Conservative thought IV: the great consequentialism debate

the Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

–John Henry Newman

Last August, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Edward Feser at What’s Wrong with the World posted a reflection on event, sarcastically wishing his readers a “Happy Consequentialism Day”.  Consequentialism, the doctrine that the ends can justify any means, is not only, he said, contrary to Christian morality; it can and has led to mass murder.  Over at View from the Right, Lawrence Auster was horrified and posted a response accusing the WWWTW crowd of embracing pacifist principles and putting legal abstractions before the common good.  Now, conservatives disagree with eachother all the time without it meaning anything for conservatism as such, but this was different.  In this case, both sides at least implicitly accused the other of abandoning a core conservative principle and becoming contaminated by some modern heresy.  An attitude toward consequentialism seems to be central to conservative thought, but there’s disagreement about what that attitude is.

The reactions of both sides becomes understandable if we look at the post-WWII history of conservatism and the very different experiences of its two main factions.  On the one hand, there are what I’ll call the “bioethics conservatives”, whose main interests have been fighting birth control, abortion, and euthanasia.  On the other hand, there are what I’ll call the “national conservatives”, whose main interests have been fighting mass immigration, Islam, and communism.  For the past half-century, the former have been defenders of absolute natural law, their enemies that of mitigating circumstance.  For national conservatives, the situation has been the reverse; every effort to defend the national community has been accused of violating some absolute moral right.

The bioethics conservative movement had its origins in the mid-20th-century theological battles in mainline Protestantism and, especially, the Catholic Church.  (See Catholicism and American Freedom by John McGreevy for an excellent treatment of the following history.)  Circa 1950, the Catholic Church, because of the situations she faced in her many hospitals and in the confessional, had developed the only extensive guide to medical ethical dilemmas, based on Thomist natural law theory.  This situation was, of course, resented by liberal Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner who rejected the idea of a natural law and despised the Catholic Church for its “legalism”.  In the mid sixties, Joseph Fletcher published Situation Ethics as an alternative to Catholic legalism.  “Situation ethics” is, in fact, nothing but Benthamite utilitarian with a pseudo-Christian gloss that identifies the principle of agape with pleasure maximization.  As moral philosophy, the thing was a joke, as secular philosophers had long since seen the inadequacy of utilitarianism.  Theologians, however, are generally not a bright bunch, and they often seem to jump on some secular idea just when everyone else has discarded it as junk.  Utilitarianism was a hit.  Pope Pius XII had denounced the theory in 1952, but it spread in Catholic circles all the same under names like “proportionalism” with advocates like Charles Curran, Bernhard Harring, and Daniel Maguire.  Soon Benthamism attained hegemonic status in both the Protestant and Catholic theological communities.

Against this embrace of Bentham, a reaction arose, primarily among a group of Catholics.  Most were laymen and philosophers rather than theologians by training, they were well aware of the weaknesses of Fletcher’s system, and being trained in a secular field made them less intimidated by “modern thought” than the average theologian.  Among the Catholic counter-reaction were Elizatheth Anscombe (a student of Wittgenstein who coined the word “consequentialism” as a term of abuse), value-ethics theorists like Dietrich von Hildebrand (a student of Husserl), and the “new” natural law theorists like John Finnis and Robert George.  Only two clerics distinguished themselves in defending traditional morality:  the Jesuit John Ford and the Polish bishop Karol Wojtyla.

In the following intra-Catholic disputes, the subject was almost always contraception or abortion.  Both sides appealed to philosophy rather than scripture or tradition (both because the former was the expertise of those on the orthodox side, and because the utilitarians rejected the authority of the latter anyway).  The utilitarians accused the conservatives of being heartless legalists–abortion and contraception (and masturbation and sodomy and euthanasia and…) make people happier, and isn’t that what matters?  The conservatives replied that evil acts can’t be justified by any consideration of consequences.  The conservatives insisted that physical acts can have objective meanings (a “language of the body”) that can be either good or evil.  The utilitarians dismissed this as “physicalism”.  The conservatives in turn accused the utilitarians of Cartesian “dualism”.  Thus, the bioethics conservatives’ attacks on consequentialism and mind-body dualism are not bizarre accretions.  Still less are they concessions to “modern thought”.  They are integrally connected to their critique of liberalism.  A parallel, although smaller, movement against consequentialist rule-breaking went on among Protestants as well, with Lydia McGrew at WWWtW standing out as a formidable defender of traditional moral absolutism.

Thus, when a bioethics conservative hears that one can’t make absolute moral prohibitions, sirens and red lights go off in his head, and he assumes he’s about to hear yet one more defense of immorality.  The experience of the national conservatives has been entirely different.  Auster is an excellent example of this latter group (although he is also reliable on sexual issues).  For years, View from the Right has distinguished itself in taking a principled stand for defending one’s own culture and civilization in its full particularity.  Stands like this set the national conservatives against groups like pacifists and immigration advocates.  The former reject any effort to defend ourselves from communist or Muslim powers as immoral.  The latter claim that migrants have an absolute right to move to the USA and overwhelm the native culture.  The most exasperating thing about these groups is that they have always been so obviously hypocritical.  The absolute demands of peace only fall on the United States, never the Soviet Union.  It’s very hard to keep from getting angry when one is being lectured to on the absolute impermissibility of violence by someone wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.  Neither can one help but notice that “diversity” only demands the suicide of white cultures.  The national conservatives can also claim a respectable philosophical pedigree, from Max Weber’s “ethic of responsibility”, to Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, to Eric Voegelin’s critique of political gnostics for ignoring the contingency of the political order–his social application of the distinction between essence and existence.

The VftR link provides an excellent example of the misunderstanding between the two branches of conservatives.  At one point, Auster gives the example of Pope John Paul II as someone who was obviously defective as a conservative, because of his writings on immigration.  But, to the bioethics conservatives, JPII was nearly an ideal pope; he was one of their own raised to the chair of Saint Peter, one who leant magisterial authority to their critiques of consequentialism and dualism.  However, L. Auster does have a point:  JPII’s writings on immigration-related subjects were dreadful, showing almost no concern for the health of host cultures.  The one redeeming feature of them was that His Holiness had obviously not given the matter much thought.

I personally speak as someone within what I’ve called the “bioethics” tradition, but who sees a lot of value in what I’ve called the “nationals”.  It’s a different situation than that of the libertarians, the neoconservatives, and the classical liberals.  These groups have nothing to teach us; it would be better if they would just disappear.  The “bioethicists” on the other hand, have done important work in articulating a nonliberal ethics.  This tradition is deep but not wide.  It focuses on a few issues, having little to say about economics or foreign policy (except to remind us what warfare doesn’t excuse).  This can lead to a too-quick acceptance of the democratic-capitalist order and “propositional nation” BS.  The “nationals” have a distinct set of strengths, but without a strong dose of moral absolutism, their defense of group loyalty can seem to slide into a defense of collective selfishness.

The two must be combined.  We must remember to see authoritative groups as collective affirmations of God’s moral order and defend them as such, in ways consistent with the nature of what we defend.  Consequentialism and cosmopolitanism are both errors.  This is why dialog and argument between these two groups of conservatives might be very fruitful.

3 Responses

  1. I realize that I’m some years late to the party, but I’m absolutely fascinated to find someone actually arguing that masturbation is evil. And not because it (supposedly) causes bad outcomes, either, because that would be utilitarian reasoning!

    As someone who doesn’t subscribe to your ethical system, I can’t really parse out why masturbation is a moral wrong for you, and certainly not why it’s important to care about it in other people. But I don’t think I’ve ever really seen a living person seriously talk about it as a moral wrong. Fascinating.

  2. Hello grendelkhan,

    Welcome. Because of the APS meeting, I won’t have time for a while to discuss the issue, but fortunately I can refer you to some earlier posts that deal with this subject.

  3. […] to do with trying to appease liberals.  In fact, it was born of the fight against them.  In the ethical debates of late-20th century Catholicism, to be conservative-orthodox meant to be anti-consequentialist.  That there are intrinsically evil […]

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