There is no one righteous…not even one

1 Sep

A few years ago, I asked my buddy, Jeff, to refute utilitarianism for me. For those who don’t know, an extremely simple definition of Utilitarianism is “the ethical doctrine that virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons.” (Dictionary.com) It is the guiding light of atheistic evolutionary morality, and it can be a doozie to defend against. After all, there aren’t many people chompin’ at the bit to bring down ideals supporting lots of people being as happy as possible.

Anyway, back to the story. He was a philosophy major and a solid believer so I trusted his knowledge on the subject. Expecting a long, strategic answer, I was very surprised when he turned and said in simple, yet authoritative tone: “It’s ugly.” It was a reminder that truth, goodness, and beauty are inextricably intertwined with one another, and ultimately with the
character of God.

This story surged through my mind along with a plethora of other memories and emotions as I processed the Hunger Games trilogy. I read these books recently, and I felt a very strong response to them. It has been difficult to put it into words. Suffice it to say: Utilitarianism is the ugliest thing I have ever seen… And the Hunger Games paints a very good picture of that.
​​
I am a stickler for spoiler free communication. There are few things I find more lamentable in the world of entertainment than having a good story ruined. As such, I will endeavor to spare you of unnecessary details pertaining to the plot. I will be as judicious as an old farmer at an old farmers market (note to self for writing development: improve similes). With that being said, a brief synopsis will benefit the reader who is not familiar with the series.

The story takes place in Panem, the fictional, future ruins of North America. Wars and natural disasters have left the country a fraction of its former glory. Now split into 12 districts being oppressed by the seemingly omnipotent Capitol, the majority of the county’s people are mired in poverty. The Capitol came to power roughly 3 generations prior to the events of the first book, and it represents the clear antagonist in the story (at first). The government keeps the general populace isolated in their respective districts, and denies them basic supplies needed for survival. It is unjust of the Capitol to be so oppressive- to keep people mired in poverty – but on top of that, to remind the people that any resistance would be futile, they demand a tribute of 2 (1 male and 1 female) teenagers from each district to participate in the deadly Hunger Games, an annual battle royale (imagine Gladiator but all the contestants are people you might find on a cover of Teen Vogue). “Insult, have you met my good friend, Injury?”

​In these types of stories, most people yearn for a protagonist. Enter the main character, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss’ younger sister, Primrose, is chosen to participate in the games, but in a true act of selflessness (one of the few in the series) Katniss volunteers in her place. It’s a long story from there on, but Katniss survives her experience and inadvertently sparks a rebellion in Panem. Once wind of the rebellion graced the pages of the second book, I was relieved. I wanted the Capitol to be overthrown, for people to be free, for goodness to overcome evil. In our day, however, these types of dichotomies are often considered prosaic and un-relatable. The doctrines of utility would dictate that the evil aren’t actually evil and the good aren’t actually good; they just have competing goals, and it depends on what side of the fence you are on. I was slowly, but surely horrified to find the “good guys” were just as willing to do the same things that the “bad guys” were being condemned for, all in the name of victory. This is the problem with the Hunger Games. It generates and calls out to the desire for justice against the Capitol, but then it gives no satisfactory origin for this justice to come from. When you look to Katniss, or the Rebellion, or, just about anywhere, for something better, it is rarely found.

​It is the same concerning Utilitarianism. Preference and cultural expectations have shaped our ideas of right and wrong. While things like murder, theft, and adultery all seem wrong for their own sake, this is mere illusion. Generations of evolution have taught us that working together helps us survive-therefore it’s probably not a good idea to senselessly murder your neighbor. It is not because their life, or my life, or life itself is inherently valuable, but because they are an asset needed for survival. This essentially says that Hitler wasn’t morally wrong because unjust killing is actually bad – he was simply misled as to the best way to assure the survival of our species. His actions weren’t evil, they were inefficient. This view of morality is profoundly ugly to me. There is no truth. There is no beauty. There is no good. There is only the useful and the counter-productive.

​For the Christian, we are taught that there is a truth that exists outside of our goals. God reveals the truth of His existence through the created order, through His Word, and through His Son, Jesus Christ. (Romans 1: 19-20, John 1:1). We are also taught that goodness is inextricably connected to God’s character. In fact, good is simply a word to describe who He is and what He does. If there is good at all, it is Him. If there is evil at all, it is anything that is not Him. With this viewpoint, there are actions that are inherently good because they reflect His nature, regardless of their usefulness concerning human survival or happiness. Thankfully, the Lord does not make a distinction between man’s ultimate benefit and His glory (Romans 8:28). People are benefitted by following God’s laws, but this is a by-product of obedience, not the end goal. I could write a whole ‘nother article on God’s glory and Man’s benefit not being mutually exclusive. Suffice it to say, I believe the Word teaches that if we do what is right, we will be happy (or more specifically, joyful) whereas Utilitarianism teaches us if we do what makes us happy, we will be right.

​Essentially, this is what you get when you come across the verse “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10, Psalm 14)- but then don’t read on to find that Christ is the exception (Romans 3:21-24). ​In a Godless, Christless world, there are none righteous. If the atheists are right about God, than utility, preference, and the vox populi is all that you will find in the marketplace of ethics.

This leads me to why the world of the Hunger Games, and the world of Utilitarianism are both so hideous. We see the injustice of the Capitol, and naturally want good to take its place. But when we look to Katniss and the Rebellion for hope, we find that they are two sides of the same coin. We know we should hope for better than the status quo, but when we look at the barren, philosophical landscape for an alternative, we only find something eerily similar to what we turned away from in the first place. Familiarity breeds contempt, and these mirrored images produce a contempt in me that I find unbearable if it is indicative of the way the world really works. In this type of world, hopelessness and despair prevail. It is futility. It is feeling a deep, cavernous hunger, and being told that not only is there no food to satisfy your emptiness but that your hunger is an illusion, thereby robbing it of any meaning or purpose.

After a while, I found myself wondering why the author first put pen to paper if this was the story she really wanted to tell. ​Typically in dystopian novels, the purpose is to point people in a direction; to show the audience the logical outcome of their current philosophies. The audience puts up with the despair of 1984 to learn that Orwell’s Big Brother is truly hideous. Mockingjay, the last book in the Hunger Games series, makes a feeble attempt at a warning like this, a paragraph essentially saying that no one wins in a society who kills its own children. That may be the case, but the world of the Hunger Games long since abandoned God and goodness and therefore, any objectivity in making that kind of statement. If the Capitol has power, and they see the death of children as a means to an end, then who can really argue with them? They tossed aside righteousness and evil in favor of utility, and murdering children logically followed. Why wouldn’t it?

While I don’t think it was the warning the author intended, that was the warning that I received. A world without absolute right and wrong is truly one of the ugliest things I have ever seen, and I refuse to accept a morality that is not beautiful.

If you are looking for something better, look to Jesus. This is what Christ is like- Romans 12: 9-21.

May The Lord give us grace to know His truth, goodness, and beauty so that we will know how to respond to evil without capitulation. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

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4 Responses to “There is no one righteous…not even one”

  1. ayjayaich September 1, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    I made a Word Press account specifically so I could follow you. Maybe I’ll be inspired to write my own stuff, too 🙂

    Great post, Ninja Benja! Looking forward to more! I think you really hit the nail on the head with Hunger Games. Though I loved the books, I was left feeling completely unsatisfied and lost. There really is no saving grace (Saving Grace?) in this story. Even Katniss’ “happy” family life with Peeta (possibly/arguably the only “truly/inherently good” character in the novel) is empty and less-than-fulfilling to her, leaving the reader with the idea that not only a society that has lost God is hopeless, but also the individual. This truth may have even hit me a little harder because it’s on a more personal level. It’s easy to say “society is lost” and not really consider yourself a part of it. Though you are absolutely a part of society, you can still somewhat convince yourself that “society” it other (outside of and away from yourself). But to admit that, without God (true beauty and goodness), I wouldn’t be happy with a great husband and family is a little more personal and therefore a little more terrifying…
    It’s a good reminder either way 🙂

    • skitch256 September 2, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

      Thanks Ashton! That is a great perspective. And I totally agree with your view of the Katniss/Peeta relationship. We should talk more. We can compare notes 🙂

      • timothymburke September 3, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

        I think utilitarianism has a major flaw because it presents the idea that if the majority of living society can be made happier with a sacrifice of the flesh (sacrifice of life for the few or even more work for a few) then that path is the ideal path to choose (even if you are the one that must sacrifice yourself). The lessons taught by utilitarianism that a better life, happier life, is to be expected and sought after for the majority of the living, this is not what I have learned from the bible. As best as I can tell God/Jesus teaches us pretty much the opposite that we should each be readily willing and choose to sacrifice everything we have for God so that we may simply have the opportunity to reach the kingdom of heaven (and not even necessarily ever obtain happiness). There is an obvious flaw with society that people believe they have an innate right to taste happiness now, that it can be obtained by doing right or wrong, through sacrifice, or through knowledge, much like picking an apple from a tree. Maybe we should not be purposely working so hard now with our hands to find joy or happiness from life? I say this because when I do it makes me feel sad that I did not better utilize that time though more sacrifice, or that I could not share it with others, the same feeling goes when I spend so much time trying to help others obtain their ‘happiness’. Isn’t that time wasted when life’s happiness becomes lost perhaps forever? In my mind the ideals that the bible present are perfect, but cannot be followed by us humans without fail because it is impossible for us to resist the temptations of bringing happiness, though it may not necessarily be a sin to feel happy, it is nearly impossible to be happy when sacrificing yourself completely. Also, I do not expect that God (nor Jesus) are/were quote “happy”. How can they be happy while God’s children are suffering here on earth? Perhaps we/they can take some joy/pride/peace in the idea that we are doing the best we can with the little we have been given to work with, but happiness probably should not even be considered lest we may lose sight of the goal, sacrificing our flesh (lives) for God due to faith. On a similar note, if happiness were a goal, we would not require faith because happiness is something tangible, we can all see and feel, but what people without faith fail to recognize is that there is something greater than flesh, outside of visible life, which will only be obtained after life in the kingdom of heaven, so aiming for a goal in life will ultimately end in failure (death, where every “thing” is lost including life’s happiness). Besides, we are not omniscient, so we cannot truly say ‘the choices made did result in the most average happiness’ because we do not know what future may eventually come from our actions nor what is best for others all other the world nor for the ones yet to exist. Those are judgments we cannot make with our severely limited visibility of the entire world and all potential futures. Only if we do what God says do can we choose the correct path to follow. So… I do not see how it is even possible to convince a utilitarian that their lives are actually fruitless, since only through faith do we actually learn what is right/wrong, and have we chosen the correct path to follow as it is instructed through God’s all seeing eyes. The best way to convert the utilitarian mindset to that of Christianity would probably be to simply say, “The option of faith may lead to heaven, other choices only to hell or nothingness, but both paths require lots of hard work, sacrifice, and death. Which path will you choose to take?” I think society may be best served by avoiding evil, by being fruitful and selfless, but without faith, all is lost. Without religion though, society with all its technology, logic, and acceptance of diversity, it is much more likely to end up like a Star Trek society than it is the Hunger Games. The entire story to me is a quite preposterous, another Harry Potter created mainly for entertainment or sport, though it brings up many moral dilemmas about the importance of life, love, friends, family, good, evil, and war, from a religious viewpoint it makes little sense. One lesson might be obtained from the story, without faith in God and heaven, all paths in life will inevitably lead nowhere.
        Galatians 5:13 – 6:10
        Ecclesiastes 2:1 – 9:18

      • skitch256 September 10, 2014 at 2:49 am #

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Uncle Tim. It was great to hear your thoughts on this. That is something I would love to do more of in the future

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