Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Contra Consequentialismum: There Ain't No Such Thing as Absolutes

WE NOW REACH THE HEART OF DAVID ODERBERG'S BOOK Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach: his criticism of the majority theory in the West: consequentialism. In getting to this point, Oderberg discussed the notion of rights, and how they relate back to obligations (duties) and eventually to law, a law that pre-exists man, and which he discovers, but does not make. Though some rights may be based upon custom, the foundation of rights is not custom. Though some rights may be based upon contract, the foundation of rights is not contract. Though some rights may be held by the common consent or opinion of men, the foundation of rights is not opinion. The fact that customary or contractual or deeply felt rights exist does not impugn the fact that rights, in their most fundamental sense, are not customary, conventional, or emotional, but go beyond such relative bases and reach backward to a pre-existing, given reality of good and right, an objective order, the compliance with which human happiness depends. Any moral theorist who builds the foundation of his ethics on something other than natural law will always come to a failure of his theory as it collapses to relativism.

The fact is any objective moral order requires that a moral order pre-exist us. We have to be blind to miss the pre-existing, objective order. The Schleiermarcherian notion of Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben, "not-having-posited oneself," and of Irgendwiegewordensein, a "somehow-having-come-to-be," which cannot be gainsaid, compel us to face the objective fact that there is an objective reality, including a reality of right and wrong, of which we are not master, but which we have been given by Another, namely God, and which we discover, not make.*

What about the consequentialist's or utilitarian's efforts to describe morality?** Are they an exception to the rule? Can they escape the ineluctable conclusion that morality is not made by man, but is given us by our Creator?

David S. Oderberg

The consequentialist theories of morality are, ultimately, incompatible with a notion of natural right.

According to consequentialism, the criterion of rightness and wrongness of actions is whether they maximize good consequences. What are those good consequences? This is one of the first matters on which consquentialists differ.

Oderberg, 66. Many competitors vie for first place among the consequentialist theories for what ought to be the measure to be maximized: pleasure, the satisfaction of people's interests, some plurality or ensemble of goods that aggregately measure "well-being" are frequent suggestions. Consequentialists seem hopefully divided. Whatever that one measure is--take your pick--the analysis of consequentialism's defect is the same. Call that measure "X" and the consequentialist's goal to maximize X.

Consequentialists are also divided into "act" consequentialists (where and individual act is analyzed to see if it maximizes X) versus "rule" consequentialists (where a rule of action, and not the individual act itself, is analyzed to see if it maximizes X).

Regardless of the particular color and stripes of the theory, consequentialists are dedicated to a number of propositions, one of which may called the calculative principle, and the other which may be called the impersonality or agent-neutrality principle.

First, the calculative principle proposed by consequentialism asserts that "it is possible," in fact it is always possible, "to evaluate states of the world in terms of the goodness of the consequences present in those states as a result of actions." Oderberg, 67. The consequentialist is therefore committed to the ability to calculate of consequences caused by an act or rule, and hence the calculations that are determinant of an act's goodness are always possible. "Whether a crude numerical approach is used, or an intuitive one, or something in between, the consequentialist is committed to the idea that everything can be compared with everything else, in order to arrive at a judgment of what action is X-maximizing in the circumstances." Goods are therefore commensurable. Both this calculative aspect, and the necessary corollary of the commensurability of goods, is problematic.

Second, the impersonal or agent-neutrality feature is that consequentialists all believe that "[e]very moral agent's overarching rational duty is to maximize X." Oderberg, 67. "It can never be the case that an agent is placed in a situation in which he has a specific duty that is incompatible with this maximization." Oderberg, 68. In short, an agent has a duty always to do good, as good is defined by the consequentialists (maximizing X, whatever X may be), all else be damned. In this regard, consequentialists all seem to suffer from an overdeveloped sense of duty and hence a sort of moral neurosis follows. They are burdened with a millstone caused by the banishment of intent from the moral equation. All is outside in this theory; nothing is inside in this theory. It is hideously inhuman, and in fact leads to the justification of the most immoral behavior. Invariably, as a result of his false theory of morality, a consequentialist will turn into a neurotic whitened sepulcher, complete with the unattended inside full of a rotten corpse and black heart. The moral neurosis arises from what is an impossible proposition, and that is that one's intent makes utterly no difference in the moral calculus that determines right or wrong:
[I]t does not matter for the morality [of a person's] action how [he] fails to maximize X in a given situation: he may deliberately choose an act that is sub-optimal (less-than-X-maximizing), or he may simply refrain from performing the act that is optimal (X-maximizing), with the result that, in one way or another, a sub-optimal state of the world eventuates; either way, he is equally guilty of immorality.
Oderberg, 67. Here is consequentialism's viciousness, here is its demonic kernel, here is it's black heart:

[T]he defining feature of consequentialism . . . is hat there is no such thing as an action that is wrong whatever the consequences, and conversely, there is no such thing as an action that is right irrespective of the consequences. No actions are absolutely right or absolutely right: they take whatever moral complexion they have from their contribution, in the circumstances, to the maximization of X.

Oderberg, 68-69. Breaking one's promise, committing adultery, homicide, lying, bombing innocent populations with an atom bomb . . . you name it. There are no moral absolutes.*** All is negotiable so long as X is maximized. X, whatever X may be, becomes the new deity, the irrepressible Juggernaut and moral tyrant. It is apparent that if all is negotiable to the moral calculus, it follows that consequentialism is "incompatible with the existence of rights which prohibit certain kinds of act no matter what the consequences are." A consequentialist would never say: fiat justitia ruat caelum. Do justice, though the heaven's fall. A consequentialist would say, to keep the heaven's from falling, do injustice.

The upshot of consequentialism--that there are no such things as absolute rights--is admitted by the more candid of the consequentialists, and Oderberg provides a smattering of representative quotes.**** Even if they use the word "right," they have re-defined it to conform with their theory, and so cannot be regarded as "right" in any traditional sense. They are about as much "rights" as Satan's promises are promises: Faustian bargains both.

*See Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben and the Natural Law. Throughout this posting, the spelling from quotes from Oderberg's works are Americanized. Thus, maximise is rendered maximize, judgement rendered judgment, etc.
**Essentially, utilitarianism and consequentialism are synonyms. As Oderberg notes, "consequentialism" was a derogatory term used by the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe to describe the utilitarian theory of morality. The utilitarians have taken to wearing that badge with pride, sort of like Ultramontanes enjoy being called Papists.
***Perhaps one of the best monographs on this issue, and certainly one of the bests I have encountered, is John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1991).
****Peter Singer: "I am not convinced that the notion of a moral right is a helpful or meaningful one." J. J. C. Smart: "[H]owever unhappy about it he may be, the utilitarian must admit that he draws the consequence that he might find himself in circumstances where he ought to be unjust." John Harris: "I do not accept that there are any 'absolute' or 'natural' rights . . . the use of the word 'right' more often serves to obscure the rights and wrongs of an issue than to elucidate them."

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