Friday, February 10, 2017

Better to let the whole world burn

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

There's a brittle absolutism you encounter in some theological circles. It's often found among Catholic ethicists like Elizabeth Anscombe, Alexander Pruss, Germain Grisez, and Christopher Tollefsen. A Protestant exponent is Lydia McGrew. 

In Lydia's case, I suspect her absolutism is driven by her commendable opposition to abortion and euthanasia. Now perhaps she'd say it's the another way around: her absolutism is driving her opposition to abortion and euthanasia. 

However, Lydia has said:

Suppose that a general has ordered a military strike against a certain location and that there is some outcry that this was unethical because it was not a military target but a civilian target. The general had a lot of statistics and facts showing precisely this question, showing why this question arose, but he still chose to order the strike despite the doubts. Later, he sees pictures of the children who have died in the airstrike, precisely as predicted by the statistics he had available to him about the civilian population at that location. He is filled with remorse and offers a deep statement of grief and repentance. We should certainly not say to him, "You had the statistics in advance. You knew that it could plausibly be regarded as a non-military target. What did you think you were doing? Why do these pictures change anything? You should make your decisions with your eyes wide open or not make them at all!"  
We know perfectly well that sometimes people have a notional commitment to doing a particular action but then have their minds and hearts changed by being viscerally confronted with the reality of what they have chosen. And this is not a bad thing but a good thing. It is on the many subtle interactions between conscience and the real world that our hopes for repentance often turn.

One the one hand, criteria can select for corresponding examples. On the other hand, examples can select for corresponding criteria. Like Chisholm's distinction between methodism and particularism. 

Presumably, then, she doesn't think a person must begin with deontology. Rather, they might begin with some paradigm-examples. They then turn to deontology to supply a formal justification for their moral intuitions.  

I suspect her brand of absolutism is based on the concern that once you make allowance for exceptions, that becomes a wedge issue. Where do you draw the line? Any position short of saying that abortion, suicide, and euthanasia are always wrong is a foot. And once they get a foot in the door, you can't stop it from swinging wide open. 

Now I myself subscribe to moral absolutes, although my list of moral absolutes is shorter than Catholic ethicists. But the brittle absolutism I'm assessing has counterintuitive implications. 

Take the cliche of the ticking timebomb scenario. The absolutist will say torture is intrinsically wrong. By contrast, the "pragmatist" or "consequentialist" has no compunction about torturing one terrorist to extract information about the location of the bomb that will save thousands or millions of innocent lives.

Take the cliche of lying to Nazis about Jews you're harboring. The absolutist will say lying is intrinsically wrong. By contrast, the "pragmatist" or "consequentialist" has no compunction about lying to Nazis to save his Jewish neighbors from the gas chambers. 

The question that raises is, what is the moral absolute? Is the moral absolute protecting the innocent? Is the moral absolute protecting the vulnerable? If that's the moral absolute, then ironically it's the "pragmatist" or "consequentialist" who's acting on that that principle while the absolutist is so uncompromising that it prevents him from protecting the innocent. Prevents him from protecting the vulnerable. The absolutist will sacrifice millions of innocent lives rather than violate a moral absolute. But, then, what is the moral absolute? Evidently, it's not protecting innocent life. It's not protecting the most vulnerable members of society. Rather, there's some overriding concern that prevents the absolutist from doing what's necessary to protect the innocent from harm. Is it the consequentialist who's violating moral absolutes–or the absolutist, by his failure to intervene? 

Perhaps the absolutist will say that while protecting the innocent and the vulnerable is a moral absolute, that's not the only moral absolute. There's an absolute prohibition against torture. There's an absolute prohibition against lying. 

But in that event, their absolutism generates moral dilemmas. A conflict between equal duties: an absolute duty to protect the innocent and the vulnerable over against an absoute duty not to lie or torture. And that, in turn, leads to moral paralysis. Wringing your hands in the face of preventable evil.  

Consequentialism is the bugbear of deontology. But brittle absolutism drives conscientious people into the arms of consequentialism, because their absolutism is so theoretical, and ineffectual, and counterproductive. 

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