T. S. Eliot on Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism (as I have argued earlier here) is one of the great presuppositions that undergird much of contemporary debate. It is one of the assumptions of modern secular society, that is never argued for or justified, but simply assumed. Its nature is roughly this – that, in the name of ‘progress’ or ‘the greater good’ or (insert modern shibboleth here), what were previously considered evil or at least morally problematic acts can be justified; and that what is good is simply what is most useful and/or efficient in achieving society’s goals for improvement.

In Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot’s excellent play about the last days of Saint Thomas Becket upon his return to English soil from exile in France, we find a most eloquent expression of the fundamental problem with this theory, delivered from the mouth of Saint Thomas himself:

Unbar the door!

You think me reckless, desperate and mad.

You argue by results, as this world does,

To settle if an act be good or bad.

You defer to the fact. For every life and every act

Consequence of good and evil can be shown.

And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.

It is not in time that my death shall be known;

It is out of time that my decision is taken

If you call that decision

To which my whole being gives entire consent.

I give my life

To the Law of God above the Law of Man.

Unbar the door! Unbar the door!

from Murder in the Cathedral (1982), p.79, Faber and Faber.

Essentially then, as Saint Thomas puts it, we ‘argue by results’ to ‘settle if an act be good or bad’ – and this is not good enough. It leads to moral confusion and relativism, so that the good ends we were setting out to achieve no longer have any meaning, and the concept of progress itself devolves inevitably into short-termism. Moreover, we lose sight of what we mean by good at all – in fact, ‘good and evil in the end become confounded’. Earlier on in the play, Eliot (via the mouth of Saint Thomas again) provides a clear summary of the issue that confront us here:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

The natural vigour in the venial sin

Is the way in which our lives begin.

ibid, p.47

The path of utilitarianism is often (as, so the saying goes, is the road to hell) paved with good intentions. But Eliot here reminds us, that even though something seems right to us at the time (usually in terms of the ‘greater good’ that it will achieve), that is never a good enough reason for transgressing the known moral law. As the Church consistently warns us, so did Eliot back in his day – that not only will this lead us ultimately down the wrong path if, but that this ‘last temptation is the greatest treason’ – i.e.; to determine the goodness of our acts according to our own ideas about what may be for the best is to set ourselves up as judge and jury regarding what is right and wrong – it is to try and usurp the place of God. Treason is always a great crime, but treason against the one who has made us, and whose will upholds all Creation, is at the root of Original Sin, and no good (not even in the distant future envisioned by secular ‘progressives’) can come of it.

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