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‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and the Dangers of Consequentialism

Rise of Planet of the Apes

The 2011 film “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” belongs to a genre that goes back at least to Mary Shelley’s nineteenth century masterpiece Frankenstein, for it tells the story of well-intentioned scientist who, through ignoring legitimate moral limits, courts disaster.

James Franco plays a San Franciscan DNA researcher called Will Rodman, who is specializing in the treatment of brain disorders, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Under the sponsorship of a large pharmaceutical company, he is conducting experiments on apes and chimpanzees in order to see whether he can increase their intelligence through the introduction of a retrovirus. When one of the chimps gives birth, Rodman takes the infant ape home to raise him and monitor his development. From the start, he is stunned by the young chimp’s mental acuity and rapid progress. By the time he is three years old, the simian—whom he has named “Caesar”—has outstripped most of his human counterparts in intelligence, problem-solving, and communication.

As we follow Caesar’s progress, we also learn why Will is so interested in Alzheimer’s research: his father, Charles, played by John Lithgow, is suffering from the disease. His father’s situation becomes so dire that Rodman resolves to steal some of the experimental drug that was used on Caesar’s mother and to try it on his own poor father. The results are staggering. The morning after being injected with the substance, Charles springs to life, becomes alert to his surroundings, and even resumes his energetic playing of classical piano. But in short order, Charles’s Alzheimer’s reasserts itself as his immune system fights off the retrovirus and his condition rapidly deteriorates. Undaunted, Will begins to experiment on an even more powerful form of the virus, which does indeed dramatically enhance the intelligence of apes but which proves fatal to humans who are exposed to it.

All this time, Caesar, his intelligence deepening and his self-confidence increasing, begins to chafe at being cooped up in the house and treated, more or less, as a pet. When Charles is mistreated by a neighbor, Caesar bursts from the house and brutally attacks the aggressor, compelling Will to remand the clever chimp to a state facility, where Caesar simmers with resentment and manages to organize the other apes into an effective fighting force.

I won’t go much further into the details of the plot. Suffice it to say that the intelligent apes, led by Caesar, break free from their bondage and commence to wreak havoc in the city of San Francisco, even as the human population begins to succumb to the ill effects of the retrovirus.

Now this film is certainly a well-made sci-fi thriller, but it’s more than that, for as I suggested above, it speaks some hard truths about science and about the all too human tendency to indulge in consequentialist moral reasoning. No serious person doubts that the sciences have proven themselves an enormous boon to the human race, but when they are untethered to moral restrictions, the sciences can indeed become dysfunctional, even disasterously so.

Despite the protests of many ethicians at the time, and even of some of the scientists involved, the Manhattan Project researchers went ahead with the development of a weapon that, they knew, would certainly result in the deaths of countless non-combatants—and the world has been haunted ever since by what they produced. Today, many in the scientific community are clamoring for the right to do embryonic stem-cell research in order to effect cures to many of the most devastating medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. (Here the link to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is, methinks, far from accidental).

In both cases, well-intentioned people tried (and are trying) to address very real evils, but they used (and are attempting to use) means that are morally problematic, namely the direct killing of the innocent. The temptation toward consequentialist or “end justifies the means” moral reasoning is always a powerful one—and it is on clear display in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

Will wants desperately to help his father and the millions of others who suffer from a terrible disease, and he opts, therefore, to use highly questionable means to achieve his end, resulting in chaos. I can’t help but think that the script-writers were intentional in their naming of the central character in the film, for he is, above all, a man of will, indeed good will, but determined to do whatever it takes to achieve his end.

The earliest theologians in the church read the great permission that God gives to Adam and Eve in the Garden—“eat from all the trees of the Garden”—as the ground of Christian humanism. God wants his human creatures to flourish in every arena: politics, sports, philosophy, culture, science. But they read the great prohibition—“from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat”—as an insistence upon the moral strictures that must surround and condition any human endeavor.

When that prohibition was ignored, the Bible teaches, the human project foundered, for no human being can, with impunity, arrogate to himself the prerogative of transgressing moral limits. In its own way, and within the context of its own peculiar story, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is making much the same point.
Originally posted at Word on Fire. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Collider)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

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  • Peter Piper

    This strikes me as an attempt to refute consequentialism based on the consequences of following it. Of course, it is not possible for criticism of this type to prove anything stronger than that moral reasoners should take consequences more carefully into account.

    • Randy Gritter

      The bad consequences of consequentialism flow from out inability to see them coming. First of all, because we are just very bad at predicting the future. Secondly, because we consider only physical consequences and ignore spiritual and moral realities. Thirdly, it ignores the fact that our reasoning can be biased greatly by our desire to what is immoral. So if we could eliminate these problems consequentialism would be OK but we can't. Being more careful is not the answer. Accepting that we don't know it all and we need divine help is what we need.

      • josh

        As usual, your ability to judge the divine is even more suspect than your ability to predict the future. 'Accepting divine help' is a sure-fire way to bias yourself.

        • Randy Gritter

          I am not sure what "as usual" means. The rest is mere assertion. If we didn't have good reason to believe any particular claim about the divine it would be the case. I don't think so but that is kind of a different question.

          The response was to Peter Piper's attempted defense of consequentialism. That is it is at least possible to show consequentialism should be rejected because it has bad consequences. His line sounds good but it fails logically.

          • josh

            "As usual" means you presented a typical mistake found among religious apologists, it's not meant to single you personally out. It's the fallacy of acknowledging that humans are imperfectly rational or knowledgeable, then trying to get around this by appeal to a higher authority or source. But one's ability to judge a higher authority or source is equally subject to one's imperfect judgment. There are situations where one might provisionally defer to an expert, but if your fundamental problem is with human fallibility, you can't resolve that fundamental issue by appeal to authority. In particular, your ability to correctly discern the existence, nature, and instructions of an infinite being are even more in doubt than your ability to estimate the consequences of your actions.

            Technically, Peter Piper didn't offer a defense except to show that the attempted critique of consequentialism used consequentialist arguments. There is no logical failure on his part. Generally, consequentialism is a meta-ethical theory about what makes actions right or wrong. Your argument seems to be that adopting a consequentialist view leads to bad consequences. In the abstract, this could be true with no contradictions: Consequentialism would be the factually correct description of ethics and promoting consequentialist views would be an unethical thing to do. But of course, you have failed to make any case that promoting consequentialist views actually leads to worse consequences than the alternatives.

          • Randy Gritter

            Human fallibility is a problem. Think about it like marriage. Can you choose the wrong woman? Sure. Other fine men have made bad choices. No reason to think you are immune. But can you be ever sure your wife is a good woman? Yes. It takes time and you never become 100% positive but you get close enough. The same thing with trusting religion. You can make bad choices but it does not prove all choices are bad. You can over time become pretty sure the religion you are living is good.

            But of course, you have failed to make any case that promoting consequentialist views actually leads to worse consequences than the alternatives.

            I didn't try to do this. It is what the article tries to do. I am glad you agree that such arguments are worth listening to. That is the opposite of the point I think Peter Piper was making. I may have misunderstood him.

    • Sqrat


      On the question of abortion, is Father Barron a consequentialist? Does he believe that a certain end (reducing the number of abortions) would justify a certain means (making abortions illegal or difficult to obtain)? One has to wonder.

      • Randy Gritter

        Is that means evil? Making abortions illegal would be a good thing. It would be society choosing to value human life.

        • Sqrat

          I don't mean to turn this thread into a debate over abortion, so let me just say that, like any law prohibiting particular certain behaviors or mandating others, its purpose would be to place a limit on personal freedom in the name of some supposed greater good. In other words, in your opinion, that particular end justifies those particular means.

          So basically you're a consequentialist, and clearly Barron is as well.

    • David Nickol

      This strikes me as an attempt to refute consequentialism based on the consequences of following it.

      Great insight!

      Fr. Barron seems to be warning us that if we do something wrong, only bad can flow from it. In reality, almost any scientific advance, no matter how "morally" it is arrived at, will have some negative consequences and may potentially end in disaster. There is a book on my bookshelf called Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences that I hope to find the time to read some day about this phenomenon.

      What about Jeremiah 12:1, by the way?

      Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
      Why do all who are treacherous thrive?

      Fr. Barron really does seem to be talking about a certain kind of consequentialism.

      And as someone once asked, "If the end doesn't justify the means, what does?" It is not that the end doesn't justify the means. It's that a given end does not justify any means. Pope John Paul II's position on the death penalty was that it was justifiable only if there was no other way to protect society from a particular individual who had committed a crime such as murder. Clearly, the end (protecting society) in some circumstances justifies the means (execution rather than incarceration).

      • MattyTheD

        "Great insight"? I agree, if by "great insight" you mean "an observation one could only have if one didn't read the article and one wants to fabricate contradictions that aren't there."

        • David Nickol

          What kind of response is that? You know perfectly well I didn't mean "an observation one could only have if one didn't read the article and one wants to fabricate contradictions that aren't there." You are just being snarky.

          If you really don't see the irony of talking about "the dangers of consequentialism," say so, and I will attempt to explain it to you.

    • MattyTheD

      Oy vey, Peter, do you *really* think that that Fr. Barron's point is that we should never consider consequences? That's just sophistry. It's entirely clear from Fr. Barron's text and his subtext that "consequentialism" refers to the practice of justifying *immoral* means for *moral* ends. It has nothing to do with being blind to all consequences. Just because you didn't follow his argument carefully doesn't mean he contradicted himself.

      • Paul Boillot

        Except that "the practice of justifying *immoral* means for *moral* ends" is not what the word 'consequentialism' means. When he uses the word as if it has his implied meaning he's begging the question in addition to misuse of vocabulary.

        All of this while judging the outcomes through....consequentialism.

      • robtish

        Consequentialism does mean "justifying *immoral* means for *moral* ends." Suppose you were considering a policy of killing everyone above the age of 60 in order to free up medical resources for children. The consequences would not merely be the freeing up of medical resources -- they would also include all that killing. All those consequences would have to be weighed.

        If you consider the deliberate killing of an innocent person to be an unacceptable consequence, then you would reject the policy. The question then becomes: how do you weigh those consequences.against each other? And this is where consequentialism breaks into a number of different schools of thought.

  • josh

    Peter Piper beat me to it. This post is an endorsement of consequentialist reasoning. Also, note that the Frankenstein/Caesar stories are about the duties of a creator to his/her creation, which is a curious thing to overlook in a religious review.

  • bbrown

    Isn't the problem here more one of 'pragmatism"? I think, of course, of the classic by Richard Weaver, "Ideas Have Consequences".

    I think that contraception clearly falls under this category - the fallout has been devastating for marriage and the family.
    Lastly, I'm sure most are aware that the name "Will Rodman is derived from the original actor in the "Planet of the Apes" series, Roddey McDowall.

  • Sqrat

    Barron writes, "The earliest theologians in the church ... read the great prohibition—'from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat”—as an insistence upon the moral strictures that must surround and condition any human endeavor."

    This is a bit of an aside here, but it's hard to pass up. The "earliest theologians of the church" plainly got it wrong. It is clear from a reading of Genesis that, in the Eden myth, God wanted man to remain completely ignorant of those "moral strictures," and that's precisely why he told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve became of aware of them only because they disobeyed.

  • David Nickol

    I think the example of embryonic stem-cell research is a little confused or confusing. The moral objection to it is that it kills a human embryo, which is, according to Catholic thought, the moral equivalent of murder. But scientist are working on ways to create the equivalent of embryonic stem cells from ordinary somatic cells. If this technology is perfected (and I expect it will be), then the exact equivalent of embryonic stem-cell research can be conducted without the moral problems Fr. Barron alludes to, and if there are disastrous consequences, they won't be the result of scientists transgressing moral boundaries.

    • Fr.Sean

      Hi David,
      You're exactly right, stem cell that don't entail destroying an embryo are perfectly okay to use according to the Church.

  • David Nickol

    Peter Piper has already pointed out the irony of this piece, and in that same vein I would note that the phrase "the Dangers of Consequentialism" in the title is unintentionally quite funny.

  • Mikegalanx

    "Despite the protests of many ethicians at the time, and even of some of the scientists involved, the Manhattan Project
    researchers went ahead with the development of a weapon that, they
    knew, would certainly result in the deaths of countless
    non-combatants—and the world has been haunted ever since by what they

    And if they hadn't? Estimates of an Allied invasion of Japan run about 200,000 deaths and 2 million wounded. Japanese civilian deaths would have been much worse,of course,since they were training children to be suicide bombers and old ladies to attack heavily-armed soldiers with sharpened broom handles.

    The conventional weapons being used - whether air raids or US subs cutting off supplies of natural resources and food- alsoled to tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

    Consequences? A delayed Japanese surrender could have led to a Soviet occupation of all northern Japan,instead of just two small islands; Japan would resemble a divided Korea and all of Korea would be controlled by Pyongyang.

    Without the threat of American A-bombs, Europe could have seen a conventional WWIII

    as devastating as the first two; or, the Russians could have decided to roll across Western Europe, using the additional economic strength to control the Middle East. Western Europe reduced to the condition of the Warsaw Pact; the destruction of Israel; the Pope fled to exile in Argentina and St.Peter's re-opened as a museum to the horrors of the Inquisition; hard-core Stalinism and the subsequent misery spread all over Eurasia.....consequences.

    Prediction is hard, especially about the future.

    Mike Newsham

  • Loreen Lee

    Many thoughtful comments here. I would like to draw further attention to a distinction that can be made, (as in Kant's philosophy) between pragmatic choices and moral choices. Within this context, I believe we can distinguish between choices made to achieve specific (although the choices might be perhaps changeable through trial and error) and the idea of the 'ends justify the means', which would place the end, (as distinct from a goal), as a priority, and thus would establish a priority which I believe would go against morality, per se. This I believe would be a 'truth' by definition, because I understand morality to be precisely concerned with 'means' rather than ends. Kant' made the distinction between pragmatics and morality based on the distinction between what is done in one's self-interest, as contrasted what is a 'duty' conceived under the categories of universality and necessity. (I'm still hoping someone will respond with thoughts as to how necessity might be related to 'objectivity' as per another post.) Thank you.

  • Michael Francis Goodwin

    Fr. Barron, thanks for continuing to engage the messages found in the culture of movies! I remember seeing this movie last year and was surprised by the quality of the story and how it communicated this message. I hear there is a sequel being worked on now that will show the apes now in a position of supremacy over humans. I'll be intrigued if they use that story to convey another poignant message. See you around Mundelein!

  • Steven Carr

    '.....it speaks some hard truths about science and about the all too human tendency to indulge in consequentialist moral reasoning'

    Consequentialist moral reasoning goes back a long way.

    Exodus 20
    “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

  • "it speaks some hard truths about science and about the all too human tendency to indulge in consequentialist moral reasoning"

    It's fiction. Fiction sparks discussion of ideas. Fiction isn't evidence -- not even weak evidence, let alone "hard truths" -- about the real world.