The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

Imagine that you, a person who considers yourself firmly on a fulfilling spiritual path, have just broken your leg in a freak accident. While recovering in the hospital, you are visited by someone who, up until now, has been a dear friend. Unfortunately, that is about to change…

Your friend opens her mouth to comfort you and says, “It must be really hard to be dealing with this right now. But,” she continues with unnatural excitement, “You’ve given yourself such a wonderful soul growth opportunity!”

When you gawk at her with both incomprehension and a sinking feeling that perhaps you’d rather remain ignorant of her meaning, she simply ploughs ahead with the explanation you never had been waiting for. “See, before you were born, your soul chose all the lessons you were to learn in your lifetime. You chose to sign up for all sorts of traumatic experiences, including breaking your leg, so you could accelerate your spiritual development in this lifetime. Gosh, what a wonderful thing! Think of everything you can learn from it!”

Wonderful? Your doctor is running late on his rounds and you’re in need of more pain relief. After ordering your friend to leave in a voice which sounds unsettlingly more like a growl than a human, you sink back on the hospital pillows hoping for some peace. But it doesn’t come.

Despite yourself, you find you are very disturbed both by what your friend said and what her words imply. How can your friend actually believe her own words? And what if, an admittedly terrifying thought, your friend is right? After all, can anyone really prove her wrong?

Did you choose before birth that you were going to break your leg? Does everyone choose what happens to them before birth? What about abuse or cancer survivors, what about survivors of genocide. Surely, assuming there’s an afterlife; no soul would choose such a horrible experience willingly, no matter how sweeping the universal perspective might be. You think back to spiritual teachings you’ve heard in the past about the other side being full of light and unconditional love. Could anyone possessing unconditional love for themselves and all beings ever justify or permit atrocities to be done to themselves or others they love simply on the grounds of expedience? Talk about violence inherent in the system!

The above example is of course hypothetical, but the concept it describes is alive and well. It is a concept that is perhaps most popular in new age philosophy and spirituality, but is gaining supporters from people of spiritual backgrounds of all sorts. It is defended in books you never would want to pick up and read, and books by people who genuinely, purposefully, and passionately live their own spirituality every day with heart and dedication. In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I chose to quote someone of the latter sort to exemplify.

Lissa Rankin is a spiritual person I greatly admire, many of whose teachings and perspectives I have also come to adopt along my own spiritual journey. She is definitely not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to defend the plausibility of what I call spiritual utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions are right or acceptable when they maximize usefulness, here understood to consist in the greatest personal and collective spiritual development over lifetimes. Here is her eloquent and succinct articulation of spiritual utilitarianism found in her book, The Fear Cure.

Think of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced—childhood
Abuse, the abandonment or neglect of a parent, illness or disability,
The loss of a loved one, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, poverty,
being the victim of a violent crime, selling your soul for a paycheck,
Or whatever has hurt you the most. What if, instead of
Being a victim of these traumas, on some soul level, you chose
these challenges?

– Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

What if, indeed? Houston, we have a problem.

First, let us inquire into some of the practical and physical world dangers which could easily result from the widespread adoption of this view.

• Victim Blaming: It wasn’t his fault, she asked for it … literally, before she was born.)
• Apathetic Response-Ability: I can feel like a good person while I do nothing to help with (poverty, homelessness, that woman being harassed at work, that man being discriminated against for his disability) because everyone having these experiences chose to put them in their life. Who am I to interfere with their spiritual development? I’m off the hook.
• Complacency and Disconnection: If you really believe that everyone’s hardships, including your own, are a result of soul decisions you made before incarnating, compassion and empathy are optional, not necessitated. It is hard to be authentically present with your feelings if you think you have set up the circumstances of them in advance. If this is true in your own case, it is even truer when trying to relate to others who obviously chose their own suffering.
• Standard Problems for Maximizing Consequentialist Theories: Spiritual utilitarianism holds that actions are spiritually good/worthy if they maximize spiritual growth and minimize spiritual regression or stagnation. It is for this reason a maximizing consequentialist theory—that is, the good on this view is defined in terms of maximizing consequences and outcomes.

Spiritual Objections to Spiritual Utilitarianism
• Spiritual Utilitarianism is a System That Fosters Disconnection: The choice which spiritual utilitarianism posits occurs before birth is itself, after drawing out implications of the theory, a vehicle for separation. That is enough to call its claim to being a theory of spirituality into question.
• A Theory to Shield One From Vulnerability and Mortality: Spiritual Utilitarianism is a wonderful defense mechanism against confronting your own mortality or your own susceptibility to pain, illness, disability, loss, and hardship. Are you struggling with a disability or illness? You can try to console yourself with the thought that your higher self lovingly wanted this for you. Are you currently able bodied and are afraid of disability or loss? You don’t need to confront your fears or seriously question your inaccurate assumptions about others’ quality of life if they all asked to have such experiences. You can ward off fears of facing your own vulnerability in this way, too, believing that while the future is uncertain to you, your higher self already knows all about it. Defense mechanisms always sound like a good idea until you remember they are one of the most common barriers between you and genuine spiritual development, interconnection with all of life, and self honesty. Defensiveness leads to self-deception, which prevents a person from either fully shining her own light, or being able to fully give and receive love. When any spiritual concept or theory is used as a defense mechanism, it creates suffering, disconnection and isolation, and blocks openness, integrity, intimacy, love, and acceptance.
• A Superiority Complex: If you are happy and healthy, spiritual utilitarianism could easily lead you to conclude that you’re quite spiritually evolved, while those who are suffering have a lot to learn. But one of the most fundamental spiritual truths that exist is that we are spiritually equal. And one of the most fundamental physical truths is that we are equally susceptible to vulnerability. After these considerations, spiritual utilitarianism seems right out, as well as highly divisive.
• Spiritual Utilitarianism Permits Betrayal by your Higher Power: Should god/source/the one betray you in the name of expedience? Assuming for a moment such a betrayal is possible, spiritual utilitarianism seems to condone such a soul-devastating occurrence if it will result in your rapid spiritual development (somehow.) It might also be permissible for human beings, in the name of spiritual utilitarianism, to create suffering for others if that suffering is found to further spiritual growth. At first, this might sound crazy. But it is most definitely not, when you remember that the theory in question defines right action only in terms of the act’s consequences.

Questions That Need Asking:
Before taking any theory on board as part of your ethical outlook or spiritual practice/belief system, critical thinking is a must. Here are the questions I’ve asked myself about spiritual utilitarianism.

1. Generally, we think it wrong to sign off on something without another’s consent. The incarnate you will not remember her link to the soul who made the decisions for her life to come. How is choosing horrendous hardships for your future incarnate self any different morally from making the same choices on behalf of your imminently arriving future clone?

2. Suppose you want to learn a spiritual lesson and there is a rapid harrowing way of achieving it and a much slower gentle way of achieving it. Is it really ethical (or an act of self-love or compassion) to willingly harm yourself by subjecting yourself to the former rather than opting for the latter? My intuition is that such self harm is spiritually/ethically wrong, but such a decision would be praised for its goodness on the spiritual utilitarianism theory.

3. If it would maximize your spiritual growth through a particular soul lesson for you to cause grave suffering to another, should you do it?

4. Is suffering ever absolutely necessary? Are unconditional love and prechosen courses of suffering compatible?

5. It seems that the claim that we need to maximize spiritual growth is incompatible with actually achieving such growth. That is, a person who goes about actively trying to maximize her development will, by the very nature of grasping after outcomes, distance herself even further from the goal. Does the same self-defeating logic apply on the other side?

6. Is it possible for a soul to live authentically, allowing the divine to lead her, while insisting on choosing for herself ahead of time how her life is going to go, at a general level.

7. What if you’re not a utilitarian? If spiritual utilitarianism were true, would all souls have to adopt it? What if you, as a spiritual being, lived by completely different principles or took a different approach to growing and becoming more generally. Aren’t you allowed to conduct yourself according to your deepest truth, or is spirituality cosmically standardized? I shudder at the thought!

Personally, after working through all these implications of the spiritual utilitarianism theory, I am willing to see it sent off to that lovely place to which absurd, harmful, or groundless theories go when their time has expired. I am willing, as well, to bet that whatever happens after we die, choosing the pivotal events of great suffering for our lives to come is not part of it. We can thank the gods for that!

I will eventually be following this post up with another which aims to explore what, if anything, might replace the rather misplaced theory of spiritual utilitarianism as a plausible theory of spiritual growth and right action. Don’t be surprised if it has virtue ethics in it. I mean, my entire dissertation is on virtue ethics. What else would I advocate? Surely, it would be the very stuff I believe and live by.

Meanwhile, question everything.

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9 thoughts on “The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

  1. Brilliant, Eilis. Thank you for saying, so clearly and passionately, what, I suspect, many of us secretly think! xxx

    1. Indeed…Brilliant was the word that came to mind for me also. Beautifully written…like you this, this piece helped me clarify my own views on spiritual utilitarianism. We all owe Eilis our gratitude for her masterful writing.

      1. Thank you, Ronda! 🙂 I am moved and honored by your words. I write such philosophical pieces with the hope that, whether or not people ultimately agree with me, they’ll reflect more on what they believe and why. You’ve made my day with that!

  2. Hi Éilis. Ive been thinking about this all weekend. Thats why I couldnt leave a comment till now. I kept applying it to my own situation with Carys, and it just ended up making me feel angry. Not at you, but at this bizarre theory. Did Carys choose to be born the way she is? What lesson really is to be learned from suffering but how awful it is. We dont need to suffer to know that. Even us mortals have realised that learning is not best achieved through fear, punishment and suffering. So I dont feel I can condone this theory. No one would choose to live the life she has had, and no one should be expected to choose their own suffering. Nor should anyone expect to choose to parent such a child, and watch their suffering without being able to help. Clearly people who believe in this have never had to suffer and have no concept of what it means. Xxx

    1. I felt for similar reasons, Ali, that this is exactly why I needed to finally speak up, speak out about the view. I’ve gotten extremely angry myself. Did I choose before I was born to come here and get shaken as an infant and be left permanently blind? Really? Well, I’d have a little something to say to whomever would tell me such a thing– it’s happened before, actually– and it definitely can’t be said on the blog. 🙂 Suffering and tragedy happens. Yes, it is possible after the fact to make of the traumatic or heartbreaking event something creative and meaningful. Because of what happened to me, I have advocated for children around the country. That was as much healing for me as for potential children my words may have had an impact on. But I didn’t choose before I was born to become blind as an infant so I could advocate for kids later, atone for some karma from a past life, whatever the newest espoused reason might be. Suffering changes us, this is human. It can hurt to be alive. That’s certainly not a chosen thing and I believe anyone who says so is far, far from living anything like compassion. I agree with you, such people have never known true suffering, and if they have, then the adoption of their position that we choose to suffer to grow is just a huge defense mechanism allowing them the illusion that not facing what is will provide them comfort. It just makes them callous and dismissive toward others, not to mention mires them in self-deception. Perhaps they could sympathize, but never truly empathize. It doesn’t happen like that. Suffering happens in the world, but it isn’t necessary for growing. Some people get something out of insisting otherwise.

      1. I suppose they may be just trying to make sense of something which cant be explained, the why of suffering, that there must be a reason for it. To say one chooses suffering before birth just absolves them from any responsibility for causing or helping to alleviate that suffering, I think. So yes, it would make for a very callous indifferent uncaring society.

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