Jesus Among the Utilitarians

Matthew 22:36-40 (KJV)


“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


[So I wrote this after I wrote the introduction, because what I intended to be an introduction got considerably more technical than I wanted it to be and didn’t look like an introduction anymore. In any case, this is the real introduction. Feel free to skip the intro below and get to the real thing.

In any case: the stuff below is an (atomic, ethical) exercise in what I think taking religion seriously would look like – that is to say, if we actually took religion seriously as a guide to matters on ethics, metaethics, ontology, etc.[1] Don’t treat it as a thing meant to persuade you of anything in particular. It’s more of a reeling-out, more of a demonstration, I’d say.]


So obviously if you are a religious person, and in particular if you are a Christian, the little bit of the Bible you see up there is kind of important. Important because it’s probably about as close as the book comes to telling you, in precise axiological form, not just what you ought to do, but what matters. The passage kind of signals its own importance, really: On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, it says pithily, wagging a finger at you.

Before we get to the thing I want to talk about (which is what it might mean to love thy neighbour as thyself), I suppose, for clarity’s sake, that we should take a look at this passage and what’s going on here, because it’s irritatingly complicated.

Let’s name three kinds of obligation. (1): Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; (2): Love thy neighbour as thyself; and (3): everything else the Bible might oblige you to do.  What’s complicated is figuring out, from that passage, what the relevant relation between (1), (2), and (3) is.

There’s lots of possibilities.

One is that Jesus is providing the (apparently cynical) questioner with a lexical ordering, viz., saying that some rules in the Bible trump some other rules. Maybe he’s saying that

(A1): (1) trumps [(2) and (3)]; or

(B1): (1) trumps [(2) and (3)], but (2) also trumps (3); or

(C1): [(1) and (2)] trump (3).

These readings suggest that at least one of the two specified commands is great because it overrides: anything that runs up against it must give way, step aside, be thwarted. These lexical readings only really makes sense if you assume the Bible has contradictions, and so needs some rule by which the priority of different moral commands can be sorted out. But then it’s obvious that the Bible is full of contradictions.

Another option is to adopt an elaborative reading of the passage: Jesus is saying that the 600+ rules in the OT, and possibly all the guidance that comes after (although I’m casting a wary eye at Paul), are really just elaborations of one or both of the two commands, or that one command is an elaboration of the other. On this reading at least one of the two commands is “great” because it contains everything else. Possibilities:

(A2): (2) is an elaboration of (1), and (3) is an elaboration of (2); or

(B2): [(2) and (3)] are just elaborations of (1)

(C2): (3) is just an elaboration of [(1) and (2)]

I think all of these views are probably a bit off the mark. I think that (A2),  (B2), and (C2)must be wrong, because (2) is hugely contradictory to (3). I.e., “love your neighbour” really, really, really does not sit easily with all the genocidal stuff, stoning of children etc. in the OT. You’ll notice that it’s the fact that Jesus mentions (2), the whole love-your-neighbour thing, that rules our nearly all purely elaborative readings of the passage. If you took out (2), I think you could quite comfortably assume that “love God” = “follow all the rules of the OT”, i.e., (3) is an elaboration of (1). But the insertion of that radically compassionate element in (2) throws this all into a bit of disarray.

So I think there’s some lexical ordering going on. In fact I think it’s necessary, given the welter of contradictions the Bible throws at us. I think A1 and B1 are not obviously wrong, but are not to be favoured, really, because I don’t think that (1) has lexical priority over (2). Jesus was asked: which commandment is the greatest? Assuming that Jesus intended to answer the question (and that he was not stupid)[2], it would be weird for him to reply, “Well, so-and-so is the greatest rule. And this is the second greatest rule.” Why talk about the second-greatest rule when only asked about the greatest? My preferred reading is what we’ll call C1+, viz., [(1) and (2)] trump (3)], and that (1) and (2) are coequal because (2) is not merely an elaboration of (1) but is identical to it. If you find identical a bit too strong, a version of more widespread appeal to ordinary Christians would be that (2) is almost completely identical to (1). So a person who abides by (2) is a person who loves God, but does not love him fully, in the personal sense which (1) captures. So (1) guarantees (2) completely, and (2) guarantees (1) almost completely.

This is basically the third of our lexical-ordering options, with a little rider tagged on clarifying exactly what the relationship between (1) and (2) is. It might make sense of the mysterious bit where Jesus feels compelled to say, “and the second is like unto it”. Like unto it because it’s very nearly the same thing. On this reading, Jesus is really responding to the question by saying something like:

“Well, OK, the greatest commandment is the obvious one – love God absolutely, because God is that object which is deserving of our total and unconditional devotion. But I can see that that’s not really helpful, since I might just be telling you to just follow the 600+ rules of the OT, without giving you any sense of where the moral weight of Biblical teaching is, or without giving you real guidance re how you should behave morally. So I guess I should clarify that what it means to love God absolutely is to love your neighbour the same way you love yourself. And this second commandment (or statement of (1)) does give you some real guidance on how you ought to reason morally.

Hey, was that meant to be the intro? That was long.

The point is: (2) is important, even if you don’t accept, as I do, that (2) is (1) translated into practical-reason terms and that (2) trumps (3). If you subscribe to C1+ then obviously (2) is overwhelmingly important. But on any other reading (2) at least puts itself forward as giving you real moral guidance in one way or another.

The Real Thing

Let’s talk about what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

It would be weird if neighbour was literal, ofc, so I’m going to assume that neighbour means people. And since I can’t think of a good reason “neighbour” should exclude some people,[3] I’m going to assume neighbour = all people.

This command to love your neighbour as you love yourself really sets out a rule, therefore, that is some sense unbiased. It says, take a relation which you have to yourself, and apply that relation to all other people. The corollary of that is that the same relation is applied to all people.

That relation is love. There’s a bazillon different theories of what it means to love, but the command does at least tell us that whatever it is referring to using the word love, it is a relation that is also internal to us: whatever understanding of love we choose must allow us to sensibly say that we love ourselves. We are asked to love as we love ourselves, after all. This immediately rules the application of any “love as union” theories in this context, viz., and theory which stresses that love is about two “I”s becoming a “we”. Nozick for instance argues that love is a pooling of well-being and autonomy – but that makes no sense when there is just one person’s well-being and autonomy to consider.

The idea that we love ourselves is actually really hard to parse. This is because we usually think of a relation (such as love) as applying between two different things. A mereologically simple object – something with no parts at all – really can only have one relation to itself: it is itself. And that’s it. Can’t stick a cigarette wrapper in there, much less something as glompingly big as love. Even a set which contains itself and nothing else is not a simple object: you can talk about a set and the thing in it quite sensibly, even of those two things happen to the same.

So when we say we love ourselves, what we really have to mean is that there is some relation between us and a part of us, or some relation between a part of us and another part of us. I guess this is the thing we need to pin down. And the most obvious way of pinning it down is use the intuition that we have a certain kind of robust concern for ourselves, that we act to fulfil our preferences – that we pursue our goals and desires with all the effort and ingenuity we have, and regard failure to achieve these goals as bad, regrettable, unfortunate. And with just the right amount of merciless cribbing from Hume, you can kind of see that this seems separates out clearly enough (for our purposes at least) two distinct bits of us which are related in a way which gives meaning to the word love.

  1. That bit of us which consists of our preferences.
  2. That bit of us which rationally pursues those preferences.

And so what it means when we say we love ourselves is that we display robust concern for ourselves. And what that means is that we act on our preferences by formulating certain plans, trivial or complex, to realise those preferences.

All that matters because we can now figure out what it means to love our neighbour as we love ourselves: it’s another way of saying that we ought to have the same relation to other people’s preferences which we have to ours: we pursue them. This coheres kind of well with a common feature of many understandings of love: when you love someone, you don’t try to make them into something which they are not simply because you might desire that thing more: rather you take them as given, as they are right now, whole. My interests are also your interests, but they are still yours; I’m valuing you for your own sake, rather than for mine. That’s why there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything like an intrinsically bad preference, or an evil preference.

So: let’s imagine the set of all preferences which exist, and let’s call this the Total Universal Preference Set, or TUPS, because a snappy abbreviation will give this essaylet the dignity it would otherwise lack. Our goal is to pursue TUPS – to maximise the satisfaction of TUPS.  Pursuing TUPS is kind of difficult, because many preferences will be wildly contradictory with others. Well. Not quite. A preference by itself cannot contradict any other preference, so what I’m really saying is that the pursuit of a preference will often be incompatible with pursuit of another preference.

Let’s consider first the situation where these incompatibilities cannot be resolved. When we are deciding what to do when our preferences conflict, we generally do one of two things. Often we simply act according to the preference which is more intense. Pretty straightforward stuff: at gunpoint, we’d rather pass our wallet to the robber than risk getting shot. Or: we abandon one preference (or several preferences) if it conflicts with several other preferences (or some greater number of preferences) of equal strength. So according to this interpretation of the command to love your neighbour as yourself, the right thing to do in a trolley-problem-esque situation would be to try to satisfy as many preferences (to be alive) as possible: hence pull the lever, push the fat man, and so on. So far, so straightforward.[4]

But we can also try to resolve incompatibilities, in one of two ways. We could modify the world so that the pursuits of two preferences no longer run up against each other, or at least run up against each other a lot less. On a trivial level, nearly every preference restricts pursuit of another preference because resources are finite. Capitalism (one might say) is one way of coordinating our pursuit of preferences so that they don’t conflict quite as much as they might.

The other solution is to modify preferences so that they align. Which preferences should we modify? Well, each preference has at least two characteristics: an owner, and an intensity. There are some preferences which are both intense and widespread. Off the top of my head, here are four of them, not-too-precisely stated:

  1. A preference for being alive rather than dead.
  2. A preference for being loved / cared for, rather than being alone.
  3. A preference to be treated with dignity / non-arbitrarily, rather than capriciously.
  4. A preference for being free of intense physical pain.

These 4 preferences seem to be so powerfully embedded in most of us that a person who does not feel all 4 of them would usually be considered quite pathological. This is not to say that such a person is in fact pathological – I’m just pointing out that these 4 preferences are really, really, really strongly held by most of us. It’s hard to get you to feel this, but imagine how much you’d prefer not to suddenly appear naked in a prominent public space (say, the entrance of the nearest subway station) with a thoroughly distasteful symbol (say, a swastika) emblazoned across your chest. You’d be fucking mortified if that happened to you, yeah? Well: I bet that you’d endure that, like, a thousand times over if that meant that you got to stay alive, or not be alone forever, etc.

Importantly, we regard it as good if our own preferences conflict as little as possible in the first place, so that we can maximise the satisfaction of our preferences: think of how often we speak of a coherent plan of life, of directedness to our existence. Think of how a person who is an alcoholic – who has a strong preference for drink – also prefers that he not be an alcoholic, because this prevents him from pursuing many of his other preferences. When we apply this logic to TUPS – to the universe of preferences which are not our own – what we really are doing is extracting subsets of TUPS which are pathological because they seem get in the way of fully satisfying TUPS, (in particular because they conflict with intense + widespread preferences such as the 4 listed above) getting rid of them, and replacing them with non-pathological preferences.[5] These subsets might be

  1. The subset of other-hating preferences.[6]
  2. The subset of all selfish preferences.[7]
  3. The subset of all sadistic preferences.[8]

So basically: try to make others less racist, sexist, selfish, sadistic. In fact it seems to be more or less a direct logical consequence of the command to love our neighbours as ourselves that we try encourage others to love their neighbours as themselves.

What We’ve Got at the End of All This:

One not-obviously-stupid way of taking seriously the moral directive to love your neighbour as you love yourself:

*Maximise the satisfaction of all preferences, viz.,

A. Minimise conflict between pursuit of preferences by:

  1. Modifying preferences
  2. Modifying states of affairs

B. Resolve conflict between pursuit of preferences by:

  1. Ceteris paribus, preserving the pursuit of more intense preferences
  2. Ceteris paribus, preserving the pursuit of the greater number of preferences;

Which, I realise, is probably as good a place as any to end this exercise.


[1] This has been done before, of course, and many times over, but the point is that it’s super weird that the average religious person who professes to genuinely believe in that some-text-or-another contains within it deep + abiding truths bothers to form no coherent thoughts about it at all, relying instead on the platitudes which are usually dished out at sermons today. Plus, TBH, a lot of the more well-known results of People Taking Religion Seriously are just too full of woo for my liking. Take the Thomist doctrine of Divine Simplicity, which turns out to be motivated more by a desire to make God seem all great and cool and abstract and stuff rather than to be even minimally coherent. So: if God is w/o parts and possesses no contingent qualities and is actually metaphysically equivalent to concepts such as goodness, justice, mercy, power, etc., then it follows that each of God’s properties is identical with each of his other properties, so that mercy = power, which is insane. Plus if God = his properties (and his properties are properties) then God also = a property (the property of being itself, I guess), but that means God can’t actually do stuff, because properties don’t do stuff, and it isn’t conscious or capable of loving, because properties aren’t conscious or capable of loving. Which is also insane – or at least stupendously unattractive as a view to hold. Plus if God is absolutely identical in all possible worlds (because possessing no contingent properties) then we need to discard fairly intuitive ideas such as “it is contingent that God punished Adam”, and, even more weirdly, all possible universes must be exactly the same, because in every universe God would have to know exactly the same things, and God knowing X = X is true.

[2] Depending on your persuasion, you might think these are generous assumptions. Whatever. They make it easier for me to do the thing I want to do.

[3] Especially given all that Good Samaritan + other-cheek-slapping  stuff in the NT.

[4] Although I guess I should clarify that when you push the fat man over you’re really weighing up his preference not to be used as a means to an end + his preference not to die + and your preference not to murder against the preference of 3 people not to die.

[5] E.g., compassionate preferences, such as the preference that there is less suffering in the world, rather than more. More specifically, preferences that (1) other people are alive rather than dead, (2) other people are loved and cared for, rather than alone, (3) other people are treated with dignity / non-arbitrarily, rather than capriciously, (4) other people are free of intense physical pain, and so on.

[6] E.g., preferences which are racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, or otherwise discriminatory.

[7] E.g., nationalism.

[8] I think sadistic preferences are a lot more common than we realise: I’d regard the desire for retribution as a preference that’s both straightforwardly sadistic and almost universal, for instance.