I graduated from Harvard in 2010 with a concentration in Economics, and I sometimes get asked why I chose Economics. When I think back to my initial reasons for choosing my field of study, I remember my initial fascination with Economics’ promise to quantify human happiness with the notion of utility and the tools of mathematics. There are several times in your academic life that your previous mode of thinking becomes completely usurped by a new concept, revelation, or idea.I had been committed to social justice, but the ideal seemed amorphous and vague. Learning the concepts of maximizing utility, opportunity cost, and comparative advantage transformed the way I viewed the world. I had become increasingly frustrated by good intentions seemingly going to waste and grand ideals tarred by reality. Economics, at it was presented to me at first, seemed to hold the power of harnessing reason and precise tools to bring about a better world.
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, as a way to promote fairness in British legislation. Utilitarianism promotes the notion that the most ethical act is that which promotes the greatest good. The hope of utilitarianism is to bring a scientific method to decision making. In making a decision, one calculates the expected utility of different paths, and chooses the one with the highest net utility. In the spirit of utilitarianism, economics depends on a notion of “maximizing utility” to decide which course of action would best promote the greatest good.
After shaping my thinking along these lines for some time, I began to feel some qualms about the seemingly cut-and-dried mode of decision-making that utilitarianism promoted. As a Christian, I took to heart the commandments espoused in the Bible. However, the nature of the commandment of “love the Lord with all of your heart, mind, and soul” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40) seemed to be opposed to the calculating ethos that utilitarianism promoted. The former bespoke of a devotion at all costs, while the latter promoted the notion that one would only follow God if such a belief were to promote a greater good for humanity. I started to believe that the firm logic of utilitarianism was the antithesis of a passionate love for God. Jesus’ life seemed to employ no tools of utilitarian considerations in relationships and calling. Utilitarianism still held a slight sliver of its former glory, however, for the lives I most admired seemed to follow utilitarian principles in conducting their actions and lives. Nonetheless, I felt conflicted between my intellectual attachment to utilitarianism and my spiritual devotion to God.
However, I began to realize the missing link in my thinking. If God is perfectly wise and good, and desires our happiness, can we not examine the will of God in more detail by using the tools of ethics? When God has given us only general indications, and does not send us a physical manual detailing His will for our lives, are we not to also rely upon our observations and inclinations in this world? If God gave us reason to calculate and compare, to weigh and measure, then should we not use those powers of mind? I do not believe that we ought to adhere to our initial impressions of cherished creeds when their deeper meaning becomes apparent. To realize that utilitarianism can be a tool by which to do God’s will has been immensely freeing.
My conflict between utilitarianism and Christianity was also a product of my incomplete knowledge of utilitarianism. Recently I read that in Utilitarianism, Mills wrote that Jesus’ statement of the greatest commandment, the Golden Rule to love your neighbor as yourself, expresses “the complete spirit of the ethics of utility” (288). He states that good estimates of the pleasure consequences of actions require the inclusion of both “Stoic as well as Christian elements” (279). Utility is not measured merely by that which is physically visible or mercenary capital. Utility, to represent a fuller picture of what is meaningful in our lives, must also include the Christian notions of justice, virtue, love, and faith.
Utility requires the consideration of the good of humanity, just as Jesus spoke in parables to model godly living and ethical actions to serve our neighbor and God. I believe that as creatures with free will, we are at liberty to use the tools of reason God has granted us to decide which actions would best characterize our love for God. Thus, I have realized that the tools of utilitarianism and the teachings of Christianity can live harmoniously. Both are guides to our fulfilling the spirit of the Golden Rule, which Jesus himself espoused as the greatest Commandment.