Happy Consequentialism Day!

Perhaps you already observed it on Friday, since that was the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. But today, the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, is an equally fitting date. Certainly the image at left – the aftermath of Fat Man’s explosion over Nagasaki – is a fitting symbol for consequentialism. Perhaps consequentialist ethicists should consider putting it on the covers of their books, or wear little mushroom cloud pins when they meet up at philosophical conferences. For one thing, since the consequentialist case for the bombings – that they would save more lives than an invasion of Japan would – carried the day with the Truman administration (and with defenders of the bombings ever since), it may be the most consequential piece of consequentialist reasoning ever formulated. For another, the bombings give a pretty good idea of what a world consistently run on consequentialist principles might look like.

But don’t put the party hats on yet, because there’s one little hitch: Consequentialism is, as David Oderberg has put it, “downright false and dangerous, an evil doctrine that should be avoided by all right-thinking people.” And the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, accordingly, as evil as consequentialism is. So, maybe Consequentialism Day is not a good idea after all, except perhaps as a reminder of the scale of evil that can be and has been done in the name of “good intentions” and “rationality.”

Jimmy Akin offers us a helpful reminder of why the bombings must be considered gravely immoral from the point of view of natural law theory and Catholic moral theology. It is only fair to acknowledge that many consequentialists would no doubt also condemn the bombings, arguing that better consequences would result overall and in the long run from respect for a rule that forbade such actions. Whatever. What matters is that any consequentialist must allow that it is at least in principle legitimate intentionally to kill the innocent for the sake of a “greater good.” And from the point of view of us reactionary, bigoted, unprogressive natural law theorists and Catholics, that is enough to make consequentialism a depraved doctrine. For it is never, never permissible to do what is intrinsically evil that good may come – not even if you’d feel much happier if you did it, not even if you’ve got some deeply ingrained tendency to want to do it, not even if it will shorten a war and save thousands of lives. Never.

As Akin makes clear, the point has nothing whatsoever to do with pacifism, with opposition to nuclear weapons per se, or with anti-Americanism. Indeed, most of the “sandal-wearing fruit juice drinkers” (to co-opt Orwell’s famous phrase) and “pasty-faced peace creeps” (to quote P. J. O’Rourke) who badmouth American foreign policy, and who seem to think no war is a just war, are wildly out of step with natural law theory on most other issues, and are generally wrong even about war and U.S. policy. But as they say, even a broken watch is right twice a day.

(See the Oderberg article linked to above for a brief popular overview of what is wrong with consequentialism. See Oderberg’s Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach for a more thorough and academic treatment. And see Oderberg’s Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach for a serious, natural law theory treatment of just war theory and other life and death moral issues.)
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