Veritatis Splendor Blog

The Effects of Utilitarianism on Mental Health Counseling


Navigating our lives is difficult enough without conflicting ethical and moral issues constantly challenging each of us. We live in an age that anything and everything can be justified by someone or some group giving status to those errors. Coming to know and understand some of the ‘isms’ (different theories or philosophies that challenge our core Judeo/Christian moral, ethical, religious and civic traditions) that we are confronted with gives us a clarity, strength and certitude that we are on the ‘right’ path with our personal lives, families, careers and spiritual journeys. In this article we will look at one of the predominant ‘isms’ that confront and deeply effect each one of us in today’s society. This ism that we will discuss in this article challenges every avenue of the moral order. This error is called “Utilitarianism”.

Each person possesses a worldview. This is how we interpret and understand reality. One’s world view begins its formation when the subject is very young while she is being formed by her parents. Our world view is not only taught by what our parents and others in a position of authority say, but more so by what they practice. This personal philosophy is also formed by culture, church, media, school, and other influences that we are exposed to as children. It is the norm for children to take on their parent’s worldview until they reach adolescence. At the approach of an adolescent’s teenage years they want to make their own decisions. They begin to question the worldview presented to them by their parents and authority.

Over the past 100 plus years a utilitarian worldview to life has slowly but steadily gained steam in our culture. From this perspective, the individual is no longer valued for who he or she is, but rather valued for what they have to offer. The late John Paul II defined utilitarianism as follows:

Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of “things” and not of “persons”. A civilization in which persons are used in the same way things are used. In the context of a civilization of use, woman can become an object for a man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members.

John Paul II, Letter to families 1994

When an individual’s worldview is based on utilitarian principles they no longer look at the good of others but rather are motivated by their own selfish desires. The ‘other’ is valued only in as much as they offer a perceived usefulness to the individual.

As a professional counselor, I believe that utilitarianism is a direct attack on the dignity of the human person and the sound mental health of an individual. If we are taught that our worth is based solely on production then we view ourselves and others only as objects to be used. Once society does not see us as useful then we are to be thrown aside. Utilitarianism, taken to its extreme, is manifested in terminating the lives of the unborn and ending a life prematurely due to the perceived ‘unacceptable’ suffering and uselessness of the life.

Suffering is the arch enemy of the utilitarian. For the utilitarian the ultimate good is pleasure. However, this view does not allow for the dignity of the human person. As a counselor my main work is to help individuals regain a sense of their God given dignity which is infinitely beyond any utilitarian good. This value bestowed upon humanity is not self-endowed but rather it is inherent in our creation. This value begins at the moment of conception. We are each created with a value beyond any thing of this world. Gaining an insight into this utilitarian movement helps us to understand, on a deeper level, why there is so much dissatisfaction in the world. People do not appear to be very happy in the world as a whole. The most effective counseling must be based in truth. This truth must be unapologetic and blind to the winds of change constantly blowing. It is precisely in suffering that we can find our meaning and drive for change not in spite of it. We are created by a Good God. However we have inherited a fallen nature that is prone to suffer. Therefore my goal as a therapist is not necessarily to lessen the suffering but rather aid the individual in living according to their valuable God given nature whether suffering is present or not. Once a therapist views their clients from the perspective of truth, the many wonderful approaches offered in the counseling field can be applied to aid the clients in overcoming their personal struggles and obstacles for a more comprehensive healing.

From a clinical point of view, the utilitarian philosophy of the human person destroys the core belief system of an individual. In normal, healthy development one naturally believes she is valuable, safe and wanted. If the individual perceives that their only value is based on what they have to offer, the belief system is shaken and they develop with a question mark within them. They question their own contribution, and wonder why they are not as valuable as others in society. If they do not live up to the perceived standard, they believe they must be worthless and therefore have no inherent value. These tainted belief systems effect daily life in work, school, relationships etc. In each situation they view the world through this frame work, this utilitarian lens, so to speak. Not only do they perceive themselves as worthless but seek to find their value in things, acts or others. They treat others as objects for self-fulfillment because they have a void to fill, and they only know how to fill it in treating others in the same way they perceive the world.

Gaining insight into this toxic philosophical system shows how dangerous it can be for the person seeking help. A professional who is submerged in this utilitarian culture and philosophy may produce damaging consequences for the person seeking aid. It is common for individuals in “therapy” to be told they need to fulfill their own wishes and wants. They should fulfill their own gratifications in the realm of sexuality, worldview, education, society, religious practice or home. A utilitarian approach changes the direction of the therapy from helping the person become self-sufficient, to giving the person permission to become both used and a user in the world.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

St. Augustine

Any helping professional’s underlying ethical structure states “do no harm”. However if the “professional” has a skewed philosophical view of the world around them and they believe and practice a utilitarian philosophy it will effect their practice. Their definition of “harm” is now tainted and they fall into a spiral of errors. Right becomes wrong, and wrong becomes right. It is no wonder that professional counselors with tainted sexual ethics are promoting children to have sex at a younger and younger age. For example, when viewed through this tainted lens, sex is just another way for us to find fulfillment in our empty lives. It is also no wonder that we are presently in a financial turmoil. The mighty dollar is praised above all. Money is necessary to attain at any cost in order to have fulfillment and happiness in our lives. These examples can be traced back to a utilitarian view of the human person. Possessing a utilitarian view of the person will negatively impact their clients even if the counselor is using appropriate and legitimate techniques.

St. Augustine once said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This simple but profound statement seems to sum up the proper response to the utilitarian approach. This statement implies that there is an order outside of ourselves that does not depend on us and we are all bound to this order. We call this order “the Natural Law”. It is put into place by an omnipotent God. We experience it all around us every day whether we believe in it or not. There are some areas of the Natural Law that we never question. For instance, gravity exists or 2 plus 2 equals 4. However when we begin to wade into the waters of moral truths, natural law is challenged, railed against and attempts are made to discredit it. One must remember that an objective truth does not need anyone to believe in it in order for it to be true. It is real in the same way I need not believe there is a tree in order for the tree to exist. Mental health counselors are called to be co-workers with a good God and to aid hurting individuals in learning to deal with their struggles, pain, confusion and complexities of life. Counselors are not called to have all of the answers nor give our own opinions, but rather we must follow the mandates of the Natural Law dealing with a fallen human nature.

As Christians, the counseling process is greatly aided by the teachings and example of our Blessed Lord. When He walked on this earth, He was the healthiest individual to ever live physically, mentally and spiritually. Through His imitation and teachings professional counselors can come to a deeper and more helpful place with their clients. After all, as John Paul the Great wrote in his profound and challenging encyclical letter “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life): “Truly great must be the value of human life if the Son of God has taken it up and made it the instrument of the salvation of all humanity”. The greatest work we can do as a “professional” counselor is to help the individual realize the value and greatness of their dignity.