Thursday, March 29, 2012

Reflections on Conscience and Utilitarianism

The Argument to Consider

Major Premise: We Must always Do Good and always Avoid Evil

Minor Premise: [X] is Good or [Y] is Evil.

Conclusion: We must do [X] or We must not do [Y]

The major premise cannot be denied.  While people may argue over whether [X] is truly good or whether [Y] is truly evil, normal people do not say it is permissible to do evil.  If a person's conscience tells him that something is evil, he must not do it.  This is where the questions of morality come into play, invoking situations where it is not always right to do [X] or wrong to do [Y].  For example, it is wrong to withhold a person's property from him.  However, if the neighbor is drunk and wants me to give him his car keys, it would be wrong to give him his car keys until that situation has changed.  Once that situation is changed however, I do not have the right to continue to withhold his keys from him.  These are questions that are in line with the major premise of, "We Must always Do Good and always Avoid Evil."

This Major Premise is the concept of conscience.  It says, I must do [X].  I must not do [Y].  Yet too many people think of conscience as an impulse that puts a stamp of approval on what we want to do and a stamp of disapproval for what we oppose.  Such people are indeed following an impulse, but that impulse is not conscience.

Impulse and Conscience

Impulse tells me:

  • "I am hungry, I want food."
  • "I have sexual desires, I want conjugal relations."
  • "I am in fear for my life, I want to flee."

Conscience, on the other hand, counters my impulse and tells me:

  • "Even though I am hungry, I must not eat the whole pizza."
  • "Even though I have sexual desires, I must not have sexual relations with my neighbor's wife who is making her body available for me."
  • "Even though I am afraid for my life, I must not flee because innocents will be harmed if I do."

Impulses can be right at some times and wrong at other times.  I seem to recall CS Lewis making reference to impulses as the keys on a piano… each one can be right or wrong depending on whether they are used in the proper time or not.  Conscience then, must be thought of as the conductor, telling us when it is the right time to act on the impulse and when it is not. 

Unfortunately, in America, we have tended to deaden our conscience and give in to our impulses.  "Why shouldn't I have sexual relations with my neighbor's wife?  She is willing and I want gratification."  When faced with conscience which tells us we did wrong, the response is to react with anger, often blaming people who say what the conscience says for "attempting to impose guilt."

Remember, people don't get outraged when a religion teaches something not involving conscience.  Non Jews (normally) don't get offended because Jews keep Kosher laws in their personal life or in their businesses.  They don't demand a Jewish deli serve them a ham sandwich.  They do get angry when a religion speaks on a topic which the conscience also condemns. 

  1. Conscience tells us we must not do [X]
  2. The Catholic Church tells us we must not do [X]
  3. Therefore the Church is accused of causing guilt over [X]

The problem comes when we go from "How Can I Be Just?" to "How Can I Justify This?"

To escape guilt, many move from "How must I act to be just?" to asking "How can I justify my Act?"  It is sometimes argued by moral relativists that there are no absolutes, and right and wrong are entirely dependent on the circumstances, the culture and many other considerations.

This argument is absurd.  If slavery is wrong, it was always wrong and will always be wrong.  A society that practiced it in the past was wrong, even if the society considered it morally acceptable.  It was not wrong in the Northern United States and right in the Southern United States.  Nor was it right prior to 1865 and wrong after 1865.

Likewise, if genocide is wrong, a society which practices it is wrong.  No sane person would argue that because Nazi Germany had the "Final Solution," it was right in Germany but wrong elsewhere.

These two examples show we can indeed know that some things are absolutely (in all cases, circumstances and times) wrong, even if a society practiced them.  We look back to those times with sorrow and revulsion – we DON'T think they were right then but not now.

Indeed, these principles show us something key.  That is the fact that it is irrelevant to appeal to the fact that a thing is popular.  If 99% of the population decides that it is expedient to persecute an innocent 1% of the population, that 99% is wrong, because it is true that it is not right to deliberately harm innocent people. 

If you question this, consider whether it would be right for someone to push your child into the path of a speeding car as a way to warn a larger group of people to get out of the path of the car.

Utilitarianism vs. Catholicism

"Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel."

- H.L. Mencken

The above question isn't just an imaginary example in poor taste.  This is an application of utilitarianism.

  ■ noun the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority.
   ▶      the doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

The principles of utilitarianism can be held to different degrees of course, but generally utilitarianism will recognize that no act can harm no person, so if a small number of people are harmed or inconvenienced when the greater good is invoked, that harm can be justified.  This is how the justification of abortion tends to work (even if those taking part in abortion aren't formally utilitarians).  "Even if the unborn is a person, the right to abortion will benefit women, therefore it can be justified."

It also is used to justify the current HHS attack on religion.  "Some religions may be inconvenienced by being forced to pay for contraception and abortion coverage, but more people may benefit from such a requirement.  Therefore religions can be compelled to pay for such coverage."

Ultimately, Utilitarianism justifies tyranny in the name of "good."  If a government program can benefit many at the cost of harming a few (say the rich, landowners, the Jews…) then it is acceptable to harm the few to benefit the many.  That kind of utilitarianism can be brutal (Nazism, Stalinism) or mild (America today), but it still operates under the principle of, "The Ends Justify the Means."

The danger of course is the fact that the person making the decision of what is more important will never put themselves in the position of being "less important" – though they might consider placing YOU in that category.

In contrast, the Catholic position says, evil may never be done so good may come from it.  This isn't merely two conflicting ideologies.  This is a statement on the importance of the human person.  Under Utilitarianism, a conservative could argue, "Since most AIDS cases come from homosexuals, we should place all homosexuals in relocation camps.  Many would benefit and only a few would be harmed."

The Catholic view would condemn that view because such a view treats human persons as mere pawns to be used instead of looking at them as persons who must be treated as persons even if they do wrong (whether by choice or by disordered passion).  That doesn't mean we treat felons as if they were innocent, or treat homosexuality as the same as heterosexuality.  That which is wrong must be opposed, even if the person doing wrong thinks it is right.

It does mean we may not treat a person as if he were less than human because he is a felon, because he is not white, because he is religious and so on.


The difference between the view of utilitarianism (so prominent in America today) and the Catholic view can be summed up this way:

The Golden Rule states that we must do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  Would we have others treat us as a means to an end where we can be harmed for a greater good?  No?  Then we must not treat others in such a way.

Ultimately, we must then do what is good and avoid what is evil in all our actions.


No comments:

Post a Comment