Benghazi and the Culture of Consequentialism

This week, while watching the hearings about the events surrounding the attack on US diplomats in Benghazi, I was haunted by two questions.

The first was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s impassioned utterance, “What difference does it make?” by which she explained that finding the perpetrators of the violence was more important than the immediate causes of the violence.

The second was an internal question, “What difference will it make?”  Even assuming the worst, — and that worst would be that the Obama Administration failed to protect American diplomats overseas, and in effect began to participate in a cover-up even as the events unfolded, subsequently lying to the American people,–  I ask myself will enough people even care. I am guessing that they won’t.

Since it is unlikely that “the worst” will become the accepted public narrative of the Benghazi tragedy, I begrudgingly hold that people will care even less.  For my reflections here, it is irrelevant how close to “the worst” the truth about Benghazi ultimately is. My aim is to explain why no one seems to care.

When today’s college graduates were toddlers, millions of Americans shrugged their shoulders and said, “But he only lied about sex.”  In other words, one must not judge an act wrong in itself, but in view of its intention and consequences. Lying is not always wrong. It all depends. In ethics, justifying the end by the means is called “consequentialism.”

President Clinton was and is a product of our culture. But each of us influences that culture, for our moral culture is largely made up of the rules we live by and the degree to which we hold each other accountable.

When I taught philosophy, (before my first love, language, was reawakened) I used to define culture as “the set of circumstances that maximize the growth potential of something.” Do you know what makes a particular type of bacteria grow? You can make a culture for that bacteria. Do you know what makes a successful ballplayer? You can create on your team a culture that maximizes that.

But when it comes to moral growth, it is impossible to create a culture when there is no consensus on what makes human beings grow.  No houseplant will thrive when some people think it needs half shade and water every week, while others full sun and a monthly dousing. Many think our country today suffers from this lack of consensus.

I think that, practically speaking, we have a consensus, and that consensus is a culture of consequentialism. Most people afford themselves the luxury of allowing the ends justify the means. We inhabit a world that is Machiavellian, and not only for The Prince, but for each individual. As a result, in order to safeguard our own individualistic consequentialism, we give a pass to others when they justify their acts.

Hence, the only true sins in our culture are those that stray beyond the borders of individualism (lacking “tolerance” by “imposing ones morality on others) and those that cannot be justified by noble purposes, however remote (usually ones that do not provoke emotional reactions, often because there is no graphic footage of them.)

This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor. It was a document written to remind Catholics and the world that we human beings cannot flourish if consequentialism is the moral air we breathe. In other words, such moral reasoning, in theory and practice, prohibits human flourishing. In John Paul II’s oft quoted phrase, it is part of a “culture of death.”

These lines point to a diagnosis, not a cure. The popes of the last decades have spoken openly and often about the cure, which is a return to absolute moral norms, those written in the stone of the Ten Commandments, which as I recall had no footnotes nor addenda nor conditions, a la “unless you have a good reason not to obey this.”

The sad fact is that, even given a worst-case scenario, I fear that not much will happen about the Benghazi attack. Our culture will give the administration a pass, because “he was only lying in order to get elected, and he has so many good ideas to implement in his second term.”  We have already elected adulterers and liars from both parties. Why does it shock us that we don’t find this shocking?

In future posts, we can explore small ways to renew and restore our culture. For today, it is enough to examine our conscience and root out any latent consequentialism. Do you create a moral culture in which you and those around you can truly flourish?

“What difference does it make?” Culturally, it is a difference between life and death.


Article image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.