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The Consequences of . . . Consequentialism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 04, 2010

It's really about whether the end justifies the means. In response to Population Consequentialism, one of our users asked if I could provide a brief outline of what was wrong with consequentialism as a moral theory. He noted that, on the practical level, the notion that “you reap what you sow” can be a salutary school of behavior. And certainly there is some practical wisdom here, but only if we already know the difference between right and wrong. At the level of a moral theory—that is, as a way of determining right and wrong—consequentialism doesn’t work at all. It is impossible to determine the morality of an action purely by assessing its consequences.

The first problem is that only God can see all the consequences of any moral action. We can’t see them, and so we can’t be expected to make a sound moral judgment based on our assessment of them. Making a moral decision based only on the consequences we think will follow from any particular action places us on very shaky ground. We may rightly guess some consequences and completely miss others, or we may look purely toward material or measurable consequences while ignoring spiritual ones, which by their nature cannot be measured. Or we may think that some action will make us happy only to find, in the end, that it makes us miserable—and vice versa.

The second problem is even deeper. It is simply impossible to assess the moral relevance of consequences without a prior standard of judgment already in place. Even God, who can see all consequences, cannot use consequentialism as His ultimate guide, for He would first have to judge the moral relevance of each consequence based on His deep understanding of the nature of things. After all, whether consequences are good or bad depends largely on how things are designed. Moreover, God must also advert to His knowledge of the Good in principle (really, His knowledge of Himself) in order to judge what constitutes the good or the bad (or the deprivation of a due good) in any given consequence.

In practical terms, of course, the theory of consequentialism is generally used to enable people to have a clear conscience when they feel a conflict between the desirable consequences which recommend an action to them and some cold moral principle which tells them not to do it. How often have we seen this used, for example, in sexual matters? If pre-marital sex fosters “love” and brings you “closer” then do it! If an unborn child stands in the way of the happiness of an adult, then kill it!

In the last analysis, how do we know whether the consequences either of sex outside marriage or of abortion are bad or good unless we first understand the nature of human life, the dignity of the human person, the purpose of sex, and the vocation of marriage? And even if we understand these things to a point, how can we evaluate them properly if we don’t understand that the human person was made for love or, even more commonly, if we don’t really understand what love is? Moral principles, based on both the natural law and Divine Revelation, enable us to make sound moral decisions in spite of our own relative ignorance of the nature and purpose of things. (Moral principles also enlighten us about the very structure of reality, so that we might understand it better.)

On the basis of a fairly common consequential calculus, it can be argued that dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the morally right thing to do because the failure to do so would have prolonged the war, resulting in an even greater number of casualties. Thus the most obvious consequence of the use of the atomic bomb was a reduction in the total dead. And yet it remains morally wrong to deliberately target non-combatants in war, because the non-combatant has not forfeited his right to life by threatening the life of another. A prior moral understanding is required to assess such consequences properly, and to see that the consequence of the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent women and children has a very different moral weight than the consequence of the deaths of tens of thousands of enemy soldiers in battle.

Similarly, it can be argued by consequentialism that the sterilization of the retarded (or of ourselves) is morally good, because by this means we can avoid unwanted problems while promoting sexual freedom and personal prosperity. But sterilization is still a mutilation of the human person and, even when voluntary in ourselves, it involves a spiritual twisting away from love and responsibility. Or it can be argued that there is nothing morally wrong with embezzling funds from a corporation which is unlikely to know they are missing; after all, this has the decidedly good consequence of making me rich, and with no “down side”. Yet stealing remains wrong and, like all sins, it deadens the soul.

Because we are unable to foresee all the consequences—and even all the kinds of consequences—which flow from any given act, and because we cannot truly judge whether each of these consequences is essentially good or evil without a prior moral standard, consequentialism simply can’t work. Principles drawn from beyond our own immediate perceptions and desires are absolutely essential. Moreover, in practice consequentialists are invariably intent on justifying something they shouldn’t want. So beware: The end really doesn't justify the means.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jjen009 - Aug. 05, 2010 8:32 PM ET USA

    Consequentialism seems to me also a kind of autonomous definition of right and wrong. If I am convinced the consequence of behaviour A will be X and I don't want to experience X, then I shouldn't do A. But the consequences of many good acts will be such that I do not desire to experience them. The ultimate, perhaps, is martyrdom. I will experience the loss of all earthly good if I refuse to deny my faith - yet - I hope - if I must, I will not deny my faith and will suffer the consequences.