism’s exclusive focus on the welfare effects of abortion. Hedonistic utilitarianism can recognize a downside to abortion after the stage where the foetus can feel pain, but not in opposition to abortion in general. From a preference utilitarian perspective, Singer (2011) argues that embryos, foetuses, or even infants are not rational and self-aware persons with preferences regarding their future, and so may be painlessly killed. For the same reason, he even considers infanticide permissible in certain cases, though he does not advocate for it (2011: 159–167). The fact that there are few relevant consequences for foetuses puts the spotlight on the welfare consequences for women and the rest of society, for example in terms of the suffering caused by unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions.

Another consideration that looms larger in a utilitarian perspective is the potential future welfare of the foetus which is forgone by an abortion. Thus, Tännsjö argues that from a utilitarian perspective it is ‘normally wrong to abort a foetus, which would have developed into a happy individual’ (Tännsjö 2015: 181; similarly Hare 1975). However, it is possible that the parents decide to have another child in place of the aborted foetus. The kind of replaceability argument put forth by Singer (2011: 107) is very alien to a common Christian understanding of the value of unique persons. In any case, taking potential future welfare into account in a utilitarian framework would result in counterintuitive implications in the area of reproductive ethics: people would seemingly be required to produce the maximum number of happy children, a conclusion which few would be ready to embrace (Singer 2011: 88).

5 Animals

Today it is generally accepted that at least some animals are sentient (Proctor 2012). Utilitarianism is unique in how straightforwardly and strongly it takes animals into account on the basis of maximizing pleasure or preference satisfaction. This was recognized already in the eighteenth century (Garrett 2007: 257–265) and was famously embraced by Bentham (1823: note 311). But concern for animal welfare played a minor part in utilitarianism until Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (originally published 1975). This work was instrumental in starting the modern animal liberation movement. Singer popularized the concept of speciesism, which means bias in favour of one’s own species, similar to racism or chauvinism.

The utilitarian approach to animals diverges in a number of ways from Christian approaches and non-utilitarian parts of the animal rights movement (for the latter see Nonhuman Animals in Christian Theology). First, utilitarianism is not impartial between individual animals but rather between the suffering of different animals. Hence, animals that suffer more need more protection, according to a utilitarian view. Given the attention to the total amount of suffering, utilitarianism considers not only the intensity of suffering, but also the numbers of animals affected. Thus, in case there is a non-negligible probability of insect sentience, an extremely small amount of suffering in an extremely large number of insects can outweigh intense suffering in one mammal (Tomasik 2015). Second, as utilitarians do not give greater weight to suffering which was brought about actively, compared to suffering which was not actively done away with, they are open to shifting attention to wild animal suffering (Horta 2017). Third, utilitarianism has no principled objection to the so-called Logic of the Larder argument: if the lives of farmed animals are net positive and if the environmental effects of animal agriculture are sufficiently small, then raising animals for human consumption seems to increase welfare. Utilitarianism would then have to welcome raising and killing large numbers of animals for human consumption; at least unless it can instrumentally justify rights against exploitation and killing. In a related vein, if the killing of animals is sufficiently painless and if they have no preference for their life to continue, it is hard to see how ten animals living short lives is worse than one animal living a long life. A fourth point of divergence is that utilitarians see no intrinsic importance in biodiversity.

In Singer’s narrative, Christianity has been antagonistic to animal welfare because it teaches human dominion over animals (Singer 2015: chapter 5). This view has been contested by Christian ethicists and theologians (e.g. Adam, Clough, and Grumett 2019). Christian scriptures contain several passages pointing to the moral value of animals. Animals are a part of God’s creation, which God declared ‘good indeed’; this status as God’s good creatures is a reason to value animal life (Gen 1:31). Using animals for food did not belong to the original creation. The Torah contains multiple commandments about proper treatment of animals (Exod 20:10, 22:30, 23:12, 23:19, 34:26; Lev 22:27–28; Deut 5:14, 14:21, 22:6–7, 25:4), in the Psalms God is said to feed animals (Ps 104:27–28, 136:25, 145:15), the book of Proverbs presents heeding to the needs of cattle as what a righteous person does (Prov 12:10), and there are prophecies of a future peaceable kingdom where interspecies violence no longer exists (Isa 11:1–9; 65:17–25). In the Genesis account, human dominion over animals is closely connected to the creation of humans in the image of God, which suggests the human relationship to animals should be in some ways like God’s relationship to his creation. This points to benevolence towards animals. Incidentally, the dominion mandate in Genesis also puts in question the one-sided focus on farm animals at the expense of wild animals (Crummett 2022).

On the other hand, there are passages in the Bible that clearly ascribe greater value to humans than animals. Jesus says his disciples are ‘of more value than many sparrows’ and exclaims, ‘How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!’ (Matt 10:31; Luke 12:7; Matt 12:12). Eating animals was allowed in Genesis 9 and the Bible does not present it as noteworthy at all that Jesus was no vegetarian, eating fish even after the resurrection. Yet this priority for humans could in principle be compatible with anti-speciesism, since the special status of humans could be grounded on their rationality or even spiritual characteristics rather than mere species membership.

Christian animal ethics does not generally operate within a consequentialist framework. Andrew Linzey criticizes Singer for not considering vulnerability and innocence and for his lack of opposition to painless killing of innocent beings that are not aware of their own future (2009: 152–155). Linzey explicitly rejects utilitarian cost-benefit analyses to justify purposely inflicting pain on animals and sees such calculations as prone to be misused to justify human disregard of animals (2009: 162–163). In contrast to the utilitarian approach which sees no problem in killing per se, David Clough argues that a Christian approach to animal ethics should prohibit the intentional prevention of the flourishing of animals as fellow creatures of God (2017: 40).

Today’s agriculture differs tremendously from the environment in biblical times. Industrial farming has become common, meat production is rising steeply, and livestock farming has become a significant contributor to poverty via its impacts on environmental degradation (see Ecological Ethics). These changes in the empirical context have made some of the fundamental theoretical disagreements less practically relevant since a wide range of moral views call for changing the status quo in a similar direction. Arguably, it is only further down the line that Christian and utilitarian premises part way in the practical conclusions they imply.

6 Duties of wealthy people to those living in poverty

Bentham and Mill wrote on the importance of reforming legislation on poor relief, but it was Peter Singer who made poverty a prominent utilitarian concern. Singer argues that most people in high income countries have a moral obligation to donate a significant portion of their income to charity. In his seminal Famine, Affluence and Morality (1972), Singer presents the famous drowning child thought experiment: imagine noticing a child drowning in a shallow pond. We can easily rescue the child, but wading into the pond will ruin our expensive clothes. Nobody else is around to help. Singer assumes most would think we should save the child. But, he argues, there are ‘drowning children’ all around us. The world is full of poverty, disease, and other kinds of suffering that can be relieved with the surplus resources of well-off people. Why should the distance between us and them make any difference to our obligation to help? Singer arrives at this conclusion on the basis of a principle which can be espoused without committing to full-blown utilitarianism:

if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By ‘without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance’ I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. (Singer 1972: 231)

It is weaker than the utilitarian demand to maximize utility, because it only requires preventing bad things from happening to others and not actively providing good for them. However, it also conforms to utilitarian thinking in that it does not make a distinction between acts and omissions and that it is focused on the consequences of actions as the basis of moral evaluation (Ord 2014: 184). Singer’s principle results in an obligation to give away most income above subsistence level, but he advocates for a more realistic standard of giving around five percent for those who are financially comfortable, less for those who are below this level, and significantly more for the very rich (Singer 2019: 243–244).

There is no domain where utilitarianism and Christianity overlap more strongly than in their approach to poverty. The law and the prophets exhibit a strong concern with the poor (e.g. Deut 14:28–29; 15:7–8; Isa 58:10), John the Baptist tells people who have two shirts to give the other one to someone who has none (Luke 3:11), Jesus exhorts his disciples to sell their possessions and give alms (Luke 12:33), and Acts and the Epistles continue this theme (e.g. Acts 2:44–45; 1 Tim 6:17–19). This teaching is carried on in later tradition. Thomas Aquinas considered it a duty to give alms from surplus left over after supporting one’s own person and family (Summa Theologiae II–II q32 a5; 1920). Church documents from the Lutheran Confessions (LC I; 189–193) to the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution (Gaudium et spes 69) voice similar ideas.

Utilitarian and Christian justifications for substantial charitable donations differ. From a Christian perspective, the focus on diminishing suffering is complemented by further concerns (Ord 2014: 187). First, there is a concern for justice. In the Bible, the themes of poverty, justice, and oppression are closely intertwined. Drawing from a theology of creation where all resources ultimately belong to God and human beings merely have stewardship over them, the needs of others should not be denied by appeals to ownership. It is unjust to withhold for oneself what is intended to provide for all. St Basil the Great said: ‘Someone who steals another’s clothes is called a thief – but one who does not clothe the naked, even though he is capable of doing so, what other name is he worthy of? The bread you have belongs to the hungry’ (Migne 1857: 277). Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to claim that taking goods from another’s abundance without permission is not theft if they are taken to meet an urgent need like threat of starvation because the need makes the goods common (Summa Theologiae II-II q66 a7; 1920). Utilitarianism, on the other hand, only features justice as a concern secondarily.

The second point of difference in justification of charitable donations is that scripture mentions the spiritual life of the giver as an additional consideration. Prov 14:31 views kindness to the needy as a way of honouring God, Luke 12:33 speaks about almsgiving as gathering a treasure in heaven, and there are threats of condemnation for those who use their wealth selfishly. Compassion to the needy is in accordance with the character of God, which Christians are called to conform themselves to. This becomes especially clear when taking into account that helping the poor often falls under the heading of mercy. ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’ (Luke 6:36).

7 The effective altruism movement

Utilitarians who are keen on putting their ideas into practice and to do so as part of a social movement often find the effective altruism community their most natural home. Philosophers with utilitarian views like Peter Singer, William MacAskill, or Hilary Greaves participate in the movement, and about seventy percent of effective altruists identify with utilitarianism (Dullaghan 2019). The movement is not just an academic exercise – it impacts the real world as it offers a focal point for a loose network of similarly-minded organizations with billions of dollars behind them.

Effective altruism has been defined by William MacAskill as a project characterized by:

(i) the use of evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to maximize the good with a given unit of resources, tentatively understanding ‘the good’ in impartial welfarist terms, and
(ii) the use of the findings from (i) to try to improve the world. (MacAskill 2019: 14)

It is thus significantly broader than utilitarianism, both in theory and in practice, since a wide range of moral views give relevance to the project of improving the world and using evidence and careful reasoning in order to maximize the good done per unit of resources (MacAskill 2019: 19–20). It is characteristic of effective altruism to emphasize that investing more resources into benefiting others makes a much smaller difference than improving the effectiveness with which these resources benefit others, and to emphasize how big a difference the use of science and thoughtful analysis can make in assessing effectiveness. The movement is also unique in encouraging cause neutrality: in choosing whether to invest time and money in the field of, say, global health, the long-term future, or animal welfare, one should not rely on personal passion but rather direct resources wherever they can be expected to make the largest positive difference.

Under the label of longtermism, a significant portion of the movement ascribes top priority to ensuring a good long-term future or even a blissful utopia. The latter has sometimes been couched in unabashedly religious language by utilitarians such as Pearce (2015). While this view does not presuppose utilitarianism (Greaves and MacAskill 2021: 17–19), it is particularly plausible if one assumes impartiality between present and future welfare and considers it important to increase welfare by bringing more beings into existence. A key way of achieving the latter is by enabling Earth-originating life to continue for millions of years (Greaves and MacAskill 2021: 6–9). Some effective altruists assume an existential catastrophe to be an imminent and significant risk – for example Toby Ord estimates a one in six chance of such a catastrophe in the twenty-first century (Ord 2020: 165–170). This makes for an intriguing parallel to the eschatological framing of biblical calls to change behaviour in the here and now.

Effective altruism has a strongly secular character, as eighty-six percent of the movement’s members profess to be atheist, agnostic, or non-religious (Dullaghan 2019). However, there are various religious groups within the movement, including a Christian branch which highlights significant points of contact with Christian ethics (Liberman 2017; Roser 2022). Normalizing the aspiration of radical generosity is one such point of contact, though it is one which the church has shared with many other non-Christian movements throughout the ages. A more unique aspect of effective altruism is the emphasis on effectiveness considerations. From a Christian perspective, one could possibly see this as exemplifying the shrewdness that Jesus commends in Luke 16:8. Another more novel point of contact is the spotlight on the value of evidence and careful reasoning for doing good. One way in which this chimes with a Christian perspective is that the central biblical call to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind and to likewise love one’s neighbour (Matt 22:37–39) does not merely command loving one’s neighbour but the use of all one’s powers in doing so. Effective altruism thus has the potential to support Christians in better living up to their faith. However, there are also tensions with a fully-fledged Christian outlook, such as the call to a utilitarian form of impartiality or a possible overemphasis on tangible welfare outcomes.

A path to impact that the movement recommends for a few people is seeking a well-paying job in order to donate a lot (Todd 2021). Such ‘earning to give’ is reminiscent of the advice of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, to gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can (Outler and Heitzenrater 2010: 347–358). A more basic form of the idea can already be found in Eph 4:28 which explicitly mentions the ability to share with those in need as the reason for seeking work. Just like effective altruists, Wesley worries that this might justify earning money in morally dubious ways but, characteristically of the divide between Christianity and utilitarianism, he is more forceful in his renunciation of doing bad in order to do good.

Members of the effective altruism movement have grappled with the place of overwhelming moral ambitions in their personal life (MacSwain 2022; Soares 2020). Wolf’s (1982) use of religious terminology – moral sainthood – in discussing utilitarianism’s high aspirations indicates the parallel to the Christian experience of sinful humanity not living up to exacting ideals. In contrast to secular attempts to respond to the existential challenge of a demanding morality, a Christian vision has the distinctive advantage of giving centre stage to the idea of grace.

8 Summary

With its call to focus exclusively on impartially maximizing wellbeing, utilitarianism differs from Christian approaches to ethics with their attention to virtues, relationships, divine commands, justice, and narratives that do not fit into simple systems. Many early utilitarian thinkers had explicitly theological elements in their systems. But starting from Jeremy Bentham it has come to be seen as a secular phenomenon and has been criticized by many Christians, including two popes.

Utilitarians have often been keen to put their radical conclusions into practice. In recent times, the effective altruism movement has served as a forum for people of different backgrounds promoting ideas with a utilitarian flavour. While the difference between Christianity and utilitarianism is stark when it comes to the fundamental outlook, the practical upshots only diverge in some areas. The clearest differences emerge in bioethics, in particular due to the clash between the utilitarian emphasis on avoiding suffering and the Christian commitment to further considerations such as the dignity of human life. In animal ethics, an area where utilitarians are an important voice, the difference is smaller even if Christians may be sceptical of the strict anti-speciecism espoused by utilitarians. In their response to poverty, the strong commitment of both Christianity and utilitarianism to benevolence, even beyond one’s own narrow social circle, results in them being closer to each other than either is to mainstream outlooks.


Copyright Vesa Hautala, Dominic Roser ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)

The authors would like to thank the following people: Harriet Baber, Andrew Bryce, Véronique Fofana, Luke Eure, Sebastian Garren, James Hart, Stefan Höschele, Ryan Miller, John Perry, Alex Strasser, and Joe Tulloch.


  • Further reading

    • Camosy, Charles C. 2012. Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Driver, Julia. 2014. ‘The History of Utilitarianism’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/utilitarianism-history/ Winter 2014 edition.
    • Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna de, and Peter Singer. 2017. Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1st edition.
    • Mulgan, Tim. 2014. Understanding Utilitarianism. London: Taylor & Francis Group.
    • Perry, John (ed.). 2014. God, the Good, and Utilitarianism: Perspectives on Peter Singer. New York: Cambridge University Press.
    • Singer, Peter. 1972. ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, no. 3: 229–243.
    • Singer, Peter. 2011. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 3rd edition.
    • Singer, Peter. 2015. Animal Liberation. London: The Bodley Head. 2nd edition.
    • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. 2021. ‘Consequentialism’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/consequentialism/ Fall 2021 edition.
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    • Adam, Margaret, David Clough, and David Grumett. 2019. ‘A Christian Case for Farmed Animal Welfare’, Animals: An Open Access Journal from MDPI 9, no. 12: 1116.
    • Aquinas, Thomas. 1920. The Summa Theologiæ. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/ Second and revised edition. Online edition copyright 2017 by Kevin Knight.
    • Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian. 2011. ‘Being Baptized: Bodies and Abortion’, in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Somerset: Wiley-Blackwell, 250–262. 2nd edition.
    • Bentham, Jeremy. 1823. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    • Bentham, Jeremy. 1830. The Rationale of Reward. London: Robert Heward.
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    • Camosy, Charles C. 2012. Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Canovan, Margaret. 1984. ‘The Un-Benthamite Utilitarianism of Joseph Priestley’, Journal of the History of Ideas 45, no. 3: 435–450.
    • Clough, David L. 2017. ‘Consuming Animal Creatures: The Christian Ethics of Eating Animals’, Studies in Christian Ethics 30, no. 1: 30–44.
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