Ethics and Utility

The Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writes that “what is good must, in a sense, be useful.” He then goes on to add: “Pleasure is therefore neither good nor useful” (Meditations, VIII. 10). That latter topic has been addressed in another journal entry, and I will stick to the first point in this commentary—the question of ethics and utility. There are extreme views on this score: idealism and pragmatism. One could even make the case that there is a third school of thought, the idea that what is “good” is so simply because it is commanded by God. There have been both monotheistic and polytheistic proponents of this belief, as seen in the famous Socratic dialogue Euthyphro. Fortunately, the mainstream philosophical and theological tradition eschews this arbitrary notion of goodness.

In layman’s terms I understand that goodness is defined by the harmony of the created order. What is evil is is lacking in that sense of proportion and justice. According to the Artistotelian/Thomistic view, nothing is intrinsically evil in the universe. Everything is, in fact, potentially good, but it is the wrong choice or use of a thing—the preferment of a lesser good over a greater good—that results in ethical harm.

To return to the differing views on utility, let’s start with idealism. There are some writers who fall into this camp deliberately because their ethics are not based on an honest assessment of reality. They think in terms of how they want the world to be and not how it is. That is, in fact, the one unpardonable error in philosophy. Examples of this lapse are utopianism and other “outcome-based” social theories. This should not be confused with the older contemplative tradition, as evinced by the writings of Josef Pieper. He and other thinkers often make the case that philosophy cannot be based on utility. But that must be understood in a strict sense. They are indulging in the sort of hyperbole that Samuel Johnson uses in when he encourages his biographer, James Boswell, to make a collection of Scottish “antiquities.” Boswell responds: “But of what use will it be, Sir?” To which Johnson says: “Never mind the use; do it.”

Johnson was certainly no “idealist” in the modern sense. His views on politics and economics make that clear. Nevertheless, his traditional humanism stands in contrast to the pragmatic view, which sees “truth” in terms of isolated, short-term or purely material consequences. Like the Stoic emperor, the eighteenth-century poet understood a higher form of “utility.” It is what I seek when I write these comments, whether as a form of reflection or relaxation. Intellectual pastimes, both hobbies and more serious pursuits, define our humanity in a more important way than other (necessary but subordinate) activities like eating, drinking, paying the bills, mowing the lawn, etc.

Much more can be said about the humanist notion of “leisure.” For additional background, see my essay: “Thinking as a Christian with Josef Pieper” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review).

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