Common Ground: Commitment to a Radically Benevolent God

Like secular utilitarians, theological utilitarians subscribed to the utilitarian philosophical cornerstone, the happiness principle — that "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" provided the best criterion of virtue. Theological utilitarians, however, were clear and explicit about the sources of happiness's goodness: they invoked a Radically Benevolent God for that source. Nature's goodness, as they saw it, was absolutely dependent on Nature's Creator's goodness. The God behind Nature, in other words, must be benevolent, must have intended Nature to be benevolent, and must regard the pleasures that Nature bestows on man as good and as morally directive for man as well. Such pleasures must have been placed in Nature for man's enjoyment. Such a God desired men to be happy.

The same Radically Benevolent God appears in the works of secular utilitarians, too. The secular utilitarians, however, tended to muffle the point or state it negatively. The difference is telling, because it suggests shyness about this implication of their system.

Let us briefly examine the divergent rhetorical handling of the Radically Benevolent God premise as it appears in the works of, first, two theological utilitarians, John Gay and Paley, and second, in those of two secular utilitarians, Bentham and J.S. Mill. John Gay's 1731 "Dissertation Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality" is one of the earliest and most influential expressions of a theological utilitarian perspective. Below is his argument for the Radically Benevolent God assumption (Gay, 1731, pp. 774-775):

Now it is evident from the nature of God, viz. His being infinitely happy in Himself from all eternity, and from His goodness manifested in His works, that He could have no other design in creating mankind than their happiness; and therefore He wills their happiness; therefore the means of their happiness; therefore that man's behavior, as far as it may be a means of the happiness of mankind, should be such. Here then we are got one step farther, or to a new criterion: not to a new criterion of virtue immediately, but to a criterion of the will of God. For it is an answer to the inquiry, how shall I know what the will of God in this particular is? Thus the will of God is the immediate criterion of virtue, and the happiness of mankind is the criterion of the will of God; and therefore the happiness of mankind may be said to be the criterion of virtue, but once removed.

Gay's essay concerned the search for a true standard of virtuous action. In the passage quoted above he laid the groundwork for his utilitarianism by suggesting that God would seek and desire the earthly happiness of mankind. Notice some the elements of his case. First, it is God who is "infinitely happy." This infinite happiness is combined with "His goodness" which is manifested in His works — this, in other words, is justification drawn from Natural Theology. God's goodness can be inferred from Nature. Such goodness, in turn, implies that "He could have no other design in creating mankind than their happiness." This, to be sure, is an enormous logical leap in Gay's argument. God might well have been good without placing His goodness above all of His other divine characteristics. Moreover, Divine justice would seem to demand the administration of Divine punishment; but is the God Gay has described prepared for such activity? The passage in this sense runs counter to Scripture, with its abundant evidence of God's anger, wrath, and vengeance. The passage may even be read as questioning God's omnipotence and omniscience. If, after all, God "had no other design" for mankind than to provide for their happiness, why was the earth so filled with misery? Why hadn't God simply mandated man's happiness? In these ways Gay's essay suggests not only the priority of God's Radical Benevolence but the conceptual trade-offs or sacrifices that lay implicit in such a commitment.

A second example comes from William Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, first published in 1785. Here is the best example I know of theological utilitarianism's case for a Radically Benevolent God:

The method of coming at the will of God concerning any action by the light of nature is to inquire into 'the tendency of the action to promote or diminish the general happiness....This rule proceeds upon the presumption, that God Almighty wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures; and, consequently, that those actions, which promote that will and wish must be agreeable to him; and the contrary....This presumption is the foundation of our whole system (Paley, p. 43).

Paley was the Natural Theologian par excellence of his time. His allusion to the 'light of nature' is, as in Gay, a reference to Natural Theology (as well as one to Abraham Tucker, to whose work he was much indebted). Paley provides us with a statement of the direct dependence of his happiness principle upon the notion of a benevolent God.

Let us turn, now, to similar, but equivocal, expressions in secular utilitarian writings. I begin with a long and intriguing passage from Bentham's Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789):

The dictates of religion would coincide, in all cases, with those of utility, were the Being, who is the object of religion, universally supposed to be as benevolent as he is supposed to be wise and powerful; and were the notions entertained of his benevolence, at the same time, as correct as those which are entertained of his wisdom and his power. Unhappily, however, neither of these is the case. He is universally supposed to be all-powerful: for by the Deity, what else does any man mean than the Being, whatever he be, by whom every thing is done? And as to knowledge, by the same rule that he should know one thing he should know another. These notions seem to be as correct, for all material purposes, as they are universal. But among the votaries of religion (of which number the multifarious fraternity of Christians is but a small part) there seem to be but few (I will not say how few) who are real believers in his benevolence. They call him benevolent in words, but they do not mean that he is so in reality. They do not mean, that he is benevolent as man is conceived to be benevolent: they do not mean that he is benevolent in the only sense in which benevolence has a meaning. For if they did, they would recognise that the dictates of religion could be neither more nor less than the dictates of utility: not a tittle different: not a tittle less or more. (Bentham, pp. 119-120)

Bentham's rhetorical stance is interesting. He draws the connection between Godly benevolence and the principle of utility as clearly as we saw it in Gay and Paley. But the connection is made entirely on ontological (and not in natural theological) terms. Bentham is essentially chiding religionists for permitting their Deity to manifest omnipotence and omniscience but not radical benevolence. The benevolence necessity, then, is stated negatively rather than positively, presumably because this gives Bentham the appearance of not stating a theological proposition. But whether it is stated positively or negatively, the logical necessity of a benevolent Deity is evident in the passage.

Much the same assertion appears in John Stuart Mill's essay, "Utilitarianism" (1863), and again we see the same rhetorical device in use. Mill shifts the burden to the opposition, claiming that the God of the religionists can match the utilitarian spirit simply by becoming radically benevolent:

We not uncommonly hear the doctrine of utility inveighed against as a godless doctrine. If it be necessary to say anything at all against so mere an assumption, we may say that the question depends upon what ideas we have formed of the moral character of the Deity. If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. (Mill, p. 912)

For another sort of evidence one can look once again at Bentham's opening sentence in his PML. It is a fine example of the same rhetorical quest. Certainly the notions of "Nature" and "two sovereigns" convey claims not only about the power of pleasure and pain in human motivation but about their legitimacy as well. Consider, for example, a couple of sentences Bentham did not use. Suppose he had begun (1) with the purely descriptive assertion that, "Men like pleasure and avoid pain . . . " or, (2) in an irreverent tone, "Surely the devil himself causes mankind to seek pleasure and avoid pain." Though all three sentences attach men to pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding, only Bentham's actual sentence blesses and legitimizes. (Halevy notes, incidentally, that Bentham's first sentence was copied "almost word for word" from Helvetius [p. 26.]) Bentham, of course, is not employing God but Nature for such legitimacy, but, as we shall see, it is the divinized Nature of the eighteenth century Bentham employs (Willey, Ch. 1).

Another example of the same rhetorical tactic comes from Bentham's only book devoted specifically to theological questions, his Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind, published in 1822. [See Stephen (1950, II, 338-61) for an intriguing discussion of this book.] The work was coauthored by George Grote and published under the joint pseudonym of 'Philip Beauchamp.' It is a remarkable work, and one we will have occasion to examine more closely later on. Beauchamp, in the passage cited below, is embarked upon a criticism of natural religion. He argues, just as Bentham had in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, that though religionists often assert God's goodness, they rarely behave as though they believed in it. There is a thirty-odd year span between the two quotations, perhaps a measure of how consistently Bentham held the divine-benevolence view.

If he is conceived to be perfectly beneficent — having no personal affections of his own, or none but such as are coincident with the happiness of mankind — patronising those actions alone which are useful, and exactly in the degree in which they are useful — detesting in a similar manner and proportion those which are hurtful — then the actions agreeable to him will be beneficial to mankind, and inducements to the performance of them will promote the happiness of mankind. If, on the other hand, he is depicted as unbeneficent — as having personal affections seldom coincident with human happiness, frequently injurious to it, and almost always frivolous and exactive — favoring actions which are not useful at all, or not in the degree in which they are useful — disapproving with the same caprice and without any reference to utility — then the course of action by which his favour is to be sought, will be more or less injurious to mankind, and inducements to pursue it will in the present life tend to the production of unhappiness. (Beauchamp, pp. 15-16).

Last modified 14 June 2007