A common attitude of our culture is what one may call the “no harm, no foul” mentality, which uses the rationalization “why not do it if it doesn’t hurt anyone?” to justify an ever-growing variety of interactions between consenting adults, mostly of an explicit nature. The basis of this attitude is one particular application of the general philosophical view of utilitarianism, which reduces the ultimate good of every society to pleasure, and the ultimate evil to pain. Its attractiveness to the modern age lies in the fact that people rightfully recognize pleasure as a form of good and pain a form of evil. Contemporary confusion over what constitutes an ultimate good or an ultimate evil clouds the dangers of such a theory.
The utilitarian, in order to conform to his philosophical view, must reduce human life to a sum total of pleasures and pains. Any experience that does not directly influence the human senses must be viewed as inconsequential and irrelevant. Moreover, unrelated pleasures, such as the feeling of satisfaction of winning a race and the pleasure of eating, must all be placed on the same scale without any sort of normalization by non-sensory means. Otherwise, the utilitarian would resort to appealing to a higher order to judge different pleasures and pains, thus defeating his own theory.
J. Budziszewski notes in his essay “It Can’t Be Wrong If It Doesn’t Hurt Anyone” the long-range negative effects resulting from the immediate gratification of extra-marital relations. “Now, after tens of millions of abortions, divorces, fatherless children, sterilization-inducing diseases and broken hearts, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the meaning of ‘hurt.'” Pope John Paul II pointed out that the utilitarian mindset tends to view other humans as merely means for one’s own pleasure. The sociological evidence of the modern age points strongly to an alternate view of pleasure and pain as consequences, rather than as ends in themselves.
It is a basic tenet of the Catholic faith that the experience of heaven will deliver the greatest pleasure for a given soul, while that of hell will deliver the greatest pain. However, pleasure and pain are only one of many characteristics of each respective experience. This is a result of the philosophical view inherent in Catholicism that the measure of a soul goes far beyond the pleasure and pain experienced, and likewise true justice goes far beyond the “greatest pleasure for the greatest number”.
Jesus, as the ultimate model for all Christian living, demonstrates true joy in the midst of the unimaginable suffering of His passion. The redemption of all humanity through His own human life, death and resurrection was His mission on earth, and the source of His joy was His perfect adherence to this mission. Likewise, the Catholic Church recognizes one universal human nature with its own demands on the choices we make. The ultimate human end is true happiness at the end of time, but this does not exclude a true and authentic joy in the midst of suffering for the sake of a greater good. Thus pleasure and pain are merely artifacts of circumstances. In contrast to the utilitarian mindset, and in light of their reason for being, the Christian recognizes in all humans an incomparable value and dignity.