Monday, October 06, 2008

On "Consequentialism", "Proportionalism", and a Lesson in General Norms of Interpretation, Theological or Otherwise:
(Musings of your humble servant at Rerum Novarum)

[Prefatory Note: This post was drafted late last year and with only the most minor of edits and additions is being posted at this time. -ISM]

There has been in recent years a variety of moral positions which have been ascribed by certain persons of a more polemical nature as being either consequentialist or proportionalist in nature. However, the parties who make these assertions to a near-universal degree do not bother explaining either (i) what those terms mean or (ii) what they mean by those terms. Instead, those sorts involve themselves in applying the term indiscriminately across the board and often to positions which are neither consequentialist or proportionalist as those terms are properly understood. It is a reason I have issued{1} and periodically reissue{2} the "neo-con challenge": the principle is the same regardless of the subject of discussion. The problem is precisely the sort of ethical cowardice that is unfortunately not in short supply in society generally speaking.

Those who refuse to explain their usage of terms soil the ground of potentially productive dialogue and therefore should be deprived of all credibility they have been given either explicitly or tacitly. The reason for this statement on my part is simple: definitions are the tools of thought and those who adamantly refuse to define their terms in any workable sense are either profoundly disingenuous and/or they inexorably prove to be very shoddy thinkers. Having noted those points briefly, let us look at two terms which like the phrase "neo-con" are often used as a lazy expedient to ignore the critiques of others by shoddy thinkers, intellectual and/or ethical cowards, or all of the above.

I should note starting out that though the principles I am about to enunciate in this posting are universal to some extent, with the terms to be addressed in this posting many of those I am critical of are Catholics. For that reason, I will use as one of my sources a writing from Pope John Paul II (Veritatis Splendour) which dealt in a broad panorama with moral theological issues. I will then supplement the words of the late pope with definitions from academic sources and follow it with an important distinction for proper interpretation which is not hard to grasp but is so often either overlooked or ignored by the ethically and/or intellectually challenged. Without further ado:

"[C]onsequentialism" or "proportionalism". The former claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. The latter, by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the "greater good" or "lesser evil" actually possible in a particular situation. [Pope John Paul II: Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendour (circa August 6, 1993)]

The reader is asked to notice that His Holiness said that "consequentialism" claims "to draw the criteria for rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice"!!! This understanding is highlighted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in the following definition of the concept:

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Entry on Consequentialism]

The common thread underlying the above two understandings of the term is the idea that consequentialism is concerned only with consequences. That means logically that a position utilizing consequentialist methodology which did not derive its criteria solely from such calculations would not properly be understood as "consequentialist" or as "consequentalism."

Yet notice how some disingenuous pundits will throw into some kind of consequentialism on parade kind of categorization anything that contains a remote echo of consequentialist methodology!!! To highlight briefly the absurdity of such a methodology, the reader is asked to consider if someone is a consequentialist for doing anything that involves in its calculation the consequences of the action to be undertaken. For example, would a surgeon who uses a technique with the consequences of healing their patient for that reason be a consequentialist??? What about a mother who tells her child to not run with scissors lest the child trip and hurt themselves, is she a consequentialist???

All human decisions involve within them an intrinsic desire for particular consequences. For this reason, to make such things a kind of proverbial Rosetta Stone of what constitutes "consequentialism" is to open a huge can of epistemological worms. For a Catholic to do so is to inexorably assert that Catholic theology is undecipherable and completely bereft of congruity with the reality of human existence.

The same problems that plague such applications of the term "consequentialist" or "consequentialism" also apply to the terms proportionalist or proportionalism. Pope John Paul II noted that proportionalism is a focus which is based solely on the proportion of good to evil in an act as the standard that is used. Wikipedia explains the rationale behind proportionalist methodology thusly:

Proportionalist theories like rule utilitarianism, however, says that "it is never right to go against a principle unless there is a proportionate reason which would justify it" (Hoose, 1987). [Wikipedia: Excerpt from the Entry Proportionalism]

In other words, proportionalist theory basically says that principles are subject to proportionality criteria in determining whether or not it needs to be followed. In sales this is utilized in part by what is called the "Ben Franklin close" where lists are made of pros and cons and the decision is made on whether or not to undertake the action of study based solely on whether there are more positives or more negatives. But however valuable such a methodology is to something such as sales, to apply such a concept to ethics is to engage in the logical fallacy of context-switching. It is to make of principles an arbitrary out of context injunction based on personal whims rather than to recognize the concept of there being principles which regardless of circumstances are not admitting of dispensation period.

For the benefit of the readers and also for the sake of restoring some sanity to the use of these words, I have done more now in this one post to explain these terms than many who frequently use them have bothered to do over a span of months or years.{3} But noting that briefly also requires me to point out an additional principle of interpretation of no small importance which applies to every subject under the moon including theological and philosophical ones:

--Similarity of a position is not the same as identity.

Another way of saying it is that there is a distinction with a difference between actual consequentialist positions and those who take into account in an overall analysis (as one factor of many) consequential factors. Similarly, there is a distinction with a difference between those who espouse proportionalist positions and those who take into account in an overall analysis (again, as one factor of many) proportionalist elements.

It has long been and will continue to be the educated assessment of the webmaster at Rerum Novarum that the sort of persons who would make shipwreck of the natural lights of reason and logic in these ways deserve to be given the widest possible berth. Philosophically, they are rational nominalists{4}, theologically they are solipsists.{5} But either way, they contribute directly to the new Dark Ages we are entering into (or are already in) where more and more people do not understand reason and logic or how to properly utilize them. And as should be plenty evident by our track record over the years, the latter is something we have no interest whatsover in contributing to.


{1} "Tracking the Ever-Elusive So-Called 'Neo Con'" Dept. (circa December 5, 2005)

{2} I had to change this footnote since the most recent reissue of the challenge was made subsequent to when the post you are reading was drafted and substantially completed (circa early November to late December a few weeks before Christmas). The latest challenge reissuing can be viewed in the thread below:

Reissuing the "'Neo-Con' Challenge" (circa July 5, 2008)

{3} And with all that, I have rarely prior to this posting mentioned either of those terms except when mentioning the intention to write on this subject in postings from earlier this year.

{4} Proposing for Use and Future Definition the Terms "Rational Nominalism" and "Selective Rational Nominalism" (circa October 21, 2007)

{5} I used the term a couple of times on my main weblog so it seems appropriate to add it to the defined terms if you will. The term being referred to is solipsism and I noted the following in a weblog entry about it:

[The] epistemological theory of solipsism [is one] whereby the self knows nothing but its own states and their constituent modifications if you will. This is a core philosophical flaw of modern day liberal political views.

I had a footnote to this point and fleshed it out with the following text:

This is why certain kinds of people of the extremist liberal mindset such as the Deanings cannot be reasoned with. You can throw all the facts in the world at them and reason until your gray hairs fall out but they will not budge because so much of what you would say does not pertain to them personally.

This problem infects not only people in liberal extreme political viewpoints but also some people of more peripheral theological or philosophical viewpoints as well. Those who follow Rerum Novarum are aware of a couple of these viewpoints to which I refer so I will not belabour this brief weblog entry with examples. [From the Rerum Novarum Miscellaneous BLOG (circa February 7, 2004)]

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

And More Brief Bits on the "Bailout":

The following is a follow up to the previous brief comments on this subject and were also written before the proposal passed both houses of congress and signed into law by President Bush.

I am not opposed to a bailout proposal but those who were responsible for this problem do not deserve to benefit from this. One proposal I heard that made sense was to have them pledge every asset they own as collateral on the money to be appropriated for this. If we figure a trillion dollars will be spent on this bailout and if the totality of their assets was five billion, that would be less than 1% collateral pledged but at the very least it would be something. I do not favour the idea of limiting what the executives can be paid who are hired to fix this problem but those who messed it up do not deserve to make a penny off of it. At a minimum they should be fined and they should stand trial for fraud (cause there was a lot of that), gross negligence, and whatever else can be brought against them.

And as someone wary about federal takeovers and how the nearest thing to eternity on earth is a federal program, I think the solution is to put a sunset provision into the legislation for these entities to revert back to private control at some point in time -say five years or whatever. I could say more but you cover it well in [what you wrote] above.

Oh and XXXX, I do not know of many of a conservative view who do not see blame to go around on this -something I thought I made clear in one of my notes to you previously but I would have to go back and check to be sure. (Going off of memory here.)

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