Sunday, January 6, 2013

Mormonism, Utilitarianism, and the Void of Virtue

I recently finished reading John Stuart Mill's classic book Utilitarianism.  Written in the 1860's, it is a thought provoking defense of the ethical philosophy known by the title's name.  One of the concepts discussed in the book is the basis for which personal and policy decisions should be made.  What fundamental force should we find receiving credit as the great motivator of all our actions?  What is the ultimate outcome desired from the decisions that we make? These are good questions.

The book answers these questions by declaring that human decision making should not be made capriciously  guided by experience and observation alone nor the generalized way by ascribing a priori status to such matters.  Instead, Mill encourages followers of the Utilitarian philosophy to adopt what is called The Greatest Happiness Principle.  What is this principle?  It says that when deliberating which decision to make, the decision that brings about the greatest amount of happiness should the be one chosen.

As a Mormon, my worldview is informed by my faith.  Although Utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy rather than a theological one, I have found many instances of shared principles.  For instance, the Greatest Happiness principle coincides with Mormon scripture related to the meaning of life:

"Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy." (2Ne. 2:25 Book of Mormon)

So what is 'happiness'?  Mill describes happiness as virtue, intellectual development, and service to others.  He closely aligns the philosophy of Utilitarianism with the Golden Rule and to "love thy neighbor as thyself".

This view coincides with Virtue as a fundamental part of Mormon life described in the Articles of Faith:

We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

Indeed, growing the mind and elevating our level of virtue benefits all people.  Mill admits:

Utilitarianism could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others.

In our day, we have no excuse not to be noble ourselves.  The knowledge and wisdom of all of human experience is free if we seek it out.  The local library is a good start.  All the greatest books ever written are free on Kindle as well.  The key is desire.  Mill elaborates on what happens when desire goes missing:

Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which thy have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.

One of the key focuses of Mormon living is an emphasis on teaching youth how to live according to correct principles.  It is one thing to know how to make a living; it is entirely something different to know how to live.  Nevertheless, teaching youth these "nobler" life principles was and is a challenge as recognized by Mill:

Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily does away if the occupations to which their positions in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise.  

With both Mormonism and Utilitarianism agreeing on many ethical and moral points, and as Utilitarianism has been a foundation of ethical philosophy in shaping policy decisions in State and Federal government, what are we to make of the cultural landscape today where the definition of happiness itself seems to be going through a revision?

It seems that the fundamental value in an ethical system like Utilitarianism is that it creates an objective ground on which to judge decisions.  Yet, in today's society, what is described as vice by some is treated as virtue by others.  We live in a time when social ills masquerade as 'progress'; when liberty is many times abused to licentiousness; and when morality is often dismissed as an out-dated relic followed by adherents of a tired superstition.

Under such conditions, the public discourse is more volatile and policy outcomes more unprecedented.  The rancor is in direct proportion to the divide in the public's view of this basic premise of happiness.  The less agreement there is on such fundamental definitions as virtue and vice, the more chaotic our pubic decision making becomes.

The antidote to this discord, I firmly believe, is to follow Utilitarianism's call to the virtue of yesteryear.  It is only through the hope and happiness that is vested in true virtue that society can build its foundation.  But it is not the responsibility of policy makers to compel this ideal into existence.  Instead, we must fill our thoughts and lives individually with virtue if we are to be a truly free and happy people.


  1. Utilitarianism is the opposite of Mormonism. Any similarities are coincidental or aspirational. Two men can call on man not knowing the source of virtue and the other man knowing its source...the first man's request is an opinion equal to any other opinion; the second man's request is objective truth. Mill did not believe in objective truth...he simply had an opinion. Utilitarians are skeptics of objective truth. Mormons embrace objective truth.

  2. Paul, my point is not necessarily to say that Mormonism and Utilitarianism are equal in their authority on truth, but that one man's call to virtue (which is his opinion) coincides with the Divine call to virtue that Mormons follow. As a secular ethics system, Utilitarianism may coincide the most with those ethics systems of a religious persuasion. This post is an exercise finding common ground...even among the skeptics.

  3. Thank you Mr. Peterson. Any thing that will bring civility back to our public discourse is badly needed. It is a difficult job you and the rest of the legislature have, I am hoping for the best and in spite of some peoples opinions, I am praying for the success of our political system. I don't think we will ever have success or happiness without virtue (the golden rule) in our government and our leaders.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. I enjoyed it greatly.


Welcome! Your comments and thoughts are greatly appreciated. Criticism, insights, questions and queries are always welcome. However, please be civil and composed in your presentation. I moderate comments, so be patient while waiting for your comment to appear. Debate is welcome, trolling is not.