Tag Archives: Consequentialism

I am not a Catholic

But I find Catholic political thought simultaneously interesting and infuriating. Take this op-ed from Robert P. George, a member of the President’s Bioethics Council and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University:

Barack Obama and John McCain differ on many important issues about which reasonable people of goodwill, including pro-life Americans of every faith, disagree: how best to fight international terrorism, how to restore economic growth and prosperity, how to distribute the tax burden and reduce poverty, etc.

But on abortion and the industrial creation of embryos for destructive research, there is a profound difference of moral principle, not just prudence. These questions reveal the character and judgment of each man. Barack Obama is deeply committed to the belief that members of an entire class of human beings have no rights that others must respect. Across the spectrum of pro-life concerns for the unborn, he would deny these small and vulnerable members of the human family the basic protection of the laws. Over the next four to eight years, as many as five or even six U.S. Supreme Court justices could retire. Obama enthusiastically supports Roe v. Wade and would appoint judges who would protect that morally and constitutionally disastrous decision and even expand its scope. Indeed, in an interview in Glamour magazine, he made it clear that he would apply a litmus test for Supreme Court nominations: jurists who do not support Roe will not be considered for appointment by Obama. John McCain, by contrast, opposes Roe and would appoint judges likely to overturn it. This would not make abortion illegal, but it would return the issue to the forums of democratic deliberation, where pro-life Americans could engage in a fair debate to persuade fellow citizens that killing the unborn is no way to address the problems of pregnant women in need.

Granted, George is undoubtedly a lot smarter than I am. But I’m struck by the way he frames the dispute. The candidates’ stances on abortion are considered separately from issues of war and peace, economics, poverty, and terrorism. Why is that? Why can’t a faithful Catholic take a more holistic approach to politics? Shouldn’t issues like war and civil liberties – issues that also implicate the value our society assigns human life – have some effect on a religious voter’s decision-making process?

Having long ago jettisoned my high school-era “militant atheist” pose, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of religious belief in the public square. This was crystallized by the response of many religious conservatives to torture and the Iraq War. While liberals equivocated, religious institutions and people of faith from across the political spectrum condemned the Bush Administration’s callous disregard for human life. When this same standard is applied to abortion, it’s dismissed as dogma. But having faced up to issues like torture and war, I’ve come to understand the importance of moral certainty.

Now that I’ve established my bona fides as a sympathetic observer of religion in politics, I’m still confused by Professor George’s decision-making calculus. For the sake of argument, let’s say Catholic ‘X’ concludes that the Iraq War was conducted under false pretenses. Both its initiation and implementation are thought to have demonstrated an incredibly cavalier approach towards the preservation of human life. Now Catholic ‘X’ is faced with a political choice: Does he vote for John McCain, whose ability to overturn Roe is significantly constrained by political circumstances but will undoubtedly continue the occupation of Iraq? Or does he vote for Obama, whose tenure will have a very limited impact on abortion rates but is significantly more likely to withdraw our troops? Shouldn’t Catholic ‘X’ weigh the human impact of the candidates’ policies from a consequentialist perspective? Surely McCain’s approach to human life in contexts other than abortion says something important about his fundamental moral character? I’m afraid I don’t understand why the totemic value of McCain’s opposition to abortion should override pragmatic concerns about the effects of his actual policies. Is there some moral dimension to abortion I’m completely missing?



Filed under Conservatism, Presidential Politics, Religion

Moral Consequentialism and the Right

From NRO’s Corner, Michael Rubin:

Senator Obama’s senior advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that Israeli counterterrorism and efforts to drive Hezbollah from Lebanon was little different from deliberate murder of hostages.

It would be good to hear Sen. Biden clarify whether, when he spoke of driving Hezbollah out of Lebanon, he agrees with Obama’s senior mentor who seems to believe that doing so is murder.  Frankly, it would be better to hear from Obama and his senior advisors whether they agree with Brzezinski.

Brzezinski’s comments in context (emphasis mine):

So I do not see Israel being able to change the mindset of the peoples involved and particularly not by use of force. Use of force can achieve certain short-term objectives, perhaps even today in Lebanon provides Israel some modest success in interdicting some Hezbollah military capability. But use of force breeds its own antithesis: the mobilization of deeper resistance, the radicalization of those around you, and a growing sense of outrage and determination to survive.

I hate to say this but I will say it. I think what the Israelis are doing today for example in Lebanon is in effect, in effect–maybe not in intent–the killing of hostages. The killing of hostages. Because when you kill 300 people, 400 people, who have nothing to do with the provocations Hezbollah staged, but you do it in effect deliberately by being indifferent to the scale of collateral damage, you’re killing hostages in the hope of intimidating those that you want to intimidate. And more likely than not you will not intimidate them. You’ll simply outrage them and make them into permanent enemies with the number of such enemies increasing.

Granted, Rubin’s just trying to score a few cheap points here, but his post raises a larger question. Is Brzezinski right and killing innocent civilians during a military campaign ethically indistinguishable from executing hostages in cold blood? Or should we all share Rubin’s indignation at the very suggestion of moral equivalence?

I don’t believe Bush invaded Iraq at the behest of a cabal of oil companies or because he’s a bloodthirsty maniac; in fact, I’m reasonably confident his intentions were quite noble. September 11th and its aftermath evidently had a profound effect on his worldview. Bush’s sincerity was also evident when he spoke of the need to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

Does that mean we should judge his tenure less harshly? My own view is conflicted. I don’t think an Israeli fighter-pilot who accidentally kills civilians during a raid is the moral equivalent of a Hizbollah suicide bomber. His intentions are pure, and the mission was undoubtedly provoked by a perceived threat to Israeli security. Needless to say, the Israeli Air Force also takes greater precautions against civilian casualties than Hizbollah’s militiamen ever will.

But if the outcome of the Israeli fighter pilot’s mission is the same as Hizbollah’s latest suicide bombing, I’m not sure if Brzezinski’s conclusion is too far off the mark. For the people most affected by the attacks – namely, the victims – the results are nearly identical. With Iraq, Bush’s moral intentions are also quite irrelevant to the real humanitarian consequences of our invasion.

After Iraq, the Right’s moral certainty remains unshaken: our intentions were noble and the consequences of the war don’t implicate them. But my convictions have changed, and Brzezinski’s comments suggest I’m not alone. Ultimately, enhancing our own awareness of moral consequentialism is probably the best way to ensure we pay closer attention the next time we’re faced with the prospect of war.

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservatism, Foreign Policy

Principled Consequentialism

Rod Dreher writes an honest post on the probable consequences of another Great Depression. Read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

I keep going back on forth on whether or not I support the proposed bailout. But I’m thinking a lot these days about my children, and how they would fare if they spent their childhoods in a Depression, as my father did (my mom was born in 1943, so she missed it). I think the lasting damage the Depression did to my dad was the absence of his father, who was away for years, working construction jobs where he could get them, sending money home to feed his family. My grandfather was robbed of much of his two boys’ childhoods, because he had no choice but to travel for work. That could happen to me. That could happen to you. Conservatives should ask ourselves whether risking a collapse of the currrent economic and civil order is worth holding fast to principles. Phrased that way, the answer would likely be no, and I don’t mean to beg the question. It could be that we’ve gotten so strung out that only crash therapy can return us to reality. I honestly don’t know. I wish the way ahead were clear, and that we had leaders we could trust to get us there.

Although I view the crisis through a different ideological lens, I certainly sympathize with many of these concerns. But an attachment to principle provides an equally pragmatic reason for voting against the bailout. Forcing the market to absorb a necessary financial corrective may be harsh, but it’s a hell of a lot better than creating a massive moral hazard that could exponentially magnify the problem ten or twenty years down the road. Unfortunately, I have no idea if this is the correct decision-making calculus, and while I’m reluctant to defer to our establishment’s hysterical plea for more money faster, I have little to offer in the way of plausible alternatives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Economics