Pacifist Consequentialism

August 11, 2005 § 23 Comments

A commenter named Ronny, in a lengthy thread about the Hiroshima bombing at Amy Welborn’s blog, makes the point that dogmatic pacifism and total-war advocacy result from the same misperception of the nature of war. Both presume that, because war always has evil consequences, in war one must do evil in the pursuit of a good end: that it is impossible ever to wage war as a good act. The pacifist concludes that therefore acts of war are never just: they cannot be just by definition, because some of their consequences are evil. The total-war advocate concludes that the evil is inevitable and we should choose whatever brings victory with the fewest bad consequences.

The dogmatic pacifist is more principled than the total-war advocate: at least he holds that one cannot do evil in the pursuit of the good. But he still holds incorrectly that the morality of an act is determined solely by its consequences. He still fails (along with his mirror the total-war advocate) to distinguish between intended/chosen consequences and unintended/foreseen consequences. In other words, he is still a consequentialist.

Now there is a form of functional pacifism that is not consequentialist. This form of pacifism is of a prudential nature, after a fashion. Prudential pacifism allows the in principle possibility of just war, but holds that in practice it never occurs. Just war is not in principle impossible to the prudential pacifist, but it never in actual fact occurs: it is a practical impossibility.

It seems to me that one cannot be a dogmatic pacifist (as described above) and remain consistent with Catholic moral teaching and the natural law; because dogmatic pacifism is a form of consequentialism. But one could (in principle) be a prudential pacifist without falling into moral heresy. The prudential pacifist doesn’t disagree with the Church on moral principles, he has just made a particular prudential evaluation of the facts. He might still be wrong, but he hasn’t set himself against the teaching of the Church.


§ 23 Responses to Pacifist Consequentialism

  • Anonymous says:

    Given what we now know about the facts surrounding HST’s decision to drop the bomb,did he commit a mortal or venial sin,objectively speaking?

  • c matt says:

    Which facts? It seems there are a series of facts that tend to mitigate or agitate depending on your interpretation of them.1. H and N contained military targets.2. H and N contained many civilians, in various degrees of cooperation with the war effort, from intimately connected to extremely remote/nonexistent.3. The indiscriminate destructive nature of the bomb was known with reasonable accuracy (not sure if its later side-effects were known).4. J was not agreeing to the terms of unconditional surrender5. J may or may not have agreed to lesser terms of surrender.6. J was under blockade and other factors that seemed to indicate collapse was inevitable, but not sure on timetable7. estimates of land invasion showed higher death tolls than dropping bomb.8. Purpose of dropping bomb, at least in part, was to demoralize enemy through show of force (not unlike the destruction of Dantooine in Star Wars) that would affect population indiscriminantly (as between comb and noncomb).

  • Dan Jasmin says:

    It seems like a functional pacifist is taking the same view of war as recent Vatican teachings on capital punishment. That capital punishment in theory can be licit, but practically it should never be used. I would not be surprised, based on certain pronouncements from some in the Vatican, that functional pacifism is the road they are heading down. I am not sure I agree. Even JPII seemed to approve of certain military action. I have read he was not opposed to the take down of Milosavich(?sp?).

  • zippy says:

    I agree Dan: in fact war and capital punishment are probably just examples of a more general tendency. Things like war and capital punishment can’t be categorically ruled out as actually intrinsic evils without contradicting doctrine, but if one wants to rule them out one can treat them as <>functionally<> intrinsic evils: they may be licit in some theoretical circumstances but never in any actual circumstances that we actually face. They are prudential judgements but the result of making that prudential judgement is always and everywhere a prohibition if it is made correctly.I am not sure where the attempt to sneak categorical condemnation in through the back door of a prudential judgement that always happens to fall out one way is headed. It seems to me that at least as a pastoral matter it encourages the rejection of traditional Catholic morality and a polarization into different kinds of consequentialisms and proportionalisms.

  • zippy says:

    <>Given what we now know about the facts surrounding HST’s decision to drop the bomb,did he commit a mortal or venial sin,objectively speaking?<>There is an objective truth-status to the answer to that question, but it isn’t something we can know (nor something we should <> want<> to know). My concern is not with the personal culpability of individuals but with whether our action as a community was just. War is not something that is waged by individuals, and in fact intentional killing (even of enemy soldiers) is not something that is sanctioned for individuals acting on their own behalf. An agent of the community may intentionally take human life, in some circumstances and when acting legitimately on behalf of the community for the common good. Individuals can never intentionally take another life – not even in self-defense, where if the attacker is killed by a defensive act it can be <>foreseen<> but must not be <>intentional<>.Focusing on Truman personally is a distraction. The only relevant question about Truman is “was he the competent authority”, the answer to which is clearly “yes”. So the bombing can’t be an immoral act of the community on the basis that it was not done by the competent authority. But it can be an immoral act of the community on all sorts of other bases.

  • Zippy wrote “Things like war and capital punishment can’t be categorically ruled out as actually intrinsic evils without contradicting doctrine”.Precisely which doctrine would that contradict Zippy ? And where was it defined by a Pope or Ecumenical Council ?I guess I fit your functional pacifism – if you can show me a war which didn’t violate any of the teachings of Christ then I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But I’d be surprised if such an thing was still a war.God Bless

  • zippy says:

    I have the impression, Chris, that you tend more toward a dogmatic pacifism than a functional pacifism, because you have demonstrated far and wide your immunity to acceptance of the Church’s doctrine of just war and the just application of capital punishment, no matter what documentation you have been given. I also I do think that many or most modern “conservatives” have unwittingly fallen for Voltaire’s moral inversion though. Classically the Church’s doctrine on capital punishment and just war has functioned to circumscribe them in a world that thought them to be broadly licensed; Voltaire turned this on its head and criticized the Church as being pro-war and pro-capital punishment.It remains the case though that Church doctrine leaves them within the realm of prudential judgement. So depending on the particular facts and circumstances a particular decision to wage war or carry out capital punishment can in principle be just (or unjust), and in principle failing to do so can even be unjust.I do realize though that you are utterly immune to magisterial pronouncements and writings of Doctors of the Church to that effect, Chris. Which is why I think you tend more toward dogmatic pacifism rather than functional pacifism, at least to all appearances.

  • Zippy,I’m not immune to magisterial pronouncements.I’m asking you to quote them.I’m down on my knees begging you to quote them.Why won’t you quote them ?If you can’t quote magisterial pronouncements in support of what you allege is a doctrine, then you haven’t established that what you allege actually is a doctrine.God Bless

  • zippy says:

    I’m not rising to the bait Chris (much as I like you). You’ve been given endless quotes from the catechism, Church Doctors, Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, etc; all to no avail.I do think you would be better off adopting a functional or prudential pacifism. It has the benefit of being coherent with what the Church teaches; it would allow you to engage people who otherwise dismiss your position as obviously at odds with what the Church teaches; and you wouldn’t have to give up one bit of principle.

  • Zippy,Thanks for your kind and courteous reply.But I’d have to give up the principle of the 5th commandment “do not kill”. And that Jesus won’t let me do.I’m happy to allow for armed forces and the legitimate use of military force, but I don’t see how a follower of Christ can ever allow deliberate killing – it’s simply against direct divine command.Is there any <>certain<> magisterial statement that killing is sometimes OK ? In the absence of any infallibly different interpretation of the 5th commandment, it seems to me that the commandment must stand simply as written.God Bless

  • cmatt says:

    Chris:I know Zippy has declined, but I would direct you to the following portions of the Catechism and the authorities cited therein:Just War – CCC 2807-2809Capital punishment –CCC 2267

  • Thanks CMatt,The catechism itself, while an excellent and essential book, does not <>define<> doctrine. It <>presents<> doctrine in a popular way. For the definitions one needs to go to the sources – papal encyclicals, bulls, or council decisions.Most sections in the catechism contain a footnote reference to the document where the Church defined the doctrine in question. 2267 contains no reference to the definition of “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty”.Do you know which official document this “traditional teaching” is defined in ?CCC 2807-2809 is not about “Just War” but the relevant sections of the catechism (2309) also fail to reference “just war” to any papal or council definition.I’m looking for the original sources.<>Grant us, Lord, a true knowledge of salvation,so that, freed from fear and the power of our foes,we may serve you faithfully,all the days of our life.<>[Concluding prayer, morning, Thursday week 4]God Bless

  • Dan Jasmin says:

    Chris,I know other people more intelligent than myself have engaged you on this to no avail but alas, I am a glutton for punishment.I will not direct you to any Magisterial pronouncements or documents. Lets play a thought game. If a knife weilding maniac breaks into my home with the intention of raping my wife and mangling my children, do I:a) Do nothingb) Pray that he goes awayc) Pray and try to stop the agressorI would think any sane person would pick c).If in the process of attempting to stop the agressor, I unintentionally kill him(he is a maniac after all), is this a violation of the 5th commandment?In my view, capital punishment and just war are just the above scenario taken to the level of a nation defending itself against unruly citizens for cp and other unruly nations for jw.

  • Dan,Thought games are fallible. I’m looking for the infallible.Of course if you kill unintentionally then it is not a sin, but when you execute a criminal or drop a bomb on soldiers you do intend to kill.God Bless

  • A Philosopher says:

    Zippy,Dogmatic pacifism, as you describe it, does not require a commitment to consequentialism. It could, for example, be a result of a moral theory which takes moral values to supervene on a wide range of factors, including consequences as well as intentions, prior obligations, etc., but which holds that the causing of a human death is always sufficient to make for moral wrongness.

  • zippy says:

    Those are good points A P, but it really depends. “It is always evil to <>knowingly cause<> the death of another human being” is a morality of consequences. “It is always evil to <>will<> the death of another human being” would be non-consequentialist. But it does generally ignore the distinction between commutative and distributive justice, unless it also qualifies “even if you are the competent authority acting for the public good”. And that ignoring of traditional distinctions may or may not rest on implicit consequentialism, to be sure, but whatever its implicit foundation it cannot be squared with Catholic moral doctrine as I understand it.

  • A Philosopher says:

    Zippy,You’re right that the principle:(*) It is always evil to knowingly cause the death of another human one which determines the morality of some actions entirely via the consequences of those actions. But that doesn’t yet make the morality consequentialist. Consequentialism is the thesis that moral value always supervenes on consequences, so that non-consequential features (such as intentions) can never impact moral evaluation.(*) makes no such strong claim. It merely says that sometimes certain kinds of consequences are enough. Think of the process of evaluating the moral status of action X. If you know nothing about X, then no moral evaluation can be made. As you accumulate more information, eventually you know enough to determine whether X is right or wrong. Almost everyone will think that you don’t have to know absolutely everything about X to make the moral evaluation. So the question becomes: at what point do you know enough?The answer, of course, may vary from X to X. Once we learn that X is an act involving the intentional slaughter of innocents, for example, we may decide that further facts about X are now irrelevant. On the other hand, if learn that X is an intentional wounding of a person with a scalpel, we may want to know a lot more before we make moral evaluation.So my point is two-fold:(1) Consequentialism is not the same as the claim that there are *some* kinds of information about consequences which can settle moral evaluation. Your argument seems to conflate these distinct positions.(2) Dogmatic pacifism requires only the second of those two positions, and requires it in what I take to be not an entirely absurd form — namely, the view that, once we learn that the death of a person results from an act, we can conclude that the act is wrong.

  • zippy says:

    <>Consequentialism is the thesis that moral value always supervenes on consequences, so that non-consequential features (such as intentions) can never impact moral evaluation.<>I don’t agree with this definition. A person can exhibit consequentialist morality on one particular issue and not on others. If this were not the case, one could be a consequentialist on everything except eating meat on Friday and yet we would be unable to criticize him as a consequentialist.Any claim about the morality of an act which makes the will of the agent irrelevant removes the agent from the moral picture entirely. That is inherently consequentialist.

  • A Philosopher says:

    Zippy,The definition I’ve given of consequentialism is the standard one in the literature. See, for example, the < HREF="" REL="nofollow">discussion<>in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.You seem to want something like the following principle:(**) No act can depend entirely on its consequences for its moral status, since the intentions of the acting agent are always relevant to the moral status of the action.But it seems to me that the impulse behind (**) (a reasonable one) can be accommodated without insisting that non-consequentialist features are always morally relevant. We simply need to separate the question of the moral status of the act and the moral status of the acting agent.Suppose agent A performs X, reasonably expecting X to have purely beneficial consequences (via beneficial means). But suppose, in fact, A’s expectations fail to realize, and X in fact causes the deaths of many innocents. Then can’t we say that action X was bad, but that A was not morally wrong in performing X, because of his intentional relation to X? That allows the (in this case) purely consequential evaluation of X, without denying the moral relevance of intentions.

  • zippy says:

    It would be no surprise that my reading of Acquinas and of Veritatis Splendour differs to some extent from what professional philosophical journals call “consequentialism”. I am strictly an amateur.I agree that there is morally such a thing as a <>mistake<>, and such a thing as <>gratuitous fortune<>, and that those can be morally descriptive. In my posts on the Iraq war I’ve attempted to show that it cannot be legitimately regarded as <>just<>, but at best could be designated morally a <>mistake<>. I think Acquinas would consider non-negligent <>mistakes<> to be no act at all from a moral standpoint, but it seems to me that mistakes are at least relevant in refuting claims that an act was <>just<> or <>unjust<>: one cannot claim that a mistake was a <>just<> act, for example. Even if we were not negligent, and even if our mistakes are as innocent as a newborn babe, we still have to own up to them as mistakes rather than claiming them as good acts.So suppose as dogmatic pacifists we were to consider any act that causes the death of another to be nominally evil, and at best a <>mistake<>.Presuming the in principle situation where one cannot help but cause the death of a person (avoid the baby carriage and hit the old man when the brakes fail, that sort of thing) it seems to me that one can’t say that the act was a mistake, even though it caused the death of a particular person.So perhaps the dogmatic pacifism which insists that causing the death of a person is always at best a mistake is not inherently consequentialist. But if it isn’t entirely coherent then I am not sure we have improved matters.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Zippy,Perhaps I’m having trouble understanding the fine distinctions between consequentialist and prudential pacifists.Would a person who objects to war on the basis of overemphasis of “If thine enemy smite thy cheek turn him the other” over and above subsequent Medieval theorists and philosphers be prudential or consequentialist?They would deny Church doctrine, but their objection to war is not on the basis of consequences, but rather on private interpretation of scripture. The Church would still regard this as an error, but the pacifism would not be consequentialist because the objection does not depend upon the possible consequences of the war but upon what is read as a direct injunction not to participate in it.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    I think you are right Steven, a divine command theory (it is good because God commands it, as opposed to God commands it because it is good) with a private interpretation could get someone to categorical pacifism in a non-consequentialist (but also non-Catholic) way. That is at least in part because he isn’t really making a moral evaluation at all*, he is just trying to interpret a divine command. “It is good because it is commanded” doesn’t make the morality of an act rest on consequences though, so your point about this version of pacifism being non-consequentialist is quite right it seems to me. It is non-consequentialist because it refuses to engage in moral reasoning at all, and consequentialism is an erroneous form of moral reasoning.* Other than assuming “we should always follow divine commands,” of course.

  • A Holy Fool says:

    My thanks for the education, gentlemen!

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