Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Impossible duties and consequentialism

Intuitively, sometimes you’re obligated to do something you can’t do. For instance, you promised to visit a friend at 5 pm, and at 4:45 pm you are hiking a one-hour drive away. Or you did something bad, and now you owe the victim a sincere apology, but you’re a vicious person and not psychologically capable of rendering an apology that is sincere.

Consequentialist theories, however, have to limit their consideration to actions you can do, since otherwise everything we do is wrong. For whatever we do, there is an impossible action with even better consequences. You spend a day volunteering at a homeless shelter. That may sound good, but the consequences would have been better if instead you magically cured all cancer.

Thus, it seems:

  1. If consequentialism is true, you are only ever obligated to do something possible.

  2. Sometimes, you are obligated to do the impossible.

  3. So, consequentialism is false.

That said, I am not completely convinced of (2).


TheApologeticsKid said...

Pruss, this has no relevance but I'm planning on doing a Real Presence debate at my high school and thought of the following syllogism:

1) Mother Theresa did not commit idolatry daily
2) Mother Theresa worshiped the Eucharist daily (via adoration)
3) If the Real Presence is false then worshiping the Eucharist daily is to commit idolatry daily
4) Therefore, the Real Presence is true

The thought behind 1) is that Mother Theresa was such a good person that if she committed idolatry her conscience would convict her and would stop.

Would you happen to have any thoughts?

William said...

The stress of "impossible duties" as you call it, stress from feeling ethically obliged to achieve what was impossible in practice, is something studied in recent years as a source of psychological distress in health care workers during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. See for example here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8900218/

Walter Van den Acker said...


I am convinced that 2 is false. It's imply the case that you should not promise something if there is a chance you can't keep your promise.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Isn't there always a chance of not being able to keep one's promise?


I think the argument has some force, but I here is a response. Suppose that the church you regularly attend "Mass" in has a fake priest--maybe he is the identical twin of a priest and somehow he took his brother's place. Then you are innocently committing idolatry every Sunday. But without a special miracle you wouldn't know about it, and you wouldn't expect your conscience to speak up about it.

(There is at least one story about a saint who was brought an unconsecrated wafer by a lazy priest and was able to tell that she was being cheated, but that's a special miracle.)

But we could maybe say this: Mother Teresa was an intelligent and highly conscientious person, and so she would not have risked committing idolatry regularly, and so we can expect that she thoroughly examined the evidence (in Scripture and Tradition) for the Real Presence, and so that provides us with reason to think that the evidence is solid.

Walter Van den Acker said...


Yes, of course there is always a chance we can't keep our promise and that's why no promise can ever be absolute.

TheApologeticsKid said...

Pruss, that makes sense.

Could you also come at it from a different angle and say Mother Teresa having such a high level of virtue is more expected given the Real Presence than not (given the grace the Sacrament provides)--Hence providing evidence for the Real Presence?

Either way, it doesn't seem to provide too strong of evidence (compared to the church fathers or John 6) so maybe it's not worth bringing up.

TheApologeticsKid said...

Another thought, couldn't you also save the argument by saying that Mother Teresa would know if it was idolatrous or not? In an older post (https://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2021/07/saints-and-faith.html), you put forward: "The virtuous person knows what is the virtuous human form of life, at least insofar as this is relevant to her own circumstances."

Now Mother Teresa being a virtuous person would know the virtuous form of life. Since daily adoration is intertwined with her form of life then couldn't she know that adoration is good? And if adoration is good then it seems that it couldn't be idolatrous.

Loosely speaking I find it plausible that Mother Teresa would be able to identify the existence/lack of grace in adoration because of her virtue and how much she went to adoration. Then again maybe she wouldn't be able to identify since she had a dark night of the soul.