Consequentialism: Response to Actions

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Consequentialism is “the belief that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences” (Oxford Dictionary, p. 496). G. E. M. Anscombe coined the term “consequentialism” in her essay “modern-moral-philosophy” in 1958 to describe what she saw as the central error of certain moral theories, such as those propounded by Mill and Sidgwick.

Consequentialism consists of the consequences of an action that include the action itself and everything that action causes. There are two types of consequentialism: 1) External, the forces on the outside that affect us (stories, suggestions, norms, mores, etc.) and 2) Internal, the forces that are within us (self, imagination perception, evaluate perceived, etc.).

EXTERNAL FACTORS

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint…What I began by reading, I must finish by acting” (Journal, 19 February 1841). Hint means “indirect suggestion” (Webster’s Compact Office Dictionary, p. 306). The consequences of human action occur in a novella written by Chuck Palahniuk, called “Guts.” It is not a light read, in that it can be gross and downright sickening. All three boys read something and then lived out the hint, exploring masturbation, but each with a consequence. Living on the hint, in this case, led from psyche to ultimate disfigurement. Things we do in this life can and will shape us as individuals. We need to read with an open mind. We need to see the actual story behind the story. On the surface of the short story “Guts,” found in the book Haunted (Palahniuk, 2005) seems like a guide to masturbation. Nevertheless, if one reads it, literally read it, one can see how “living on a hint,” can affect a person negatively. When a person reads anything, they have to have an open-mind and see the underlying story. We cannot judge a book by its cover, nor the contents alone, but instead by what it is saying.

The story of “Guts” starts out with a kid, “Carrot Kid,” who heard about “pegging.” Pegging is sticking something up one’s anus to help with an orgasm. “Carrot Kid” is 13 years old, and he buys a carrot, takes it home, and tries pegging. His mother calls him for dinner, and he hides it in some dirty laundry. After dinner, he went to get the carrot and realized his mother picked up the laundry. “Carrot Kid” waited for his parents to confront him but it never came. The consequence of action was that it hurt and then haunted him all his life and it played on his psyche; he even called it the “invisible carrot.” The moral of this story is, do not hide evidence where someone can find it.

The second boy, “Wax Kid,” heard from his brother about how Arabic men stick a thin metal rod up their penis while masturbating. The boy, stoned, took a tiny piece of wax and tried it. The wax rod disappeared into his bladder. “Wax Kid” was called for dinner, and he thought that the wax would melt and everything would be alright. Shortly afterward, he started to get cramps and could not stand, nor urinate. The wax rod blocked his urinary tract and began to collect the calcium and bacteria from his urine. The rod also rubbed his bladder’s soft lining raw. The consequence of his action was that his college fund was used to pay for his bladder surgery.

The third boy, “Pearl Diver,” enjoyed whacking off in the bottom of his parents’ pool. He developed a great capacity to hold his breath for a long time. He also heard that if he sits on the pool’s filter, he would have a better orgasm. “Pearl Diving” is when you whack off in water and then dive to catch the dead sperm. He decided to try sitting on the pool’s filter. He got his rocks off and started to swim to the surface, but seemed tethered to the bottom of the pool by a “snake.” He soon realized that it was his intestines and tried to pull free. “Pearl Diver” tried several times but was quickly running out of air. He chose to bite his intestine to break free. The consequence of his action was that as an adult, “Pearl Diver” would never weigh more than 90 pounds, because of the surgery to repair his intestine. He would never be able to eat solid food and gain the nutrients needed to grow. “Pearl Diver” also lost his football scholarship.

The three boys were all living on a “hint,” an indirect suggestion by someone else. Each boy pays for it, from psychological distress to minor surgery, to the extreme disfigurement. This story is a good example of “living on a hint,” the adverse side of it, because if one does not think nor research what the underlying story is, one can have negative consequences. Yes, these three boys were only 13, but at this age, they should have had more common sense.

Another form of living on an external hint is how Charles Manson (born November 12, 1934) founded a cult. Manson is known as a musician and as a notorious criminal.  The cult he founded was known as the Manson Family, a quasi-commune that arose in California in the late 1960s (CNN Library, 2013). From the beginning of his notoriety, a pop culture arose around him, in which, he ultimately became an emblem of insanity, violence and the macabre.  “Helter Skelter” was a term Manson took from a Beatles song and recoined it to stand for his belief in an impending apocalyptic race war, which Manson described in his version of the lyrics. He also believed these massacres would help precipitate that war. The term “Helter Skelter” was later used by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi as the title of a book that he wrote about the Manson murders.

Manson was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the murders of Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca carried out by members of the Family at his instruction (CNN Library, 2013). Manson has been convicted of the murders through the joint-responsibility rule, which makes each member of a conspiracy guilty of the crimes his fellow conspirators commit in furtherance of the conspiracy’s objective. Although he did not commit the murders himself, as an external influence over his Family members, he drove them to do his bidding. Were it not for a change in the law, Manson would be free today. Before the murders, he was a singer-songwriter on the fringe of the Los Angeles music industry, chiefly through a chance association with Dennis Wilson, a founding member and the drummer of the Beach Boys. After Manson had been charged with the crimes of which he was later convicted, recordings of songs written and performed by him were released commercially.  Various musicians, including Guns N’ Roses, White Zombie and Marilyn Manson, have recorded covers (remakes) of his songs. Manson was condemned to death, but the death sentence was automatically commuted to life imprisonment when a 1972 decision by the Supreme Court of California temporarily eliminated the state’s death penalty (CNN Library, 2013). California’s eventual reinstatement of capital punishment did not affect Manson, who is currently incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison.

INTERNAL FACTORS

The “Pit and the Pendulum,” written by Edgar Allan Poe, was first published in 1842 in the literary annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843. It is a short story about the psychological and physical torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, though Poe skews historical facts. The prisoner describes his experience of being tortured. The story is especially effective at inspiring fear in the reader because of its heavy focus on the senses, such as sound, emphasizing its reality, unlike many of Poe’s stories, which are aided by the supernatural. The traditional elements established in modern horror tales at the time are followed, but critical reception was mixed. The prisoner is brought to trial before several corrupt judges with no explanation of why he was arrested. Condemned to death, he finds himself in a pitch-black compartment. After fainting, he recovers and finds food and water nearby. The prisoner then gets back up and tries to measure the prison cell, concluding that the perimeter measures one hundred steps. While crossing the room, he slips and discovers a deep pit with water at the bottom, in the center of the cell. After losing consciousness again, prisoner awakens to find the cell slightly illuminated, and he bound to a wooden board by ropes. The prisoner looks up in horror to see a painted picture of Father Time on the ceiling; hanging from the figure is a massive scythe-like pendulum swinging slowly back and forth. The pendulum is inexorably sliding downwards. The prisoner attracts rats to his bonds with bits of leftover meat, and they start chewing through the ropes. When the pendulum reaches a point, just inches above his heart, the prisoner breaks free of the ropes and watches as the pendulum is drawn back to the ceiling. Then the walls have become red-hot and begun moving inwards, forcing him towards the brink of the pit. He decides that no fate could be worse than falling into it. The text implies that the prisoner fears what he sees at the bottom of the pit, or perhaps is frightened by its depth. The exact cause of his fear is not stated clearly. However, as he moves back from the pit, he sees that the red-hot walls are leaving him with no foothold. As the prisoner begins to fall into the pit, he hears human voices. The walls rush back, and an arm catches him. The French Army has taken Toledo, and the Inquisition is in the hands of its enemies. Even though the prisoner was held captive, these scenes did not happen; they were an internal battle.

Another excellent example of an internal battle would be the self-professed cannibal Armin Meiwes (42 years-old). He was from Rotenburg, Germany, and was also bi-sexual. In March of 2001, he advertised for a “young, well-built man, who wanted to be eaten.” Bernd Brandes (43 years-old) responded; he and Meiwes had sex and then Brandes took 20 sleeping tablets and half a bottle of Schnapps. He wanted to be eaten to give his abilities to Meiwes. Meiwes started by cutting off the most important part of the anatomy, Brandes’ “well-endowed” penis. With permission, Meiwes fried the organ, and they both ate it.  In a final act of love, Meiwes then bathed Brandes. Then he kissed Brandes, thanking him, and then stabbed him in the neck.  Meiwes felt an internal gratification through eating his lovers.  He felt empowered with skills of his willing prey (i.e. if they could speak English, then he could also; if they were left handed then he was able to write with his left hand). There was a total of six victims (only one named, two others identified, three never found). Later, in an interview with 60 Minutes Meiwes showed signs of remorse:

Today I know that what I did was wrong, that this can never be the right way. The wishes, the fantasies you have, that these can never be fulfilled. And everything that you dream about will only ever remain a dream. What I did, even after I’d done it, I always thought it could be more than just a dream. Today I know that it can never be. (Brown, 2008)

CONCLUSION

All of these stories show that there is truly a gray area within consequentialism.  It is neither right nor wrong until the act is “judged” by the social norms of society. All four stories are going against the norms of society, which are defined as standards of behavior maintained by society (Witt, 2012, p. 59), each revealing a consequence of their action, internally and externally. Each story has its justification for the action, but the laws of man then judge these actions. Laws are formal norms that have been written down with specific strict punishments for the violators. In each story, the character(s) show cognitive dissonance, the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc. Consequentialism can be regarded as either internal or external or both. Armin Mewies, in his personal belief, felt that if he ate his followers, he would gain their abilities.  Internally, he believed that he would become a better person.

Externally, he broke from the norm of society, made love to his victims, and then ate them.  In “Pit and Pendulum,” the prisoner dealt internally with the struggle to survive the cell.  He thought he saw a pendulum, red-hot walls, and a pit. Internally, he also tried to justify why the imprisonment. He was also a victim of war, an external factor, during the Spanish Inquisition, which jailed and judged him. Charlie Manson took from other faiths to create his own. He believed that he was Satan reincarnated; he taught his followers to commit crimes for him. “Guts” is a short story that, if read, hurts. It hurts mentally; the reader feels the physical and psychological effect of the consequences of action. If you read the short story, BE PREPARED. The story takes the reader through psychological to extreme physical disfigurement. The consequences of living on a hint are not always positive. In the cases discussed above, consequentialism is seen through each character’s actions or beliefs and redefined as an action or belief that produces positive or negative results judged internally or externally.


WORKS CITED

Anscombe, G. (1958) Modern Moral Philosophy.

Brown, T. (2008). The Cannibal. In Sixty Minutes.

Charlie Manson. (2007). In C. Bankston III (Ed.), Great Lives from History: Notorious Lives (Vol. 2, pp. 689-691). Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, Inc.

CNN Library. (2013). Manson Family Murders Fast Facts.

Consequentialism. (2007). Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (6th ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palahniuk, C. (2005). Guts. Haunted (pp. 12-21). New York: Anchor Books.

Poe, E. A. (2004). Pit and Pendulum. D. Damrosch (Ed.), The Longman Anthology: World Literature (Vol. E, pp. 478-487). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.

Thoreau, H. (1841). Journal V (1841).

Witt, J. (2012). Culture. SOSC 2012. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

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