Saturday, September 18, 2010

Christian Consequentialism

There often seems to be quite the divide within the Christian sphere - one of politics. We often talk about the political pressure exerted by conservative Christians, particularly near election season. Less often we recognize their counterparts, liberal Christians, in a formal fashion. The reason for that, I'll leave for someone else to ascertain. However, it occurs to me that this particular divide may speak more to a general philosophical division that may seem less obvious; one between Consequentialists and Deontologists.

(Before delving any further, I think it's important to recognize that these divides are fuzzy. There are obviously people who don't fit neatly into this paradigm. But the schism doesn't seem any less apparent for it.)

I often hear more liberal, Christian friends and family members mocking conservatives for being somewhat inconsistent in their "Christian" values. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the issue of social programs. More liberal Christians seem to want to pound the moral war-drum on this issue, excoriating what they deem to be hypocritical Christians on the Right - who have apparently never heard of the pleas Jesus had made in the Gospels for us to give of ourselves to those in need. At first that position seems rather tenable (if not laudable) on the surface. But upon deeper reflection, I'm convinced that it's a somewhat misguided notion. So where exactly does, what seems to be, such sensible logic fail them?

If there is a single, continuous moral expression found within the New Testament, I would be hard pressed to say that it's not some form of what Christians have come to call "The Golden Rule." In fact, I'd venture to say that most Christians, liberal and conservative alike, would find this to be the most important and consistent message of Jesus. Great - so that doesn't seem so terribly divorced from the idea of redistributing wealth to charitable ends, right? Well, yes and no. The problem that many liberal Christians have to face (being largely consequentialist) is that it never seems like this is purely an application to ends. Jesus never seems to implore people to help others because this is the most pragmatic end. Rather, he seems to be imploring us to embrace the treatment of other human beings in this way as part of a larger ethical norm.

Indeed, it would seem that the "golden rule" is a norm that encompasses all modes of action without regard to any particular consequence. It implies that you're not to steal, to murder, to lie. It implies that you're to give, sacrifice, and serve. All of this without particular regards to ends, but rather with regard to moral duties to each other as human beings. An interesting implication of adhering to moral/social constructs as a norm is a fundamental regard to means as ends in an of themselves...which is something that consequentialists largely push aside (in theory). An adherence to such a moral maxim is demonstrated time and time again in the Gospels - often with one or more of the apostles making hasty decisions that they believe might further God's ends, with Jesus gently walking them through the issue. For instance, we don't see Jesus call any of his disciples to murder or steal. This isn't because it couldn't further some of the ends he endorsed (indeed it may) but rather because he treats the means as ends themselves, and calling someone to lie, cheat, or steal would be inconsistent with one's moral duty to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

So what does this mean? Well, largely it would seem to indicate that Jesus brought with him a deontological moral standard, while largely rejecting consequentialism. So when trying to connect the tenets of Christianity with a more modern liberal, utilitarian ethic, some obvious problems arise. The funding of government social programs comes practically exclusively from theft. The legitimacy of that theft is contestable, of course, but the action itself is not quite as contestable as a reality of fact. So we have an ultimate end (charity/sacrifice) that is consistent with the normative counsel Jesus provided. On the other hand we have means which are not.

Pending some kind of undiscovered scriptural text that alludes to Jesus' advocation of violence and theft to achieve the ends of charity, liberal Christians who believe Jesus' call to charity can act as a political wedge against their opposition find themselves in what appears to be an untenable position. Of course, this isn't to say that the moral or political reasoning of their opposition is any more correct, even if their beliefs are more consistent with Christian morality. In fact, I would guess that few Christian conservatives are explicitly aware of the deontoligical nature of Christianity, or the fact that this property inexplicably ties their moral views to the political theory of Natural Law in many ways. And, of course, Natural Law is the product of "classical" liberalism in many parsing through some of the transitional terminology may be a little menacing when trying to distinguish liberal vs. conservative thought historically with regards to Christianity.

That being said, the fact remains that, while conservative Christians certainly have a number of conflicting issues worth addressing, liberal Christians may find themselves backed into a serious philosophical corner if they press their "Jesus was really a communist/hippie" view too far.

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