God, Utilitarianism & Deontological Ethics

I have been struck by two interesting (almost certainly not original) thoughts. The first is clear and obvious: God’s law exists for our benefit. Though it shows how sinful we are, when we receive his Spirit we are capable of keeping it with the Spirit’s help. As such, our actions can be deemed good or bad according to whether we are living in line with his divine decrees. In essence, God calls us to live under a framework of deontological ethics.

According to Kantian deontological ethics, consequences do not determine whether an action is morally good. Rather, good actions are determined by individual motives which are borne out of adherence to universal morals. For Kant, a good will and right motive determines whether an action is good, not the consequences of the action itself. In simple terms, Kant argues for a model of personal integrity. He says individuals should only act (1) according to laws they wish to be universal and (2) treating humanity as an end, not merely a means. This is a remarkably similar statement to Jesus’ “Golden Rule” in Luke 6:31 and his comments in Matthew 22:39. It is little wonder then that many deontological ethicists are moral absolutists and often hold to Divine Command Theory.

That God’s word calls us to personal integrity, based upon the moral law (summarised in the 10 Commandments), is clear enough. The Penal Substitution model of atonement encourages a guilt-righteousness worldview. All are personally guilty of breaking God’s moral law – and thus liable to judgment – and are only counted personally righteous once found in Christ. On this view, our guilt is determined by our ability to keep God’s moral law. Our actions are only morally good when motivated by a desire to keep God’s law and when we positively manage to do so.

The second thought, in contrast to the first, is that God (in a sense) is the ultimate utilitarian. If Divine Command Theory is to be believed, an action is only morally right when God decrees it morally right. But this means God cannot himself be held to a Kantian ethical model because he is not governed by any external moral law. His motives cannot be judged according to a set rule because he sets the rules. Though his law flows from his divine character, God’s goodness is not determined by adherence to a prescribed list of rules. Rather, his goodness is essential to his nature thus he cannot be deemed good according to Kantian ethics.

If we dispense with the Benthamite terminology of ‘the greatest happiness principle’, it is possible to see that God works for the greatest ultimate good of mankind (a fundamentally utilitarian view). God’s greatest desire is that all men everywhere be saved. On both the Calvinist and Molinist views, God has ordered the world such that the greatest possible number of people will freely choose to turn to him. Both the Calvinist and Molinist views differ on the mechanics and order of how he does that, and more fundamentally over the nature of what constitutes freedom, but they do both agree God orders events to win the greatest number freely to himself (1). In essence, God seeks to implement the greatest possible amount of good by his activity in the world.

It is also clear from scripture that God orders the events of the world to work out his greater plan. He orchestrates good and restrains evil to achieve his purposes. He permits – without being the author of – sin and wrongdoing where such will serve his ultimate glory. Plenty of examples can cited from scripture, such as the story of Joseph or the roles of Daniel or Esther during periods of judgment for Israel/Judah, but is seen most clearly through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. A gross act of sin and injustice on the part of those who tried and crucified him. Yet, this was an act of sin permitted by God and determined before the foundation of the world, to achieve his greater salvific purposes. God ordered the act, without being the author of the sin, to achieve his good ends.

So why does God, who appears to be the ultimate utilitarian, demand that those who trust him follow a deontological system of ethics? It is specifically because God is the ultimate utilitarian that deontological ethics are necessary for his followers. Because God is omniscient – holding knowledge not only of all actual events but also of all possible events – he can see how each universal event, from the greatest to the smallest, can work for ultimate good. Further, because God is God, he alone can determine, without interpretative fallibility, those actions that can truly be deemed good and those which are objectively bad. 

As mere human beings, our subjective attempts to determine ultimate good are liable to fail as we cannot see the bigger picture and only know good from bad as a result of God’s divine command and general revelation. God requires a deontological ethic of his followers because we cannot truly determine utilitarian principles. God is the ultimate utilitarian because he is the only one in any position to determine the greatest possible good. Our subjective attempts to figure that out will fail because we cannot see the bigger picture and have no knowledge of future possible events (and subsequent consequences). God, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of this and in his sovereign goodness divinely decrees those good actions that will work for the greatest possible good. In such circumstances as individuals fail to obey his divine decrees, it is only because God has permitted their disobedience to bring about an even greater good as part of his ultimate plan of redemption in Christ.

Utilitarianism fails at a human level. We cannot possibly know what actions will bring about the greatest good. The only one who can truly know this is God himself. He gives us divine commands and orders the world so the greatest possible good may come about. He calls us to live under a deontological framework of ethics because to do anything else would result in sub-optimal goodness. 

In layman’s terms: if we’re charged with bringing about the best of all possible worlds, we’d make a right hash of it. God gives us good commands because he knows (a) what is ultimately good and (b) what direction we need in order to attain it.

  1. For a more full discussion of these issues see herehere and here. For further reading see William Lane Craig’s book The Only Wise God, Bruce Ware’s God’s Greater Glory and John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God