Thursday, November 15, 2007

Paul Tibbets and consequentialism.

A while back, I was planning a post on the topic of consequentialism; essentially, the belief that the ethical measure of an action or inaction is its consequences, at least as reasonably foreseen by the actor. My take on this was that we are all consequentialists in the last analysis. Those who claim to be deontologists; that is, those who believe that the ethical nature of an action depends upon whether it is in accordance with a duty incumbent upon the actor, whether that duty is believed to be ordained by divine command or, as with Kant, arising from our status as free and rational beings, are really saying that we are too shortsighted to evaluate fully the consequences of actions, and that, therefore, we must yield our judgment to hard and fast rules. In other words, deontology could be said to be consequentialism with a strong gloss of epistemological modesty.

For example, while a consequentialist may argue that destroying human embryos to harvest stem cells is ethically OK because it provides the means to alleviate great human suffering, while causing no pain to the pre-conscious embryos (this is a utilitarian argument, utilitarianism being perhaps the best-known form of consequentialism), a deontologist might argue that such an action violates an overarching duty to respect human life from the moment of conception. If pressed to give a reason for such a rule, however, the deontologist might invoke a "slippery slope" argument, that is, if we allow this, we are taking the first step on a downhill path that may lead to the cloning of malformed embryos with minimal brain function, to be raised in vitro simply to grow organs to be harvested for transplant, and, beyond that, to the use of viable humans with substandard mental function for the same purpose. Or, she might give a more far-reaching, "Burkean" answer: by calling into question a time-honored notion of what's good and proper, we are disturbing a complex system of societal mores, and this may have consequences well beyond what we have anticipated. Note, however, that both of these arguments appeal to consequences, and therefore are consequentialist. (I now know that John Stuart Mill anticipated this argument in his preface to Utilitarianism almost a century and a half ago.)

What inspired me to write this was the death of Paul Tibbets, and, in particular, this piece by Bob Greene about him. What struck me was the sheer consequentialism that sustained him after that fateful day over Hiroshima. His bio shows him to be a consummate warrior. Warriors seem to be archetypal deontologists. (I need only recall my last year of college, when my roommate and I had a deal: every time I made him suffer through a Dylan album, he could make me sit through his recording of the greatest speeches of General Douglas MacArthur. I can still hear in my mind the peroration of his farewell address to the Corps of Cadets at West Point: "Duty, honor, country, and the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.") Yet Greene's piece quotes Tibbets as explaining why he never lost sleep over the bombing as being, not "It was my duty", but

because "we stopped the killing." He was at peace, he said, because "I know how many people got to live full lives because of what we did."
Here, indeed, is Jeremy Bentham's felicitous calculus at its most stark. Dostoyevsky challenged this kind of reasoning by asking something to the effect: If a world of eternal happiness could be purchased by the suffering and death of one innocent child, would you buy the ticket?

Perhaps the thing about war is, it makes us all buy the ticket.

11/18 update: Dawn Coyote posted this comment on WikiFray, where I cross-posted the text above:
I don't know if war makes us buy the ticket, or if it just makes us starkly aware that we've bought the ticket. In the increasingly connected world, it takes a determined averting of the gaze to remain unaware of how many of the surpluses we enjoy come to us as a result of deficits elsewhere. Maybe we're all Paul Tibbets these days—if we're lucky, or powerfully motivated to quell our cognitive dissonance.
I'll confess to feeling a bit sheepish about my last sentence. When I wrote it, it was past midnight, I'd had my second snifter of Cognac (a third would have been disastrous, as I've learned through hard experience), and I was just looking for a way to wrap the thing up. It was almost as bad as following the advice Michael O'Donoghue gave to aspiring novelists in "How to Write Good", which was published in National Lampoon sometime in the 1970s. If your plot gets too complicated and you can't figure out how to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, he wrote, simply type the words: "Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck."

Anyway, I had great plans to extend the argument to include the contemporary debate over the use of torture. At least I can direct you to a lively discussion here, with thanks to friend and neighbor "ts" of Instaputz for the link.

While I'm giving thanks (we're getting into that week), a great big hat tip to John McG for my first-ever (at least that I know of) "digg." John, I'm trying to figure out the Episcopalian analogue to making a Novena.