In my previous post, I discussed the inability of many modern filmmakers to be able to enter into a world where characters and plot are motivated by concerns regarding Christian virtue and Christian goals. Conversely, it seems that many cannot do justice to such a world as they can only conceive of motivations in purely utilitarian terms, and cannot fathom that characters might be driven by something more than a sense of just getting the job done, or a compromised and reluctant sense of duty. Where heroism exists, it is often portrayed in characters that are flawed, with mixed reasons for their acts.
The question I would like to ask today is – what is our true end? As Christians, do we see our decision making in light of God and Heaven, or do we see it in terms of what is most useful or convenient (and also what maximises our pleasure and/or comfort) at any given time? What are our true priorities? In a heavily secularised age, Christians of all different stripes are being increasingly influenced by the moral framework endorsed and promoted by secularists, which is usually some version of utilitarianism. Briefly stated, this sees the rightness of each act we perform as being justified by what immediate results it produces (the short-term ends justify the means).
In such a framework, long-term consequences are seldom taken into consideration, and the essential, objective rightness of a particular act is even less often thought important. The imperative thing is to see which action gets the best ‘net’ results – to see what is the best compromise we can make with a given situation in order to produce the most satisfactory results. Furthermore, although this may sometimes be seen in terms of ‘the greater good’, it is frequently the case that, due to the inner logic of utilitarianism (i.e.; because it is not beholden to any objective standard of goodness, but depends on compromises and immediate consequences) the results seen as satisfactory are usually ones primarily, if not solely, satisfactory to the individual alone.
Contrary to this, we are called to order our lives, and thus all our moral decision-making, towards our true and final end, which is God. We do not have to, and should not, shift the goalposts according to each situation we find ourselves in, with our end only being the immediate and/or ‘averaged out’ consequences of what we are doing. Instead, all our decisions should be seen in the light of what we know to be good, and which we know because it comes from The Good.
However, we can also still see this, if not in terms of what we can ‘get out of it’, then in terms of what is best for us, and for all of us, not just the individual. As Saint Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa Contra Gentiles, the divine law principally orders man towards God, precisely because God is man’s highest good:
‘It is evident that every lawmaker intends to direct men by means of laws toward his own end, principally. Thus, the leader of an army intends victory and the ruler of a state intends peace. But the end which God intends is God Himself. Therefore, the divine law principally looks to the ordering of man toward God.
Again, as we have said, law is a rational plan of divine providence, in its governing capacity, proposed to the rational creature. But the governance of God, as providence, conducts individual beings to their own ends. Therefore, man is chiefly ordered to his end by the divinely given law. Now, the end for the human creature is to cling to God, for his felicity consists in this, as we have shown above. So, the divine law primarily directs man to this end: that he may cling to God.
Besides, the intention of every legislator is to make those to whom he gives the law good; as a consequence, the precepts of law should be concerned with acts of virtue. So, those acts which are best are chiefly intended by divine law. But of all human acts, those whereby man clings to God are best, in the sense that they are nearer to the end. Therefore, the divine law primarily orders men in regard to those acts.’
Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, Chapter 115.
Two central points made by Saint Thomas here are that a.) the divine law is ordered towards bringing us closer to God, because He is our true end, and b.) that the divine law, in bringing us closer to God, helps us become more virtuous, because God, as the Good, cannot but want to make His creatures more approximate to His own nature. Becoming closer to God, and in the process becoming more virtuous – i.e.; by making decisions according to the Good, and not according to utility or consequence – is also, as Saint Thomas puts it, in what our ‘felicity consists’; our true happiness is also found by living in such a way:
‘Again, the end of every law, and above all of divine law, is to make men good. But a man is deemed good from his possession of a good will, through which he may put into act whatever good there is in him. Now, the will is good because it wills a good object, and especially the greatest good, which is the end. So, the more the will desires such a good, the more does a man advance in goodness. But a man has more desire for what he wills because of love than for what he wills because of fear only, for what he loves only from a motive of fear is called an object of mixed involuntariness. Such is the case of the man who wills to throw his merchandise into the sea because of fear. Therefore, the love of the highest good, namely, God, above all else makes men good, and is chiefly intended in the divine law.
Besides, man’s goodness stems from virtue, “for virtue is what makes its possessor good.” Hence, law also intends to make men virtuous, and the precepts of law are concerned with acts of the virtues. But it is a condition of virtue that the virtuous man must act with firmness and joy. But love is the chief producer of this result, for we do a thing firmly, and with joy, as a result of love. Therefore, love of the good is the ultimate object. intended in divine law.’
ibid, Chapter 116.
Thus we also see that our motivations for acting in such a way, are not just motivated by a legalistic choosing of God’s will in each occasion, but ideally we choose to act in accordance with the divine law because we not only recognise God as our true end, but love Him (and therefore love the Good). If we love God, we love the things He loves, and as Saint Thomas writes, we ‘do a thing firmly, and with joy, as a result of love’. So in recognising God as our true end, we choose to do things as He sees fit, and in following through on that commitment, we grow more virtuous; as we grow more virtuous (i.e.; more attuned to the will of God, which is the Good), we grow to love God and the things He wills, thus spurring us on to even greater joy in goodness.
So, ironically, if we live our lives in this light, and always do things in accordance with God’s law, out of our love for Him, the ends will in fact always justify the means, because we will not be using means contrary to the Good, and because we will act this way having our true end in sight. In effect, to be a good Christian is to be a utilitarian par excellence – whereas the secular utilitarian sees things in terms of an approximate ‘greater good’, trying to compromise with the various competing wills of others, and the means justified by what may make him or her happy in the short term, the (ideal) Christian, seeing all things in the light of God, and choosing always what is eternally right, is justified in all that he or she does, and achieves the greatest and most long-lasting happiness into the bargain.
Maximal goodness and maximal happiness are achieved if we see God as our true end, and the only caveat is that we do not see our immediate happiness as the motivating factor in our decision making. If the end we choose is the Good Himself, then the means we use will always be in accordance with that Good, and God, leading us to grow in virtue, always does so because He knows it will increase our happiness. Choosing happiness itself as the goal however will always lead to some degree of compromise, both in terms of the means employed and the long-term outcome. This is of course all contained in the saying of Our Lord, that we are to ‘Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.’