The utilitarians and their trolley problem

At the New Republic, Thomas Nagel has a review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, and I recommend it to any of my readers who haven’t already read it.  Nagel’s main point is given by his title “You can’t learn about morality from brain scans“, and I certainly agree with that.  Like most people who think psychology and neuroscience can be used to uncover the basis of sound ethics, Greene is a utilitarian.  To make his case, he must explain why, since both utilitarian and non-utilitarian moral intuitions are evolved features of the brain, one is to be regarded as more legitimate than the other.  Greene is better than many moral psychologists in that he at least realizes that this is a problem.  One argument he makes is that utilitarian intuitions are more universal and more likely to lead to inter-cultural agreement.  The funny thing at least in the book review, though, is that the main non-utilitarian intuition discussed (that it is wrong to directly kill in order to save more lives–more on this below) also sounds like it is very widely shared.  What’s more, there are utilitarian conclusions (e.g. that one shouldn’t favor one’s own family) that are rejected by almost everyone.  Utilitarians themselves generally don’t think we should try too rigorously to be impartial happiness maximizers because it would make us miserable, yet realizing that their philosophy is self-refuting doesn’t seem to discourage them.  Greene himself proposes a revealing thought experiment.

He asks what you would do if you had the choice of creating a world full of people like us, or a world full of people whose natural motives were completely unselfish and impartial and who cared about everyone, not just their friends and families, as much as they cared about themselves. He assumes that you would choose to create the second species, and that this shows that there is something the matter with us and our species-typical moral responses.

The funny thing is that my immediate impulse is to choose a world full of people like us.  A world of perfect happiness-maximizers would be a world without love (which is essentially partial) and without spiritual greatness (which seeks higher values than happiness).  Nagel thinks this thought experiment is perverse, but I disagree.  It does show clearly how deep our disagreement with the utilitarians goes.

The book and the review spend a lot of time talking about the trolley problem, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say a word about that.  There is an annoying assumption in some discussions of this experiment–especially when it’s the psychologists talking rather than the philosophers–that consequentialism is obviously right and rational, so that the responses of average people to the trolley dilemmas are mere irrational emotion and therefore incorrect.  In fact, I think that the average people basically get it right.  To a non-consequentialist (who can be as cool-headed and rational as one likes), there certainly are morally relevant differences between the “switch” and “footbridge” scenarios.  Consider this.  If, after choosing to save the most lives in the switch scenario, you learned that the trolley had missed the man on the other line and hit no one, you would be elated; the choice would have turned out to be even more successful than you had hoped.  If, after choosing to throw the fat man in front of the trolley, you find out that the trolley had missed him, you would regard your move as a failure.  In the second but not the first case killing someone is necessarily connected to the desired outcome.  You want to save lives by means of killing someone.  The person dying is not just a foreseeable outcome of the choice; it is part of the chain of causality that gets you to your goal.  This is important for whether the principle of double effect can be invoked.  I also say that, if the prohibition against murder is to be preserved at all, we must retain the distinction between direct killing and any random action that fails to minimize the number of people dying at a given time.  That is, in evaluating an act, we must be able to identify the object as well as the intention and the consequences.  There is room for discussion in how we draw the line of what is direct killing, but it is not a priori unreasonable that it turn out that switch falls on one side and footbridge on the other.


The end of the orthodox bad Catholic

The stereotype of traditionalist or just orthodox Catholics as “pharisees” and “Pelagians”–that is, obsessed with rules and puffed up with pride over their supposed spiritual superiority to average sinners, whom they despise as reprobates–does not match my experience at all.  I’ve known several families of very religious Catholics and never encountered such a thing.  What’s more, it ignores what has historically been the most common type of orthodox Catholic.  I mean the half-practicing, openly sinning, “give me chastity, but not yet” kind.  A religion as big as Catholicism could never have survived so long if it were only made of pharisees and dissidents.

The orthodox bad Catholic came in two types.  The first was called in homilies of my youth the “scorched-ass Catholic”.  His goal was to have as much sinful fun as possible while still avoiding damnation, either by avoiding mortal sins (while indulging gleefully in venial ones) or by having as much fun as he wants and then going to confession when he turns sixty and is ready to settle down and start praying. The more timid sort will, instead of indulging sins, take advantage of his “wild” years to avoid any arduous demands of virtue or loyalty.  He will be able to avoid uncomfortable disagreements in the company of unbelievers, remaining silent before mockery of the faith when he knows he should respond.

The second type of bad orthodox Catholic might be called the “non-religious” or “pathologically humble” Catholic.  He has an image of himself as “not the religious type” (perhaps because he finds devotions boring, perhaps because of his generally cynical or rationalist habits of thinking), and the idea of raising his spiritual level strikes him as somehow silly or even presumptuous.  Now, I know the correct reply to this sort of attitude–to say that it is not real humility at all, but a lack of faith in God’s redeeming power.  My main point, though, is that neither the first nor the second type of orthodox bad Catholic was hostile to the virtues that he personally lacked.  Indeed, he would genuinely admire them.  Seeing the better sort of orthodox Catholic would give him at least a tiny pang of regret, a wish that he had it in himself to be more like that.  When staying with devout Catholics, he will put aside obscene, irreverent, and blasphemous talk, telling himself that he is doing it to respect their feelings but then finding himself surprisingly happy to have his own sensibilities temporarily raised to a higher level.  “If only I were really like this.”  If he was a fornicator, he would still admire virgins; a chaste woman he would probably feel is too good for him.  If he was a drunkard, he would despise this habit when confronted with the loveliness of sobriety and self-control.

How different this is from the non-orthodox Catholic, who not only does not practice the virtues but congratulates himself for his vices, thinking that they make him modern and able to “think for himself”.  He rejects the Church’s teachings with contempt and accepts uncritically the atheist utilitarian dogmas of the modern world.  Chastity and piety he despises, and anyone who seems to practice these virtues he thinks must be either a “pharisee” or a hypocrite.

How do I know so much about the bad orthodox Catholic?  Because I was him, both types depending on my mood.  I still am, to a very large degree, and when I hear that people who support the Church are all self-righteous pharisees, I think “No, no.  If only you knew!  You’re giving me far too much credit.”  True, my sins were rather petty, more due to inclination than anything else, but my lack of virtue and sinful attitudes made me no different than the average unbeliever.

Yet the situation of the bad orthodox Catholic is getting harder to maintain.  We had always expected that after we were done having our fun, or at least our easy time (assuming an untimely death didn’t intervene–in which case it was to be straight to the eternal barbecue), that the world of religion and virtue would be there waiting for us.  However, that world is under concerted attack, and nowadays it is increasingly clear that indulging private sins is throwing in one’s lot with the Enemy.  This is particularly true for sexual sins, where the fighting is most intense.  The incentive to watch porn, fornicate, and contracept is the same as it always was, but now one can’t help feeling that doing these things is kicking Jesus while He’s down.  Does this make sense?  Feelings don’t have to make sense, and it’s probably true that sexual sin is as much an offense against Our Lord when Christian culture is strong as when it is weak, but this reality is more visible now.  Before it just seemed like the sinner was hurting himself and his partner; now the element of betrayal is so terribly clear.  The devil says that these forbidden acts are good, and by doing them don’t I effectively state my agreement, at least in the “voting with one’s feet” kind of way?

When there is a viable community of believing Catholics, the bad Catholics can accept their place at the comfortable bottom.  But now orthodox Catholics are getting fewer and fewer, and most of the highly-regarded nominal Catholics have joined with the Enemy.  Like the Mexican priest in The Power and the Glory, Catholicism’s worst representative finds that he must shape up, because he’s getting to be Catholicism’s only representative.  If you’re the only person in your workplace who believes that contraception is a sin, for example, it’s kind of important that you not be contracepting.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a bad ambassador for chastity; you’re all there is.

As the years go by, it becomes less and less possible to be a bad orthodox Catholic and think one can avoid going all the way for either God or the devil.  I have certainly had to reform myself in these past years, although I am still far from what anyone would call devout.  Although this might sound like a good thing, remember that most Catholics have chosen the way of heresy instead, adjusting their beliefs to match their behavior rather than vice versa.  And, darn it, I’m still kind of annoyed with liberalism for ruining my hopes for a sinful youth.

If you won’t do it for your ancestors, do it for your children

Fight white gentile shame, that is.  Is this the life you want for your children and grandchildren, a never-ending cycle of ever more abject self-abasement met with ever more hysterical denunciation?

Perhaps you think all this anti-white hatred will peter out on its own if we just keep our heads down and apologize long and abjectly enough?  I used to think so too, but it is clear that this isn’t happening.  The more docile and powerless whites become, the more viciously our moral standing is assaulted.  Immigrants, having risked death to come to America, immediately turn to castigating the native population of their new home for being insufficiently diverse and welcoming.  The Democratic Party insures that every non-white newcomer is made into an honorary negro, complete with the anti-white resentments that come with this new status.  White demonization is not going to stop on its own.  Why should it, when so many people benefit from it?