Moral Theology. Chapter 20

Unchristian systems of Ethics (morality): Eudaemonism (Epicureanism) and: Utilitarianism, the philosophy of the common good. The bankruptcy of these systems of morality.


It is easy to see, that all the details of the relations between a Christian and his neighbor examined by us—kindness, peacemaking, gentleness and so forth bring us to one virtue, the most basic and important. This virtue, Christian love, is the principle rooted in Christian morality.

Besides the teaching about ethics offered by Christianity, there exists agreement with the teachings of Christian morality on many of its points; these systems, however, refuse to admit the principle of Christian love as the fundamental teaching of Ethics. They seem to be afraid of the height of love, commanded by the Holy Gospel, and they search for easier and more admissible principles for themselves.

Eudaemonism and Utilitarianism, the more renowned and at the same time more common in practical life, are from these secular systems of morality.

Eudaemonism or Epicureanism places the natural striving in people towards happiness at the foundation of Ethics. On top of this, happiness is understood here as the sum of pleasure and enjoyment from which human life becomes agreeable and happy. However, Eudaemonism separates on the question of precisely which pleasures Man must seek if he wishes to “be happy”. Some of them (almost the majority) speak exclusively about gross, sensual pleasures. About such a crude Eudaemonism, the Prophet Isaiah says, Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die (Is. 22:13). Other Eudaemenists, referring to the fact that the passion for sensual pleasure is destructive to man’s body and soul, recommend not to be enticed by them but to strive for more firm and constant, more spiritual pleasure. Such are music, poetry, and generally different kinds of art and science, for example.

But of course, not in this nor the other form is Eudaemonism admissible for a Christian as the basic beginning of morality. The basic question of morality is the differentiation between good and evil, between what is good and bad. Eudaemonism, however, speaks about what is pleasant and unpleasant. Who will argue with the fact that this is far from the same thing? Is it not clear that a Eudaemonist in practical life, will always be an egotist who will readily demand and accept what is pleasant and refuse what is unpleasant (even if this were to be pleasant and healthy for others). What kind of morality can we speak of, in that case, if all people would start to seek only what they find pleasurable?

Even more bankrupt and positively absurd is Eudaemonism from the strictly Christian point of view, Christianity always turns man’s thoughts towards the immortality of the soul and man’s account of his earthly life and conduct at the Terrible Last Judgment. What must be awaiting the egotistical Eudaemonists at the Judgment of Him, Who will ask from them deeds of love and help to their suffering brother? The fate of the rich man, in the proverb from the Holy Gospel of the rich man and Lazarus, is their terrible lot in eternity. And it cannot be otherwise, inasmuch as the basic principle of Christianity is known to be, Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go in there at: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth into life, and few there be that find it (Mathew 7:13–14).

A somewhat better system of unreligious morality is Utilitarianism, the philosophy of the common good, in other words. In it, man is prescribed to do not what is pleasant but what is useful for him. But this system of morality cannot be admitted to be satisfactory. First of all, the very understanding of usefulness far from always coincides with the idea of goodness, as something unconditionally good. Medicine is useful for the strengthening of health but a criminal’s weapons are also useful to him; the revolver or the knife are useful for the realization of his evil goals. In such a manner, the principle of usefulness cannot be placed at the foundation of morality. And if we shall express it in a harsh and terse form, “act as is useful for you—that is, profitable”, is it not clear that here the same crude egotism shows through which has been so much spoken about earlier? That is why some Utilitarian, philosophers, try to soften this condition by recommending that man seek not only his personal profit at the common good, the common usefulness which, they say, includes also the good of every individual. Of course, in this case Utilitarianism appears in a more ennobling and exalting form; however, here it does not appear in any more of a solvent form, if it is not strengthened by the principles of Christianity. First of all, its basic efficiency is the disharmony of the concepts of “usefulness” and “goodness”. Secondly, situations occur in practical life when man can be prevented from committing a crime only by religious fear, the fear of breaking the law of the Highest Truth and by dry, calculated Utilitarianism. A hungry man stands before the temptation to steal a piece of bread or money from his neighbor, for example. What can restrain him from this? Of course, only religious realization of the sinfulness of this act. But Utilitarianism cannot give him moral support in such waverings. Let the Utilitarians teach him not to seek his own, but the common good precisely because this common good encompasses his personal good. But if he does not, in the name of this “common good” steal the money or bread, he can perish from hunger. Where is his personal good here? In a hungry death?

We Christians can neither admit Eudaemonism nor Utilitarianism to be satisfactory ethical systems. Even though these ethical systems, these Epicurean-Utilitarian views have been widely spread today, it is necessary to note that those adhering to them are often fully respectable people. Why? Because common morality, opinions, and views on life still bear the mark of Christian influence. Christianity exists for many centuries in man and has placed its firm stamp upon everything. Only because of this, people, considering themselves to be Eudaemonists or utilitarians, are in reality honest, Christian, and kind people with integrity. They have been raised and have matured with purely Christian-inspired moral concepts and thus, in many respects remain Christians in their souls, without realizing it themselves, placing a covering of Christian idealism on their Utilitarian and Eudaemonistic ideas.

Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky)
Parish Life, May 2023
St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Washington, DC


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