This morning on LBC the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that African Christians will be killed if the Church of England accepts same-gender marriage. Andrew Brown, writing for The Guardian, reports,
‘Speaking on an LBC phone in, Justin Welby said he had stood by a mass grave in Nigeria of 330 Christians who had been massacred by neighbours who had justified the atrocity by saying: "If we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians."
"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world."
I do not doubt Justin Welby’s experience. As noted in a previous blog post I have lived in a country which criminalizes homosexuality. Changing Attitude and other organizations have consistently flagged up how very dangerous it is to be gay in the majority world.
In this blog post I want to examine the underlying logic of the Archbishop’s claims and question and problematize them. I apologize if my reasoning seems blunt and crude. I am currently fasting as part of EndHungerFast and my mind is not working at full tilt. Equally, I am very open to comments which help sharpen up my thinking in this area.
As I read it, the Archbishop’s argument again the C of E accepting same-gender marriage follows the pattern below:
‘Organization/Institution A cannot commend /accept ‘x’ because to do so would necessarily and logically lead to ‘y’, which is both an unintended consequence and actually constitutes a much worse situation. And ‘y’ is such a terrible thing that it makes ‘x’ seem reckless, wanton and deeply unwise.’
I know that puts it starkly and dramatically, but I do this in order to reveal the clear consequentialist structure of the argument. When put in such stark terms and before adding any content to this logical structure, the consequentialist case can seem both plausible and beyond question.
The power of Welby’s consequentialist thinking lies in our tendency to focus on what might be called a ‘narrow range’ of ‘defined’ consequences. Let me see if I can explain.
Let us suppose for a moment that Welby’s claim is incontestable. That is to say, let’s accept Welby’s claim that if the C of E accepted equal marriage, Christians in Nigeria etc would be killed in great numbers. (Let us be clear, no one actually knows if that would happen.)
The logic of the argument is that even if action/activity ‘x’ has good consequences (e.g. social justice for some, improvement in church’s standing eamong some communities) those consequences will be outweighed by a further consequence ‘y’,’ which is the unnecessary death of large numbers of people.
The deaths of large numbers of people, on this argument, surely has a greater hold over our sense of moral responsibility than the social goods that might be generated by adopting ‘x’.
I suspect that if this reasoning is appealing it is so only because of assumptions that are dangerously sloppy.
One of the problems created by consequentialism is how we assign value to the terms involved. It sets up the argument on competitive grounds – that is to say, the referent terms of the argument are assigned competing values and a calculation is then made on the basis of those terms. So, in the current case, ‘the social and cultural (positive) value of equal marriage’ is set in competition with the ‘the (negative) value of the deaths of Christians.’ We are then invited to calculate the competing moral worth of the referents.
Again, at first glance, various reactions might be called forth – firstly, that when put in such stark terms, it only adds weight to Welby’s claim. Why? Because surely human beings are always worth more than a ‘social value’ or ‘social good’. Secondly, it invites a troubling question: By what criteria can one ‘measure’ the value of a social good against that of a human life?
‘Human beings are always worth more than a social/cultural/religious practice or value.’
I am suspicious of what is called ‘common sense’. Yet many will share the instinct that, even if we cannot and indeed should not ‘quantify’ the value of a human life, there is a profound sense in which the lives of human beings are more significant than any social and cultural values or law, even if that value or law seeks to add to the human good. However, there are a number of considerations which problematize this claim.
It is tempting to present ‘social goods’ like freedom or justice as abstracts, but they are also part of our lived reality. If someone claims that ‘equal marriage’ might be a social good, but it is not as significant in value as the lives of [x] numbers of human beings/Christians it ignores the reality that equal marriage is part of a social nexus which affirms and celebrates human lives and changes actual societies and cultures. That is to say, something like ‘equal marriage’ is not an abstraction, but something which (keeping with the logic of consequentialism) has actual positive human effects and may (consequently) lead to less prejudice, less violence and greater human flourishing. Quite how one might reductively ‘quantify’ them is open to serious question.
The argument above indicates that it may not be possible, under the logic of consequentialism, to provide a precise and comparable measure between something presented as a social good and what is presented as a human tragedy. Consequentialism is predicated on the idea that a situation/event/act etc can be measured/assigned a value according to controlled circumstances. Yet, it is not clear by what criteria one might assign a definitive value to ‘x’ or ‘y’. Equally, the very notion of ‘unintended consequences’ suggests that it may not be possible to undertake an analysis that is sufficiently controlled.
The problem of unintended consequences.
One aspect of Welby’s claim concerns what might be called the problem of ‘unintended consequences.’
The logic works like this:
Group A think that Action/Practice ‘x’ will have the following positive
consequences ‘y’, but (because consequences cannot be controlled) ‘x’ may also have the following unintended consequences ‘z’. ‘z’ is so terrible as to make ‘x’ and its positive consequences ‘y’ anathema.
+Justin might acknowledge that ‘accepting gay marriage’ would (in broad terms) have good consequences for the church, for UK society and even send out a positive message against homophobia’ Etc.
BUT, these positive consequences are nothing compared to the unintended negative consequences – the deaths of hundreds and possibly thousands of Christians at the hands of those who conclude that the Church of England’s support for gay marriage makes all Christians anathema.
Can the consequences of any action/policy/process be controlled? Crudely, I suggest, ‘No.’ That – alas - is the nature of consequences. When the Archbishop makes a statement on LBC can he control the reaction and effects of that statement? Not in any obvious way. One of the reasons most sensible people give some thought to both their intentions and their actions is that we recognize that actions have consequences, many of which may be quite unintended. (It should be noted that this consideration of consequences is not of itself a reason for not acting. Indeed, it is impossible not to act.)
To give a very humble example, the House of Bishops (HoB) made a Pastoral Statement on equal marriage. One assumes they intended that statement to be received with grace and love and understanding. They would not have intended it to lead to anger and conscientization among many previously inactive congregations and clergy; Nor would they have intended the further consequence that clergy and congregations have, in reaction to the Statement, become proactively in favour of becoming inclusive congregations, started to examine the possibilities of blessing gay unions and become active dissidents. The Bishops’ statement might lead to expressions of dissent among gay and straight clergy that were never intended. These could (who knows? One can’t completely control consequences…) lead to face offs and legal challenges etc etc.
One supposes that the HoB did not intend these consequences.
And, of course, consequences breed consequences. Perhaps one unintended consequence of the HOB statement is to signal to both our government and, more terrifyingly, to governments like the one in Uganda that the C of E is prepared to make sacrifices of LGBT people in countries that already were exploring the greater penalization of homosexuality ahead of the HoB Statement.
Yet, one assumes that the HoB came to their mind and decision to publish because they believed that to make the Statement was right and was required by their faithfulness to Christ and God. The unintended consequences, which at the same time might reasonably have been anticipated, were not seem as sufficient reason not to do what they thought was right. In that circumstance 'unintended consequences' as and of themselves were not considered sufficient to prevent them from acting for what they believed was right.
A consideration of consequences will always be a factor in decision making at a human and corporate level, but given our inability to actually define the nature and extent of the consequences of human decision making, it cannot be the only one.
Consequentialism as non-Christian
Consequentialism – in the form of utilitarianism – has always been attractive to the economic and commercial mind, because it seeks to remove decision making from the question of human judgment and character and assign a scientific value to any problem.
It would be cheap to suggest that this kind of thinking is at the heart of what Justin Welby is saying. The man is very smart, sensitive and loving. I am sure he would want to stand up for a Christianity that is not beholden to utilitarian or consequentialist logic.
At the same time, I sense +Justin ought to be cautious of the logic of consequentialism. For ethics – Christian or otherwise – is hamstrung if reduced to a consequentialist (so-called) ‘evidence-based’ analysis. Considerations of conscience, intention and character as well as duty and principle will surely always significant to any rich conception of ethics. The instinct that humans are of fundamental value – a Christian conclusion for sure – is not based on a consequentialist analysis, but (I suggest) on an onto-theo-logical claim.
Given that no reasonable person would welcome the death of anyone as a consequence of ‘our’ actions, even when those actions are presented as good, it is very difficult for a reasonable person to commend an action or set of practices that would make a situation worse. Yet a community of character and love is invited, I suspect, to demonstrate how the reductive consequentialist way of thinking is a red herring and relies on a failure to appreciate how human ethical reasoning works.
Welby is seemingly saying that if the CofE commended equal marriage it would have blood on its hands, by proxy. We – the church - would be cited as the reason why a group like Boko Harem would justify killing others. That this would be the excuse for their repulsive behaviour.
Yet as +Justin indicated in his interview, people are already being killed by the likes of Boko Harem on utterly spurious grounds. And surely just because someone cites ‘x’ as a reason for their actions does not mean that ‘x’ is either a reasonable and justified basis for their action. A man might say that he commits atrocities because his religious book/tradition/beliefs requires it, but that doesn’t mean we treat it as a reasonable or justified reason for doing so. (It may not even be the operative reason, that is, it may be the reason being cited but the actual motivation for doing ‘x’ lies at a deeper level.) Nor – if we are careful – do we blame the book/deity or tradition for the person or group’s actions. The person or group is responsible.
Let us for the moment rework the logic of the claim under consideration.
Justin Welby strikes me as saying:
We will not support or adopt ‘x’ because it will enrage/upset/lead to yet more morally reprehensible behavior by group/person ‘a’ whose actions have already been morally reprehensible.
In Real Politik this happens a lot. Some governments and institutions, for example, chose not to criticize Russia ahead of the Sochi Olympics because they didn’t want to make things worse. Perhaps some of the same situation applies around Russia and the Ukraine at the moment. Our own government and the EU do not adopt certain sanctions and actions against Russia for fear of losing Russian oligarch money or having gas disrupted.
The intended consequence of this runs as follows: by not standing up publicly for what is ‘right’/morally correct means we can control and manage a group/organization/nation or individual we disapprove of, but are frightened of.
There is something seemingly irenic about this approach. Haven’t we all sought to be cautious in complex, threatening situations in order to reduce harm? Haven’t we done so in the hope of achieving something more reasonable in the longer term?
I shall not bore you by outlining the questions raised by this approach. At various levels we’ve all adopted this logic – whether with a work colleague, a PCC, Etc. Etc. Yet this approach can lead both to paralysis and also, sticking now with consequentialism, to some awful unintended consequences.
Our ‘policy’ of seeking not to make things worse runs the constant danger of ignoring the facts of reality: that, yes, we might be trying not to make a situation worse, but that situation may already be intolerable for those being persecuted by a morally reprehensible government or group. We seek to control the morally reprehensible by not giving them one more reason to be morally reprehensible. Meanwhile the moral reprehensibility continues. All we have deprived group A or person B of is another spurious reason to destroy people’s lives. All we have sought to do is keep our hands clean. Yet, as we have seen again and again, through history, culture and literature and indeed in the Christian faith itself, there is no such thing as a clean pair of hands.