I've written before about deontological and consequentialist morality, pointing out that in most cases the actual conclusions are the same. The former might say "taking my friend's car is bad because it's stealing," while the latter says "taking the car is bad because it will harm my friend," but both agree that you shouldn't steal the car.
But there are edge cases in which there is a big difference, most notably, the question of whether it can ever be right to do something bad for a sufficiently good reason. These cases don't come up all that often -- usually the conflict is between morality and some more selfish desire, rather than one morally-significant goal and another. But they do arise from time to time, and it's important to have some idea what you would choose.
People's opinions on these dilemmas are not consistent. Most of us, going based on intuition rather than systematic morality, would tell a lie to save a life or steal if we were starving, but we wouldn't be able to shoot a child to save five lives.
Different systematic moralities come up with different answers. Catholic morality comes down very heavily on the side of doing no evil, regardless of the greater evil that may come to pass. I was taught in moral theology that there is always a moral option, but sometimes the moral option is that you die, or that other innocent people will die. The end goal is following the moral law and hopefully going to heaven -- not any earthly end.
Even in Catholic morality, though, there are some carefully-crafted exceptions. First, some things that seem against the moral law aren't truly wrong. Stealing to feed yourself when you are starving is not actually stealing at all. Lying to save a life might not really be lying. Second is the principle of double effect, which is difficult to explain, but which relies on distinguishing between an act that is wrong in itself and one that simply has evil effects which you didn't desire. So to directly kill a person would be wrong, but to do something which indirectly results in their death might be all right for a sufficiently grave reason.
To a consequentialist, this all seems very nitpicky. Can the moral quality of an action really be changed by whether you set the bomb or just allowed the bomb to go off? If the same number of people died, to the consequentialist, there really is no difference.
Now I want to make a distinction here between consequentialism and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a subcategory of consequentialism, but many conflate them. A person whose end goal is "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" may wind up justifying some things that look bad to the rest of us -- eugenics, for instance. But a consequentialist could have different, non-utilitarian end goals, like "the preservation of all human life possible."
At this point I am leaning more toward consequentialism, because it frustrates me to see human life put second to inflexible rules. Today, in a discussion of the Vatican's new document, I invented a scenario which I imagine is probably not uncommon, at least in some parts of the world: A couple is in a second, invalid marriage. They have kids and neither is religious. But one spouse converts to Catholicism and is told that it is mortally sinful to continue sleeping with her invalidly-married husband. She tells her husband, and he says, "Forget it. Celibacy is your commitment, not mine; I didn't sign up for a sexless marriage. If you're really set on this, I'm going to leave you."
Like I said, there are kids, and they live in a country where there isn't much available to help a single mother. Her children's livelihood depends on her keeping her husband around. So from a consequentialist perspective, the answer is obvious -- she should continue to sleep with her second husband. If this choice is accepted by others, it may weaken society's belief in the indissolubility of marriage -- the Church's argument for condemning her -- but considering the situation it's probably an acceptable risk to take. Yet from a deontologist perspective, she should stand her ground and not sleep with him, regardless of the consequences. He might leave her and their children. They might become homeless or starve. That's not morally relevant to a deontologist because the moral quality of her action is decided by the action itself, not the effects.
And that's why some Catholics are upset at the Pope's suggestion that this might be "the most generous choice" or what God might call someone to. It undermines the whole of Catholic morality, which is that moral laws are inviolable and it is never acceptable to break them, even if it can be predicted to result in disastrous consequences. If there is no moral way to save a pregnant mother without an abortion, then she and her baby must both die, because one cannot do evil for any reason. If one must deny Christ to save one's children, the children must die. That's the way Catholic morality works, and for the Pope to imply there could be the smallest exception seems to undermine the whole thing.
I've started to be a little horrified by this. Sure, I don't think I would kill an innocent person to save others, but I'd definitely tell a lie to save some else. I'd cooperate with a rapist to save my life or someone else's. I'd deny just about anything to save my kids. I just think human life is more important than anything else. Rules are great -- I have plenty of personal rules which I follow -- but rules exist to serve human life and dignity, not to be prioritized above them.
What do you think? Are there any circumstances in which the ends justify the means, and what do you think those circumstances would be?