Monday 7 November 2022

Is Christianity just after-death utilitarianism? The pursuit of "happiness" in Christianity versus modern atheism

When I was an atheist (i.e. for most of my life) - I had several views about happiness, and its status as a goal for living. Yet, happiness, in one form or another, was a kind-of ultimate index for my life and for human society. 

Sometimes it was a long-term sense of deep personal fulfillment that I sought - sometimes very much the here and now, because it was much more certain than the future and contingent. 

Sometimes I was seeking positive happiness, but often I was mainly seeking to avoid suffering; and this negative-happiness has always been a strong, and growing, element in secular left morality. 

Indeed, modern, mainstream and hegemonic leftism has given-up on the old utopian ideals, and is focused entirely on the (supposed) objective of reducing various forms of suffering in an ever-expanding array of 'victim groups'. 

Thus 'happiness' is sought by purportedly eliminating the supposed causes of misery - such as sexism, racism and *phobias.   

But there has always been a view among atheists that happiness ought Not to be the main aim of life. 

This has been argued both on the pragmatic basis that aiming directly at happiness doesn't work as a strategy for becoming happy; because happiness is a (temporary) by-product of other kinds of aim. And also because other kinds of aim should come before happiness - a modern example would be 'social justice'; and the assertion that happiness should be sacrificed to its attainment.

Yet, further analysis will find that the purportedly not-happiness aims, will always boil down to a happiness justification - thus, the primacy of 'social justice' is argued on the basis that it will make the sufferers from injustice less miserable (or more happy). 

And, indeed, if my own happiness is regarded as selfish, while some more general happiness is regarded as more altruistic - there is the problem of justifying altruism as an ethic when it impairs my here-and-now happiness For Sure, on the basis of only conjectural and probabilistic improvements of happiness in other people. 

It seems much more certain and solid to pursue personal happiness, than to make guesses about the possible future states of others in response to conjectural and multi-step causal effects of my present actions.  

In other words, if any happiness-based ethic is termed utilitarianism; then we can see that all secular moralities are - sooner or later - made into versions of utilitarianism. And utilitarianism ultimately depends on whether it makes Me happier, here and now - because if it does not, then we might create more misery i the short term, in the attempt to reduce it in the long term. 

But how about religions, and how about Christianity in particular? As an atheist I used to regard Christianity as merely another utilitarian ethic; which aimed at the positive happiness of Heaven and avoiding the negative misery of hell... But with the Christian enhancement of happiness displaced to a supposed eternity that purportedly came after death; rather than to the immediate here-and-now of this mortal life.  

If Christianity is factually true, and if one could be reasonably confident of attaining Heaven and/or avoiding hell by being a Christian - then it would be rational to trade temporarily sub-optimal happiness for permanently greater happiness and/or avoiding the torments of hell.

However, even if Christianity was true; I did not regard it as a 'higher' form of morality; because - by the above analysis - it was still reducible to a selfish desire for happiness. 


Are we then doomed inevitably to be utilitarians of one sort or another - is everything truly reducible to an 'hedonic index'- and is happiness therefore just a matter of feelings?

Well, it is only true if these are our foundational (metaphysical) assumptions. If we define happiness as a feeling, and if we decide that optimizing pleasant feelings and minimizing aversive feelings ought-to-be the prime goal of life: then we have already decided that utilitarianism is necessarily true, and there is no 'higher' goal in life than the hedonic. 

But if we assume something else than happy feelings is primary, then happiness will not be primary. 

For instance, if we regard happiness as an objective state of being, rather than feelings, then we will get a different kind of ethics altogether. 

Or, if we regard happiness as secondary - such as being a psychological reward for virtue, or for creativity - we get the idea of happiness as a (fallible, but potentially valid) form of guidance; rather than an end in itself.  

Or we might assume that happiness is not reducible to one variable, to a single index; but that there is instead a collection, spectrum or hierarchy of positively rewarding states of being - with different degrees of rewardingness. 

We might, as Christians, posit that there are spiritual forms of 'happiness' that are not descriptive of body states; but independent from them; and these spiritual forms of happiness might have other properties - such as being indivisible from Christian values (such as truth, beauty and virtue). 

This thought-experiment reveals that the mainstream modern and materialistic understanding of happiness assumes that it is dependent on the body. This 'transhumanist' concept of happiness (very common nowadays, albeit mostly implicitly) also assumes that happiness is something that can be (and should be) detached, separated-from other values - and pursued directly.

For instance - if happiness is regarded as a feeling, and separable; then it can be enhanced by modifying the human body (e.g. with environmental engineering - such as 'social justice', or euphoriant drugs, or potenitally by genetic engineering) to generate whatever happy/ not-suffering body states are preferred. 

But the validity of this project depends on both the assumptions with which 'happiness' is set up as a goal, and the assumed definitions of happiness.    

In other words; we can conclude that the atheist idea of Christianity as just-another version of utilitarianism is not rooted in any kind of 'objective fact' or 'observation'- but instead depends on atheist assumptions. 

If the atheist assumptions are false, and are rejected, then the 'happiness' of resurrected eternal life in Heaven may be a different thing altogether than the aim-at situations of materialistic utilitarian leftism. 


Michael Dyer said...

It always was weird how puritanical atheists could be about happiness “you only want to avoid hell”, “you give to charity because it makes you feel good not to help people”, because the answer really is, so what? If hell is real, avoiding it is in the running for most rational decision ever, and if the hungry get fed what’s it matter to an atheist what my motives are? If God judges the heart, I have a reason to care, an atheist doesn’t. A materialist atheist would perforce need to be determinist it seems so really what’s it matter to him anyway.

Words like selfish and happiness get muddled, I think you’re right, the usage of these terms is often a surface understanding of what can be a vastly deeper phenomenon.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael "what’s it matter to him anyway."

Yes - and I think that - the longer atheism rules, the more that people begin to behave as selfishly as their atheism/ materialism/ a purposeless-meaningless universe implies that they should.

I can remember times as a young adult 'wishing' that I could behave more selfishly and directly happiness-seeking - since there was no objective reason why I should not. And sometimes I did (although it never worked out well) - but I was also aware that there was *something* in me which opposed this course of action.

For a long while, I assumed this 'something' was to do with evolved instincts (i.e. instincts evolved to enhance reproductive success in ancestral societies, rather than happiness in modern societies) - and that therefore the challenge was how best to overcome such happiness-thwarting instincts. This analysis pointed towards transhumanism; and I think explains why this has become a (mostly unconscious) goal for so many people.

Eventually, I arrived at a point (summer of 2008, to be exact) where the existential choice (for me, specifically) was fully to embrace a hedonically-directed transhumanism - aiming, probably, to sacrifice the human to - essentially - non-human animal happiness...

Or else Christianity.

And At Last, when there seemed almost-nothing to lose, I made 'the leap of faith' - which was the start of a process in the opposite direction!

Lucinda said...

To my way of thinking, there is the happiness that is essentially from the feeling of being loved, versus the happiness of loving/participating. Those whose highest goal is to achieve feeling-loved can't rally grasp what is being talked about by people whose happiness is measured by participation love. It's the difference between virtue-signaling and virtue. For me, separating out these two different motivations, to be loved versus to love, has been a key to finding direction.

Bruce Charlton said...

Lucinda - That strikes me as a very important distinction.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Reading your post brought to mind this translation of a poem by the Sufi mystic Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya

O my Lord,

if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.

If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.

But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.

(Note: It always struck me as odd that many theists are motivated by fear of hell and hope of heaven.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF "It always struck me as odd that many theists are motivated by fear of hell and hope of heaven."

Well, it isn't at all 'odd' - no odder than the commonplace and universal observation that people are motivated in everyday life by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

It is, indeed, perhaps the *least* odd thing in the world!

But my post was intended to analyze the also common idea (one I used to share when an atheist), that there was no significant qualitative difference between desiring pleasure now - say, the pleasure of intoxication - and the desire to dwell in Heaven after death.

I tried to show that the 'no difference' is not a discovery; but derives from the prior assumptions that all pleasurable and desirable phenomena are reducible to feelings, and that all such feelings are essentially of the same kind.