"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Transfigured by—consequentialism?

August the 6th is a spiritually important date in two ways. In the Catholic Church, it is the Feast of the Transfiguration (cf. Matthew 17: 1-8), which I celebrated by attending Mass this morning. The Transfiguration was a sign of who Jesus really is and what those who love him are destined, in our own smaller ways, to become; in Eastern Christianity, some people are alleged to have exhibited and/or seen the Uncreated Light that Peter, James, and John saw on Mount Tabor; in the West, some living folks who have undergone "near-death" experiences are certain they have seen it too. In American history, today is the 54th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That day manifested, concretely, the then-new fact that humanity had developed the capacity to destroy itself by its own artifice. The spiritual stakes of history had been raised; the question is whether the gamble, now unavoidable, will turn out disastrously before the Second Coming. That question is spiritual because it turns, in large part, on that of what sort of morality will prevail.

As a point of departure for framing the moral issue, an article in today's Wall Street Journal does rather nicely. The author, military historian Walter Kozak, notes that most Americans toward the end of World War II favored dropping The Bomb as a means of saving (mostly American) lives; whereas, as time goes by, fewer and fewer Americans find the act justifiable. So as to forestall much pointless wrangling, I shall concede that, in the circumstances, dropping The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many more lives than the several hundred thousand civilian casualties in the vicinity of the explosions. Given our war aim of "unconditional surrender," the practical necessity of invading the Japanese home islands as a means of achieving that aim, and the fanatical dedication of the Japanese people to their Emperor, no other calculation was or is credible. But the question remains: was the act morally permissible all the same? The affirmative answer may have been obvious to most Americans, especially combat-weary veterans, at the time. But that doesn't make it so; nor do many thoughtful Americans think it does.

Consequentialists, of course, for whom utilitarian-style calculation just is the model for any and all moral judgment, almost invariably believe Hiroshima was justifiable. For as I've implied, the relevant utility calculation could hardly be more obvious. But the Catholic Church, along with most other major Christian churches, answers in the negative. Thus Vatican II:
Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.
Such an apodictic statement was made in the context of a moral tradition that is the very antithesis of consequentialism. And it is by no means idiosyncratic. But who is right?

The very term 'consequentialist', now a well-known term of art in moral philosophy, was coined decades ago by the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe for the purpose of dispelling the misimpression that utilitarianism is limited to moral philosophers called utilitarians. In modern times, it has in fact become the default moral philosophy of the common man in the West. That's worth noting in this context because, in a well-known post-war pamphlet entitled "Mr. Truman's Degree" (republished online by a libertarian consequentialist criticizing it) Anscombe argued that dropping The Bomb on Hiroshima (as well as the earlier firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden) was immoral. Admitting that the utility calculation in the Japanese case was obvious, she concluded, in effect, "so much the worse for unconditional surrender as a war aim." I believe she was right. If unconditional surrender had not been our aim, and if we had instead made certain assurances to the Japanese people about the Emperor and other matters, then many innocent lives could have been spared by demonstrating The Bomb in open country, establishing a naval blockade, grabbing bits of mainland territory by piecemeal invasion, and negotiating a surrender. The way the Pacific war was actually ended only served to demonstrate a tragic fact in many lives since time immemorial: once people adopt a broadly wrongful course of action, they often maneuver themselves into a position that can only be escaped by committing a still-greater wrong.

That consequentialism has become the default moral philosophy in the West, and in other places too, only entrenches that tragic fact on a large scale. The impending demographic suicide of the West is the result of calculating, absurdly, that maintaining our preferred lifestyles is more valuable than replacing ourselves. That is why the holocaust of abortion doesn't strike most people as the mass human sacrifice it truly is. Severing the link between sex and procreation, in the forms of contraception and artificial reproduction, is taken for granted as a needed condition for "freedom" even as it continues to undermine the family and thus eat away at the basis of civil society. Ironically, if we wish to survive and promote the sort of human flourishing that Western science and political institutions have made possible, we must cease to be consequentialists. If we remain consequentialists, we may go out with a demographic whimper, too few and spiritually exhausted to resist conquest by a religiously backward civilization. Or, even before that happens, we could end civilized life itself by accident with a bang of the sort that ended the greatest war in human history. Either way, we will go out—unless we recover a sense of "the laws of nature and of nature's God" that is increasingly forbidden open expression in our public life. What we need is a new Transfiguration.
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