Consequentialism and Autonomy versus the Good 

As many of you know, not only do I serve as a deacon in the Orthodox Church, I also teach philosophy at college. This presents many interesting opportunities. Not only do I have the privilege of continuing my own education by teaching a variety of philosophy classes each semester, I get to help students learn to think correctly and critically about many important issues. This is truly an honor, but it also comes with many challenges. As a professor of philosophy, I want the very best for my students. I want them not only to be able to distinguish truth from falsity, good arguments from bad arguments, critically question interpretations of basic philosophical positions and their presuppositions, etc., I desire that my students acquire the moral virtues as well as the intellectual virtues that will lead them to the good life. Teaching Ethics every year gives me a unique opportunity to deal with both the intellectual and moral virtues necessary for leading a good life. However, the challenge is that you cannot simply tell students the correct answer. Like many things in life, they must be able to discover these truths on their own. The good instructor simply provides the gentle guidance that will hopefully steer the student away from what is false and towards what it is true. This is very difficult and it is truly an art. Moreover, it is something that is rarely seen in professors today. Most professors unfortunately have become liberal secular propagandists for the establishment, adopting Pavlovian conditioning techniques to – in effect – brainwash students to believe whatever trend or idea that is currently in vogue and sanctioned by the secular establishment to be true. In short, they teach students “what to think,” not “how to think.” It is my personal philosophy of education to embrace the latter in my own teaching.  

The trick, however, is to discover how to equip students with the necessary tools to think correctly without telling them the answers or simply telling them that certain positions are false. Here is an example of how I recently implemented such pedagogy as it related to a contemporary moral issue that I as an Orthodox Christian and member of the clergy find morally atrocious. Abortion! 

Last semester we had an interesting conversation in our Ethics class about the Kantian notion of autonomy versus Consequentialist/Utilitarian ethics. The students were all familiar with both ethical systems and their differences. Therefore, I proposed the following question to the class: Autonomy is important, but would you treat it as an absolute? Or would you sometimes sacrifice autonomy for things that you deem are more important? Most students went with the idea that autonomy is important but not absolute. They agreed that sometimes autonomy and freedom must take a bow to more important things. It seemed that advocating for absolute autonomy would equate to a vote for lawless anarchy. People can’t simply do whatever they want.

Then the conversation moved to discuss autonomy, freedom, law, rights, and Roe v. Wade, which at the time was only being reviewed by the Supreme Court and had not yet been overturned. I framed the argument against overturning Roe v. Wade according to popular arguments as follows: “My body. My choice. You can’t tell women what they can do with their bodies.” I then framed the sed contra response as: “But isn’t that exactly the purpose of law? Law tells us what we can and cannot do with our bodies. Therefore, a “you can’t tell me what I can do…” argument is not, in principle, an objection.

This conversation then took a different turn. One student responded, “But if we make abortions illegal, then many women will die from back-alley abortions.” The enthymeme (i.e., the missing premise) and unstated conclusion were: we don’t want women to die; therefore, we shouldn’t make abortions illegal. Rather than address this head on, I asked the students to identify what particular philosophy or ethical system might make this type of argument. Some of the students correctly identified this as a type of Utilitarian or Consequentialist argument. Since Consequentialism doesn’t hold anything to be intrinsically good or bad (except perhaps well-being), an action is deemed to be morally acceptable just because it is optimific (yielding the greatest balance of benefits over drawbacks) or morally unacceptable just because it is not optimific. In other words, good and bad are completely determined by the consequences.

It seemed clear to the students that judging the overturning Roe v. Wade to be either good and bad based solely on whether women would die from back-alley abortions was thoroughly utilitarian and contrary to a Kantian consideration of acts being just or unjust in their own right. Justice comes first for Kant. Whether there are negative or positive consequences to an act is simply irrelevant to whether one ought or ought not to do an action.

We also considered the following argument. Assuming a Kantian perspective, that certain laws and actions are intrinsically good or bad, just or unjust, couldn’t someone object that we ought to legalize crimes just because, and in case of, possible negative consequences that may or may not result (something very similar to what Alito stated recently concerning objections to overturning Roe v. Wade)?

Consider applying this Consequentialist principle to other areas in life. On this line of reasoning, we would say that we ought to legalize bank robberies because if bank robberies continue to be illegal, then bank robbers committing such crimes are in danger of being killed by armed guards or police. And since we don’t want more deaths or risk death for bank robbers, we ought to make it safe for people to commit what would normally be crimes by making those crimes legal (e.g., safe bank robberies).

The student responded that bank robberies and abortions are not the same thing. However, isn’t that the purpose of analogies? You take two things that are different, find what they share in common (in this case, two things that are crimes), derive a principle from that similarity, then apply that principle to other cases. If murdering an unborn child is intrinsically immoral and a crime, then the fact that some lives might be lost if people decide to commit that crime is simply irrelevant to the fact of whether abortion should be illegal, whether it is immoral, and whether laws banning abortion are unjust.

Lastly, it occurred to me that even if we took the Utilitarian/Consequentialist line of reasoning, shouldn’t we ban abortion just because such an action would clearly be optimific? In other words, won’t more lives be saved (infant lives) by making abortion illegal than whatever number of women would die from back-alley abortions; and since the Utilitarian must always choose the action that has the greatest balance (the definition of optimific), they would need to ban abortion to maximize the number of lives saved and decrease the number of lives lost. 

The aforementioned conversation in our Ethics class illustrates how someone can instruct a student on “how to think correctly” through what is called the Socratic Method. Not only should students know the various theories, they ought to be able to identify certain positions, arguments, or stances (in this case: current positions and arguments) as being influenced and/or derived from various philosophies or philosophers, then critically assesses those positions in light of the strengths or weaknesses of those certain philosophies. Not only does this provide the student with the tools that will aid them in possibly getting the correct answer on such moral issues, it trains them to acquire one of the most important intellectual and moral virtues – introspection! It turns out that introspection is another one of those virtues that is necessary for positive character formation and moral and intellectual growth. It is a virtue that allows one to get the right answer for the right reasons, which is the very definition of knowledge – a true belief held for the right reason (a true justified belief). 

About the author

Fr. Deacon Ananias Sorem, PhD is CEO, Founder, and President of Patristic Faith. Father is an Orthodox apologist and Professor of Philosophy at Fullerton College and Carroll College. He has a BA in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College, together with an MA (Honors) and PhD in Philosophy (Epistemology; Philosophy of Science; Philosophy of Mind) from University College Dublin. His current academic work focuses on philosophical theology, epistemology, and the philosophy of science. Father is the author of several articles and peer-reviewed papers, including: “Searle, Materialism, and the Mind-Body Problem,” “Gnostic Scientism and Technocratic Totalitarianism,” “An Orthodox Approach to the Dangers of Modernity and Technology,” and “An Orthodox Theory of Knowledge: The Epistemological and Apologetic Methods of the Church Fathers.” He is also known for his YouTube channel, the Norwegian Nous, where he provides content on theology, apologetics, logic, and philosophy.

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