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Consequentialism is the most popular heresy on the planet. We discuss it over at the Register.
Good ends do not justify evil means? Of course not. But that way of phrasing the issue makes the moral dilemmas involved in large-scale moral actions, like bombing Dresden or Hiroshima, to be less terrible than they really are, or than they really can be, in this terrible world of ours.
When you refuse to torture the spy in order to obtain information from him that might prevent a suicide bomber from attacking, you are working with pure hypotheticals: you don’t know that a bomb is going to go off; you don’t know that this person has the necessary information; and in any case, from what I read it’s usually possible to persuade people to give up that kind of information without torture.
But what about a situation like the one in the much-excoriated movie The English Patient, (which liberals and conservatives of a didactic bent seem to have disliked in equal measure – I suspect because it placed their pet causes in such acute conflict)? Almasy is detained by the British as a spy because of his name, while his injured “mistress” Katherine, whom he left to try to get help for her, is dying alone in a cave. In desperation, he breaks away and goes to the Germans, offering them information in return for their help finding Katherine. (She is already dead by the time they reach her.)
So there’s a dilemma that is far more difficult: not a hypothetical, but a *certain* harm to come to someone you love, perhaps your child, vs doing the right thing and letting him die or suffer so as to protect the safety of a group of strangers. I’m not suggesting that this is wrong: of course it’s the right thing to do. But at such moments, when one has an immediate personal stake in the consequences, one realises that the price of not being a consequentialist can be extremely high. The price of not being a consequentialist with regard to Hiroshima was, for some people, knowing that their relatives would probably die in Japanese internment camps. It wasn’t just a matter of setting aside a wish to win the war as fast and cheaply as possible, while giving the other side a good scare.