It seems accepted among educated Westerners that the rationality of an action is a matter of means and ends, of what we want and whether what we do is going to bring that about.
That’s true even among people who consider themselves right-wingers, reactionaries, traditionalists and so on, and who in many ways really are so. I’ve complained about that tendency in Roger Scruton, and to my mind a recent discussion over at Bruce Charlton’s blog put it on display as well. It seemed impossible for many of those in the discussion to see the issue (contraception) from any other perspective. The problem was not that they thought consequences were relevant, but that they thought only consequences were relevant, and that raising other issues was simply nonsensical.
That ought to be a big problem for the participants in the discussion who are committed to anything like orthodox Christianity. For one thing, the view that acts and failures to act can only be judged rationally by reference to their factual this-worldly consequences abolishes the possibility of sacraments. At the very least it radically restricts the sacramental to a few anomalous situations in a world otherwise composed of a seamless network of material cause and effect, in which the significance of each event is wholly determined by its function in that network–whatever “significance” would mean on such an understanding.
The view also raises other puzzling questions. For example: suppose John and Mary fancy each other but don’t want a lifetime commitment to each other or to children. They might choose to go their separate ways, or they might choose to get it on, have a baby, and when the project no longer engages them go their separate ways and kill the kid painlessly and without his awareness. As to factual this-worldly consequences, on the face of it the second is the better choice. The ultimate consequences are the same–John and Mary are separate, and there’s no kid–but there have been distinct benefits: they’ve explored life a little, given their feelings for each other physical expression, and given someone a life that he would not otherwise have had–a short life, but a life nonetheless.
So we’re back to the Scruton problem—a view that limits practical reason to means-ends rationality makes traditionalism and indeed the most ordinary human decency irrational. All of which takes us back farther to the big claim I’ve been making for a couple of years, that the problem with the modern world is the reduction of reason to technology—not the recognition of technology as rational, but the assumption that it exhausts rationality. A traditionalist movement will get nowhere, I think, without overcoming that problem.