The Moral Philosophy of WWJD

The aphorism “What Would Jesus Do?” does not constitute a complete moral framework, though sometimes it is invoked as if it did. I wish to analyse WWJD as it is most often used, as a way of making sure that moral questions are considered, rather than providing a final answer for them.

The choice of Jesus is a rather odd one as far as moral philosophers go. The domain over which WWJD is defined is rather limited. If Jesus thought anything of homosexuality, he sure never spoke up about it. His most obvious answer to the trolley problem might be to miracle the train away, or at least to Lazarus the corpses. On the other hand, the range of responses Jesus was documented to exhibit is wildly expansive. There is that time he cursed a fig tree to never bear fruit again, the aforementioned raising Lazarus from the dead thing, that time he intentionally but slightly blasphemed so that the authorities would have an excuse to torture him to death — all part of a master plan to fulfil an ancient prophesy, or when he brought out a frickin’ whip to drive merchants from the temple, or that time he wandered off into the wilderness to fast for 40 days, or when he saved that wedding party by turning large barrels of water into wine. A lot of the time the answer to WWJD is going to be “no clue,” much of the rest of the time the answer will be, at best, subject to debate, and when it isn’t, it might not be the most helpful or pragmatic example for us.

And most people who ask “What would Jesus do?” know this, they know that the true meaning of the question is somewhat closer to “what would an objectively moral person without any of my peculiar passions on this issue do?” This is a useful question, and one worth asking, but Jesus is really ancillary to it. There wouldn’t be much difference asking “What would Buddha do?” or “What would Beauvoir do?” or “What would Bentham do?” (although most people who would bother asking that last one would ask “What would R. M. Hare do?” instead) and that’s just the Bs. I would guess that the moral insights produced by all of these four questions would perfectly align at least 95% of the time; the value isn’t in the answer but in evoking the question: it’s only really going to help if thinking about moral questions harder is the sort of thing that would help. It doesn’t expand the overall moral perspective of the one who asks, it just brings all of it to bear on the current quandary.

All this is not to say that the Jesus of the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Q didn’t have a coherent complete moral philosophy that we can and should learn from, just that approaching it narrowly from a behaviourist’s f(input) = output perspective isn’t likely to be fruitful. The better question to evoke this framework is “How does Jesus tell me to want, and why?” This is a harder question to ask, and a much harder question to answer, but more than occasionally it is worth it.

Finally, I would like to leave you with a call to action. In my own life, I occasionally make use of the aphorism “what would corporate America and the powers that be want for me?” Drawing wisdom from it isn’t as simple or easy as endeavouring to want the opposite. Instead imagine explaining to Jesus or Kant or Anscombe or Marx why it is that they want what they do, and why it is that you want what you do. Parenthetically: don’t choose Hume, for goodness sake, the man doesn’t believe in induction, don’t sign yourself up to explain anything to his ghost — you’ll be up all night. This is useful as a forcing function— not to sign your thoughts over to an ancient moral philosopher —but to enlist their aid in making sure that your thoughts are your own.