The Bad Fruit of Consequentialism

This summer Catholics celebrate the 44th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae that banned artificial contraception. This encyclical caused a rift that led to the development of a school of moral theology in the church known as Consequentialism. Conseqentialism, which has highly influenced Catholic teaching in our seminaries and universities over the past 40 years, essentially denies objective truth. It has led to what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism”. Many of our so-called Catholic theologians and politicians like Hans Kung, Sister Carol Keehan, former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius are ardent supporters of this nihilistic philosophy. Hardened in their convictions these young turks of Consequentialism are largely responsible for our present culture of death. This culture sanctions everything from contraception to abortion, homosexual activity, sex outside of marriage, divorce, sterilization, in-vitro fertilization, pornography, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia and even false notions of a just war.

The so-called goal of Consequentialism is to maximize the good of humanity. It operates on the Utilitarian principle that “the ends justify the means”. As a result human beings are often treated in an impersonal way i.e. not for their own sake but for the utility that can be derived from them.

Moral philosopher Bernard Williams criticized Conseqentialism on the grounds that the central idea of Consequentialism is that the only kind of thing that has intrinsic value isstates of affairs. For the consequentialist human acts have no value in and of themselves but only insofar as they produce the best states of affairs. The right act is the act, of those available to choose from, that brings about the best consequences while supposedly maximizing the overall good of everyone’s self interest.

Williams also objected to the doctrine of “negative responsibility” that follows from Consequentialism’s assigning ultimate value to states of affair. This doctrine holds that one is just as responsible for the things that he allows to happen or fails to prevent as he is for the things he brings about. Consequentialism, then, does not take seriously the distinctiveness of persons but rather treats them impartially. It totally subordinates the individual to the collectivity. This deprives persons of their identity and integrity.

Consequentialism is a dehumanizing formula for it reduces human beings to material objects which can be exploited and to commodities that can be bought and sold. It reduces them to beings whose free will has effectively been abrogated – beings upon whom a judgment of moral good or evil cannot validly be passed. Such a philosophy ends up poisoning the social structures and human relations it purports to strengthen – defeating, in turn, its own purpose.

Some like Peter Railton advanced Consequentialism to a stage that supposedly allows the individual person the freedom to pursue personal goals of happiness while remaining, at the same time, subject to the collectivity. This “sophisticated consequentialist” is not always bound to consequentialist calculating, to rules or to directly seeking the goal of maximizing the good. Instead, he may at times find it more advantageous to indirectly maximize the good by cultivating certain, necessary areas of personal interest such as human relationships – relationships whose intimacy and friendship are not subject to suffer the “loss” and “alienation” that often comes with direct consequentialism. This would mean that on an act to act basis the sophisticated consequentialist will sometimes do the wrong thing according to his criterion of right in order to achieve the overall good. Here we have the clear justification for claiming that the ends justify the means. We also have the foundation for moral relativism.

This theory necessarily entails the cultivation of certain dispositions or character traits that are the product of moral, emotional, sociological and psychological inconsistency. These include a certain weakness of will, indecisiveness, rationalization and guilt. More precisely it involves a certain form of self-deception that enables the consequentialist to live a double life.

At the level of morality however, the conscience, being one and indivisible, does not permit the acting out of parallel lives. Scripture has it that “no man can serve two masters” (Matt. 6: 24). Railton’s sophisticated consequentialist serves as a psychological artifice to disguise this fact in order to allow the consequentialist the opportunity to live comfortably in a fictitious world of his own choosing.

How often do we see this charade being played out in the real world with our Catholic politicians and even our Catholic bishops?

Politicians, in order to get elected will first compartmentalize and separate their private life from their public life – claiming, in effect that one can lead an authentic Christian life while sustaining two different realities of existence. They will claim, for example, that one can privately oppose abortion, in unison with his or her Catholic faith while politically supporting, at the same time, a woman’s right to choose. The longer this facade is upheld and sustained the more the conscience is degraded at its most core level to that of a mechanism producing excuses for one’’s conduct. Incrementally, one begins to construct a wall of resistence to anyone who might oppose this parallel existence. As one’’s guilt is pushed beneath the level of the specific judgement pronounced by conscience to that level of neglect of one’s own being one becomes dulled to the voice of truth and eventually incapable of any longer hearing the voice of conscience. This explains how our catholic politicians like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Kathleen Sebelius can publically, and out of a hardened conviction, confuse the Catholic Church’’s teachings on such serious issues as contraception, when life begins, and abortion.

Ultimately, Consequentialism is something morally and psychologically debilitating. It eventually ends up poisoning all of society for when its’ gravely immoral policies make their way into law, they begin to incrementally, surreptitiously, almost invisibly, impose themselves on society by both coercion and force – marginalizing in the process both religion and those of religious faith.

Sadly, many of our bishops have also succumbed to this kind of mental ‘compartmentalization’ or bicameral thinking. The U.S. bishops, for example , affirmed as a group in their June 2004 statement on pro-abortion Catholics in political life that “The decision concerning the refusal of Holy Communion to an individual can best be made by the bishop in the person’s home diocese with whom he or she presumably is in conversation.” Essentially this amounts to what some might call “territorial morality” – the same general formula used by politicians who claim the right to lead a double life. In this instance, however, the conflict resides not especially in the individual person but, and perhaps at a much higher level, within the body of bishops as a whole. Further, when bishops allow well known, pro-abortion politicians to receive Holy Communion, as almost all do under the pretense that all culpability for guilt lies solely with the communicant rather than also with the minister of Communion, these bishops foster and encourage the dictatorship of relativism.

Consequentialist – utilitarian ideology, which purports to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people, is insufficient for it operates from within a narrow landscape of particular instances and doesn’t consider – nor can it – how different situations are ultimately connected to each other in time or how they are understood in relation to the persons that help bring them about. In other words it functions on appeal only to consequences the totality of which cannot be known but which are necessary – according to its own standard in the absence of absolute truth – to arrive at a truthful decision. What may at first appear to be clearly the best thing in a particular situation may in the long run turn out to be the worst thing and vice versa. Albeit calculated, every decision becomes little more than a shot in the dark. Consequentialism thus pretends to achieve the harmony of oneself with the cosmic “whole”, the overcoming of all separations – including the distance that separates creature from Creator. In this context, responsibility, evil, goodness and moral judgement become something collective without a clear concept or manageable moral definition. In fact Immoral acts, such as lying, dishonesty, cheating, stealing, killing, are often falsely elevated to the status of moral virtues under the description of the “right act” – that being the act required to bring about the “perceived” greater good. This is especially evident in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century that have been largely motivated by consequentialist ideologies. Ultimately, Consequentialism fails as an adequate moral theory worthy of human pursuit. It succeeds only in advancing what Pope Benedict XVI called “a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”


Mr. Paul Kokoski holds a BA in philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His articles have been published in several journals including, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and Catholic Insight.

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