Thursday, February 22, 2024

Cover story: "The Best Effect"

Ryan Darr is a postdoctoral research associate in religion, ecology, and expressive culture at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music and a lecturer in the Yale Divinity School.

His new book is The Best Effect: Theology and the Origins of Consequentialism.

Here Darr explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
No concept is more important to Christian ethics than love. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus answers: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” In the Gospel of Luke, an expert in the law presses Jesus on the second command, asking, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responds with one of the most famous parables in scripture, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-29, NRSV).

The Good Samaritan, who helps a man beaten and dying on the side of the road, is a paradigm of Christian love. The teaching ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Powerful as it is, however, the story does not answer all of our questions, and theologians have been eager to fill in the gaps ever since.

My book traces changing ways of conceiving of Christian love in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The image on its cover, Jordaens Podhorce's The Good Samaritan (1616), was painted at the start of this period, signifying the ongoing significance of the Good Samaritan's generous aid as a model of Christian love.

The book tells the story of the rise of consequentialism, an approach to ethics centered on the production of good outcomes, usually maximally good outcomes. Christian love, as the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates, does have something to do with good outcomes. The Samaritan's love ensures that a man who would have died survives. And maximization? It's not hard to see why a love focused on good outcomes would want as much goodness as possible.

Consequentialism, then, might be said to follow naturally from Christian teachings about love. But this cannot be right. Consequentialism does not arise until the seventeenth century. Why, then, does it emerge in the seventeenth century? The book highlights several important factors. Among the factors that make consequentialism into a plausible and even compelling interpretation of Christian love for seventeenth-century moralists are a new conception of the good focused on outcomes, a new conception of agency centered on causation, and an assimilation of human and divine morality. Thinking in the wake of these shifts several centuries later, John Stuart Mill could write with confidence that Jesus’ teaching about neighbor love embodies “the complete spirit of the ethics of utility.”
Learn more about The Best Effect at the University of Chicago Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Best Effect.

--Marshal Zeringue