instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Consequentialism, specifically

A while back, I suggested that, a) while there may not be any textbook solipsists out there over the age of nineteen -- people who believe they are the only beings that exist, and that they are just imagining everyone and everything else; b) there are a lot of people who act as though they are the only being that exists, or at least the only one that counts; and c) we can call these people solipsists, too.

I am reminded of this by a sentence in the statement of Fr. Brian Harrison, OS, posted on Catholic and Enjoying It! yesterday. (Yes, it's all in the context of the torture debate, but I'm not now writing on that debate as such.)

After allowing that Marc Thiessen is mistaken on his ideas of pacifism and the principle of double effect, Fr. Harrison adds:
Nevertheless, I regard as manifestly unjust the accusation that Thiessen is guilty of "consequentialism" in a sense that would involve dissent from any teachings of the Church's magisterium.
Having myself accused Thiessen of consequentialism, this statement interests me.

I think the teachings of the Church's magisterium Fr. Harrison has in mind come chiefly from Veritatis Splendor, which says that consequentialism "maintain[s] that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behaviour" [n 75, emphasis added], and that consequentialist theories "are not faithful to the Church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behaviour contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law."

Now, it is simply a fact that Marc Thiessen maintains that it is possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior. Insofar as consequentialism maintains the opposite, he is an anti-consequentialist.

This raises the question, how far is that? In other words, how much does "consequentialism" imply that it is never possible to absolutely prohibit any kind of behavior?

I suggest that, in the walk-about world of people as we find them, the answer is, "Not much."

Consequentialism is different from solipsism in that there do seem to be textbook consequentialists who do insist the morality of every act depends solely on a calculation of foreseeable consequences (see VS 75).

But few people have such categorical moral views, whether consequentialist or otherwise. Most people, I think, have a patchwork moral system, partly rigorous and inviolable, partly highly flexible, partly lies told to children. An academic theologian looking for academic consequentialism will not find much outside the academy; in particular, he's unlikely to find it in a person who "didn't get into the Catholic theological stuff of [waterboarding] until I sat down to write the book" defending it.

Let me propose that "consequentialism" may be used as a generic term, referring to the act of judging the morality of an act solely from its consequences. This is a broader sense than is found in VS, but I'm looking at the question, "Is it true?," not, "Is it dissent from any teachings of the Church's magisterium?"

I will further propose two specific types of consequentialism: doctrinal or textbook consequentialism, the formal moral system described and condemned in VS; and common or garden consequentialism, the unsystematic application of consequentialist reasoning to particular moral questions. We might also call these "consequentialism of conviction" and "consequentialism of convenience," respectively. (Or maybe we trash the species of consequentialism line and say the former is the habit and the latter the act?)

If we may call an individual act of judging the morality of an act solely from its consequences an act of consequentialism, then it doesn't follow that someone is not a consequentialist if he is not one in the sense that would involve dissent from any teachings of the Church's magisterium.

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