Deontological Consequentialism

 

 

Deontological Consequentialism

 

Our ordinary moral discourse contains a large number of rules or maxims that concern the effects of actions on people and animals. Here is a sample list: Don’t be cruel, Don’t be stingy, Help strangers, Treat others kindly, Don’t be a bully, Respect other people’s feelings, Don’t hit people, Don’t torture people, Treat children gently, Be patient with the elderly, Don’t drive aggressively, Be considerate, Don’t keep people waiting, and so on. These are broadly consequentialist: they concern the results of actions: they regulate how our actions affect other beings. If we ask why we should obey them, the answer will involve the kinds of effects actions will have on others, both physical and psychological. Their form is similar to other rules of conduct such as prohibitions against lying, stealing, promise breaking, cheating, etc. Morality consists largely in such rules—hence the attraction of deontological ethics. It would be wrong to equate the effect-oriented rules with classical utilitarianism: nothing in these rules logically implies that we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering. That is at best an attempt to generalize over the many rules in question, and it is vulnerable to well-known objections (which I won’t rehearse). Nothing in the acceptance of such rules commits one to a consequentialist theory of the classical kind—though the rules might be thought to provide support for such a theory. It is entirely possible to hold to these rules as part of morality and not buy into classical consequentialist theories. That is, it is possible to be a deontological consequentialist: morality is centrally concerned with consequences but that concern is properly expressed in a collection of rules that are not to be reduced to mere felicific outcomes. One might be a pluralist about the rules, holding that they can’t be subsumed under more general principles (such as W.D. Ross’s duties of non-malificence and beneficence). One might also be skeptical of the idea that outcomes fall into two neatly defined categories—pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness. Or one might have no particular views about human and animal psychology. The effect-oriented rules could be taken as irreducibly various and not subsumable under any broader set of concepts (cruelty, say, would not be regarded as simply causing pain—what about the dentist?). So there is nothing in adherence to these rules, or insistence on their importance, that necessitates a consequentialist morality in the classical sense. We can take account of consequences within an entirely deontological framework; indeed, that seems like a natural way to proceed. Deontology is not opposed to consequentialist thinking, if that thinking is properly interpreted in terms of rules of conduct, possibly irreducibly various.

            We thus don’t need to accept a mixed moral theory, part deontological and part classical consequentialist; we can be deontological across the board. Morality doesn’t have two big departments uneasily joined together (compare quantum physics and classical physics); it is unified, homogeneous. We might decide to group the multiplicity of rules in various ways, thereby achieving some simplification of morality: we might divide the totality of rules into rules applying to (i) wrongs of effect, (ii) wrongs of contract, and (iii) wrongs of intention—or something of the sort. But we stick to a rule-based deontological scheme (and isn’t the injunction to maximize happiness and minimize suffering itself a type of very general moral rule?). What we don’t do is seek to derive moral principles from facts about good and bad states of the world viewed independently of specific rules of conduct. We stick closely to moral thinking as we actually find it. And isn’t this the psychologically realistic approach? Children are not taught abstract utilitarian theory but specific rules of conduct that can be absorbed and committed to memory. These are the motivational maxims that enable someone to operate morally in the world without burdensome calculation. Of course, they don’t remove all moral conflicts and quandaries, and they need general intelligence and judgment if they are to be used successfully, but they constitute the solid atoms of moral thought—the directives we rely on in our day-to-day lives. The injunction not to drive aggressively, say, is an extremely useful piece of advice, though it may not be readily subsumed under a broader principle (“Don’t do potentially harmful things”). It is quite true that people are often insufficiently results-oriented, superstitiously clinging to taboos and misguided ideas of sin, but the solution to this need not be wholesale utilitarianism; it can be the recognition that our ordinary moral thinking is full of specific rules that are broadly concerned with the effects of actions on others. Why is our treatment of animals morally wrong? It isn’t because it produces a state of the world in which there is unnecessary suffering—though that is clearly true—but rather that it involves innumerable violations of moral rules that we take for granted in the case of humans: rules prohibiting cruelty, confinement, disrespect, treating animals as means not ends, taking life, being unkind, and so on. The utilitarian calculation understates the degree of wrongness involved in our treatment of animals; a deontological approach allows us to see the full extent of the wrong (compare slavery).

            The way normative ethics is typically presented is that an injection of deontology is introduced to rectify the flaws in a basically correct consequentialist outlook. But we do better to incorporate wrongs of effect into a deontological framework. That is really where they belong, as evidenced by our ordinary moral thinking. Why is it wrong to torment a particular bird? Is it because that will lead to a state of the world in which there is less overall happiness than would otherwise obtain? No, it’s because it’s cruel to torment the bird.  [1]

 

  [1] It is entirely possible to abhor cruelty but not abhor suffering. Life is full of suffering, some of it life enhancing, but there is no excuse for cruelty. It makes sense to eliminate all cruelty but the desire to eliminate all suffering is quixotic at best. We should be in the business of obeying specific rules of conduct not attempting to adopt a godlike perspective on the present and future distribution of happiness and unhappiness. Consequences certainly matter but they don’t matter in the way consequentialists tend to suppose.

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