We’re all utilitarians; every last one of us. Whether it’s in individual decisions/actions (Jeremy Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism, individual acts that bring pleasure or limit pain for the individual) or rules that govern a mass of people (John Stuart Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number), we default to this everyday in various decisions. We also run a country with utilitarian principles. And that may be simply because it’s pragmatic to do so; it gets stuff done. Example: What should America do about healthcare? Poor people are a huge number that are in need of good healthcare. Giving that large mass of people free healthcare would be a great good, though it would be at the expense of the others, but the good for the many outweighs the downside for the smaller group. Therefore, the greatest good (healthcare) for the greatest number (poor/not-rich) is universal healthcare. Simple calculus. Weigh the consequence and its impact on the greatest number, do the action. And this is not bad per se; it’s helpful and is a tool for navigating life. I use consequentialist/utilitarian calculus when I go to Panera (the best action is the one that makes me feel good, so I order the Napa Valley chicken salad sandwich).
However, for Christians, Scripture speaks of fruit, not outcome/consequences (I struggled to make this distinction until I read this and it clicked). It seems that for Christians in America, the greatest good for the greatest number obviously is played out in American political life. The point of ethical living is good outcomes for the greatest number; therefore vote for these things that are in-line with “Christian principles” (what are those? I didn’t know Jesus came to give us principles) because those principles bring good outcomes. This may be true to some extent (how to define a good outcome, though. If by living peacefully/nonviolently someone else dies, it that a good outcome?).
Jesus specifically tells His disciples to look for the fruit that is produced to know what kind of tree we’re looking at. In the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew (Matt. 7:15-20), Jesus tells us how to spot false prophets: “thus you will know them by their fruits” (NRSV). Given Christian thinking in America, we connect that with utilitarianism and think, “Aha! Jesus means people who make good outcomes are good trees, and people who make bad outcomes are bad trees.” But is that what He’s saying? I think it’s even more straightforward than our utilitarian calculus of greatest good for the greatest number. The Christian life is not primarily about making good effects, producing good outcomes or consequences (though much of the Church’s life will do that). Rather, in the Christian life we seek fruit: simply following Jesus and allowing your life to be conformed to His. Fruit, remember, is dependent upon the vine or source. Jesus tells us that He is the vine and we (His disciples) are the branches taking sustenance from the vine and producing the proper kind of fruit (John 15). If fruit is born by abiding in the vine that gives it sustenance, then what kind of fruit is it? Well, what kind of plant are we talking? Answer: Jesus; His life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus shows us what fruit is by being fruit. Not only that, He is the vine that sustains and directs the development of that fruit. The fruit knows what kind of fruit to be by knowing the kind of plant it is a part of. So the question for Christians in America should not be: which action produces the greatest good for the greatest number on a federal or state level? Rather, the question we Christians should reflect on is: do I know what fruit is? I would argue a fruit that is born in the Christian life is a life of peace or non-violence. This is fruit, specifically, good fruit because it comes from Jesus’ life; it is imitating Him and, through prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to make us like Him. Paul even notes that the Corinthians should “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), and the author of Hebrews speaks of the Christian life as one of remembering “your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). That outcome of their life is being like Jesus; living in obedience to Him.
This is radically different than a simple calculus that looks for what we think the greatest good is (we’re usually bad at predicting what we think will bring us pleasure or happiness or the like). In utilitarianism, fallen humans are set up as judges of what is a good outcome and a bad outcome. But Christians don’t look to themselves for that, but rather the vision of fruit that comes to us from outside ourselves: the revelation of God in Christ. Therefore, fruit in the Christian life is obeying Jesus, maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures, ordering our lives after the pattern of Jesus’ life and within the Story God is telling in Scripture. To bear fruit is to live faithfully to the pattern or story given to us rather than the one determined by us. Of course, this will severely challenge our current ways of thinking. For example, is supporting pro-choice/pro-life the end goal? Each claim to bring the greatest good for the greatest number, each focus on making America function a certain way, both completely miss the fruit that the Body of Christ is to produce: fidelity to Jesus within that community first that then goes out.
Utilitarianism is alluring because it “works.” Utilitarianism gets stuff done. But the Church is not called solely to be a sociological group that produces good effects. The Church is called to faithfulness, to bearing good fruit by God’s grace. And that good fruit is imitating Jesus, obeying Scripture, and self-denial, even if that may lead to “bad” outcomes.