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Insolvent Ethical Systems

All the qualities of a Christian relationship with neighbors - meekness, peacemaking, longsuffering, etc. - clearly lead us to one basic and fundamental virtue. This virtue is Christian love, and it is the root principle of Christian morality.

In addition to the moral system offered by Orthodox Christianity, there are also non-Christian, secular moral systems. While they agree in many points with the teaching of Christian morality, these systems nevertheless do not acknowledge the principle of Christian love as the basic teaching about morality. They seem to be frightened by the height of love willed by the Gospel, and they seek principles for themselves which are easier and more acceptable.

Of these secular systems of morality, the best known and most widely spread in practical life are eudemonism and utilitarianism.

For eudemonism (epicurianism), the basis of morality is the quest for that form of happiness which is native to mankind. Moreover, it understands happiness as the sum of the satisfactions and enjoyments from which one's life becomes pleasant. Eudemonists, nevertheless, differ in their opinions of precisely what satisfactions one must seek in order to be happy. Some of them (if not the majority) speak almost exclusively of coarse, sensual satisfactions. Apostle Paul described the basic ideal of such eudemonism as, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall be dead."

Other eudemonists, pointing out that enthusiasm for sensual satisfactions destroys one's body and soul, recommend that one not be captivated by them. They advise that one ought rather to obtain satisfactions which are more stable and prolonged, and also more spiritualized. Such, for example, are music, poetry and various types of art and science in general.

Naturally, neither form of eudemonism is an acceptable principle of morality for Orthodox Christians. The fundamental question of morality is the difference between good and evil, between what is good and what is bad. Eudemonism, however, speaks of what is pleasant and what is unpleasant. No one could argue the point that these are far from being the same thing. Clearly, eudemonistic people will, in practical life, always be egoists who willfully demand and take what is pleasant for themselves, refusing what is unpleasant (even when acting otherwise might be pleasant and beneficial to others). Moreover, what morality can we speak of in a situation where all people are endeavoring to obtain only that which they like?

When viewed from the strictly Orthodox Christian point of view, eudemonism becomes even more insolvent and positively absurd. Orthodoxy constantly turns one's thoughts to the immortality of the soul and to one's account of one's earthly life and behavior at the Judgment. What awaits the eudemonistic egoist at the judgment by Him Who will ask them about matters of love and help to their suffering brother? Their lot will be the fate of the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It cannot be otherwise since a fundamental and well-known principle of Christianity is: "Enter in at the straight gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in there: Because straight is the gate and narrow is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Mt. 7:13-14).

Utilitarianism (a philosophy of the common good) is a somewhat better system of non-Christian morality. This system enjoins one to do what is beneficial, rather than what is pleasant for one. Even so, this moral system cannot be called solvent. The concept of "beneficial" seldom coincides with the concept of "good" as something absolutely good. Medicine, for example, is beneficial in restoring health, but at the same time, weapons - a revolver or a knife - are beneficial to a thief in the fulfillment of his evil intent. Thus, the principle of usefulness, or beneficialness, cannot be established as a basis of morality. If we express this utilitarian principle in a concise form: "Act in a way that is beneficial (i.e., advantageous) to you," then it is clear that here again we have the elevation of that same coarse egoism which we have already mentioned.

For this reason, some utilitarian philosophers strive to soften this ideal by recommending that one pursue not only one's own personal advantage, but the common good, common benefit in which, they claim, the personal good of each individual is to be found. In this case, utilitarianism appears in a more ennobled and lofty form. It nevertheless retains its first basic insolvency, the fact that the concepts of "useful" and "good" do not necessarily coincide. Secondly, there are situations in practical life in which one can be restrained from crime by religious feelings - apprehension to violate the law of Highest Truth - but not by the dry rationale of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism cannot give one moral support when one is wavering on the edge of temptation.

Thus, Orthodox Christians can in no way view either eudemonism or utilitarianism as solvent systems of morality. These systems are now very widely developed, but we must note nevertheless that their adherents are often completely orderly people. Why? Because much of social morality and opinion still bear the imprint of the influence of Christianity ... It is only because of this that people who consider themselves to be eudemonists or utilitarians can, in real life, be honorable and orderly. Because of this Christian moral influence, utilitarian and eudemonistic ideas are often cloaked in a mantle of Christian idealism.

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