Stray Thoughts On Consequentialism

Some stray thoughts on consequentialism. Usual caveats apply: I’m thinking out loud, not making any rigorous, systematic argument; none of this is original; etc. If you see a dead-obvious objection to anything I’ve written, please presume that I am aware of it and have either implicitly dismissed it or decided not to talk about it.

Everybody’s a consequentialist; nobody’s a consequentialist. At the level of not only everyday discourse but, I believe, deep moral intuition, everybody’s a consequentialist and nobody’s a consequentialist. Meaning, even the strongest self-proclaimed deontologist almost always believes that her moral code, at least if universalized, will lead to better outcomes. Conversely, I have never met even a strong self-proclaimed consequentialist who does not have deontology, who does not believe in at least one principle that must be obeyed whatever the consequences. This, to me, is the chief reason why discussing consequentialism almost always ends up being boring.

The obvious objections to consequentialism are true. There’s no eleven ways to go about it: to affirm consequentialism is to affirm that the ends justify the means. Yes, there are ways, some of them valiant, some of them even convincing, to circle out of it, but they all end up–this is a tautology–subordinating consequentialism to some other limiting principle. Consequentialism Lite might or might not be true, but it is no longer consequentialism, since some principle other than consequences ends up being the master principle. The other obvious problem of consequentialism is the problem of regress: ok, actions must be judged by the consequences, but in order to judge those consequences, there must still be some absolute standard of the Good that must be invoked at some point, if only implicitly, and if there is some absolute standard of the Good that must be said to exist and demand adherence, then that must be the standard, not consequences-qua-consequences. (Again, there are ways to dance around this, but again, they end up either unconvincing, or absurd, or creating a system that is, in the end, non-consequentialist.) Insert here a critique of how (post-)Modern ethics always end up pinballing between either an unspoken (and therefore very brittle) crypto-Platonism and a metaphysical nihilism.

Don’t three-card-monte the problem of knowledge. Saying that an action must be judged by its consequences presupposes that these consequences are knowable, which is extremely, extremely dubious, and very rarely addressed. This is in particular a fatal problem (even if there weren’t countless others) for that species of consequentialism, utilitarianism, being based on “utility”, which remains ultimately undefinable and certainly unmeasurable. Maybe there are ways to address this (I wouldn’t bet) but certainly most treatments just completely dodge the question.

Consequentialism has a subsidiary role in Christian ethics. After thus repeatedly kicking poor consequentialism in the teeth, can anything be said in its favor? Paradoxically perhaps, the best thing that can be said about consequentialism is that it can be incorporated in a subsidiary role in Christian ethics. After all, as I wrote above, consequentialism does have a deep root reaching into human moral intuitions, and the law of God is written on men’s hearts. From a Thomistic perspective, it can certainly be argued that because natural law reflects divine law and the order of God’s good creation is one of generosity, consequences can be used as a rough-and-ready yardstick. From a more directly Biblical perspective, trust in God’s good Providence, and the recurrent (though, of course, and more below, radically relativized from the standpoint of the Cross) theme of God’s blessings conferred on the righteous, certainly would seem to point in the same direction. A notion which has helped me here (I don’t dare call it a concept) is the idea of God winking at us. God communicates to us through icons (most fully in the true living Icon of Jesus Christ), and through signs; while consequences should never be the reason for our action, God does “wink” at us by (sometimes? most of the time?) aligning consequences with the right action. To see this as a wink, a flicker of Providence and not an iron decree, helps us to relativize consequences and put them in their proper place while still taking them into account. It is the encouragement of the Father as the child takes her first tentative steps. The reason why we should not have slavery is not consequentialist, but the fact that a society without slavery will end up immeasurably more prosperous and that abolishing slavery will have good consequences too many to count, can be seen as a sign of God, yes, a wink, something true and “from God” and joyous and beautiful though ultimately fleeting and not important in itself. (Note: the same framework also roughly obtains of virtue ethics.)

This of course should not have to be said, but it must be: even this thoroughly domesticated consequentialism must always be subjugated to the tartly, defiantly, recklessly anti-consequentialist Gospel of supererogatory love and sacrifice. The winks are there, but in the end, consequences matter not, they are less than straw. In the end, ends never justify the means. In the end, the demands of love must be embraced absolutely, joyously and absolutely for their own sake, and this is the cornerstone. The chalice must be drank to the dregs, and always called good.

Icon Jesus Tapeinosis, Kastoria. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.


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  • intempore

    God’s wink = ultimately, consequentialism – as with utilitarianism – has dire consequences. Yet he cannot make this a consequentialist proposition, lest he doom us to a consequentialist dystopia …

  • Roki

    The ambiguity of language makes these conversations difficult, so I’ll start with a couple definitions, not that I’m saying these words must be used this way, but just that this is what I mean by them in this post.

    The “end” of an act is its final cause, that for which it is done.

    The “goal” of an act is its intended consequence or outcome.

    The “consequence” or “outcome” is what actually happens as a result of the act being attempted.

    Now, my comment proper: As I understand the Catholic – or at least the Thomist – approach to morality, the end of the act is the completion of the act itself. The end is intrinsic to the act, and defining of it.

    For example, the end of eating a sandwich is not, primarily speaking, to provide nutrition to the body or to satisfy my taste buds, but rather the end of eating a sandwich is to eat a sandwich. Providing nutrition and satisfying my taste buds are extrinsic, and count as “goals” or “consequences” rather than “ends” of the act.

    The problem with consequentialism, as I understand it, is that it confuses consequences with ends. It tries to cram something essentially extrinsic to the act in as if it were intrinsic.

    I think a Thomistic approach to morality does account for consequences, but either as separate acts – the act of setting a goal, for example – or as external circumstances which do not affect the moral nature of the act.

    So I would be wary of saying that “consequentialism … can be incorporated in a subsidiary role in Christian ethics,” but I do agree that it’s important for Christian ethics to give a strong account of consequences and the role they play in our acts of setting goals, as well as the responsibility we have for the foreseeable consequences (or possible or probable consequences) of our acts.

    I am not sure if I am restating your (PEG’s) thoughts in a different way, or if I am making a different argument. As I said, the vocabulary is ambiguous, so my main goal in the act of writing this comment is to seek greater clarity.

    • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      These are all fair points, and I don’t see how they would be incompatible with my argument. Thanks for your comment.

      (And yes, obviously semiotic clarity is indispensable. I took a lot of things for granted in this short and lapidary post.)