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Deontology vs Consequentialism - A false distinction.

We all consider questions of how best to behave in given situations, and treat some set of such questions as questions of ethical nature. Naturally, we face the question of what our standards should be, how we should evaluate options for behaviour in their moral dimension.
In ethics, there has generally been a distinction between deontological and consequentialist approaches to this question. Deontological approaches focus on the intristic characteristics of the actions in question and how they relate to values and duties, while consequentialist approaches argue that it is the consequences of actions, not their intrinsic nature (including the intent with which they were performed) that should determine how we evaluate them.

I think this is not only a false dichotomy, a mistaken distinction - it is a paradoxical juxtaposition, because effectively, what have been called 'deontological' and 'consquentialist' approach differ not in whether they consider the nature of actions or their consequences, but only in the scope of consequences (effects) of actions they consider.

The difference between consequentialist and deontological (/)virtue-approaches in ethics is a false dichotomy, because when it comes to making a moral judgement about whether to behave in a certain way or refrain from certain behaviour in a given situtation (and effectively, that's what we try to provide guidelines for in our approaches to first-order questions), the choice of which way to behave (or of whether to behave in a specific way) will have to depend, in its ethical dimension, on the effects the choice we make will have on on our status as agents with certain moral values/codices/theories - that is to say on the consequences the choice we make has on the relation between ourselves on the one hand and our moral values/codices/theories and/or the situation in which the choice was (considered by us to be) required and the factors of the environment (including other moral agents) that is affected by it.

Where we chose not to perform a certain action from a deontological standpoint - meaning because the act itself is such that our value-system makes it our duty not to perform it - this formulation of the deontologist's reason chosing not to perform a certain action is essentially equivalent to the following:

"The act is such that its constituting effects on those affected by it are contrary to my value-system and if I were to perform such an act, this would now result in myself having knowingly acted contrary to my value-system, which by its very definition is held by me as prescriptive (at least for me) and as such this would result in a contradiction between what choice I nominally demand of myself in this situation based on my values and what choice I will have made. Since this negation of self-affirmed demands I place on myself would negatively influence my standing as what I normatively consider an ethically responsible person and prescriptively demand of myself to do my best to be, I must conclude that the choice that is prescriptivley required of me, given the above, is to refrain from performing the act in question."

Here it is obvious how there is still an appeal to the consequences of behaviour.
The main conceptual reason why appeals to consequences cannot be avoided is because of the very definition of action. As Donald Davidson and many others in the field of action-theory (see e.g. Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events) have remarked, the term is not easily fixable in scope.
Consider the following:

We would consider 'opening the door ' an action. Now, what exactly is the scope of this. Is it the movements of my body, my limbs and fingers that is the 'action', and the door's state-transition from close to open its consequence? Or is the coordinated effort of intention-formation (, plan-formation,) and plan-execution as body-movement that is the action? Or does the 'act'/'action' include all of this and the opening of the door?
Whatever your answer to these questions might be, I think we might be able to agree that it would be unreasonable to expand the scope of the term so as to include all consequences a certain behaviour of the agent has for everything it affects. Otherwise we would not just have to include the unintentional influx of air of a different composition upon opening the door as part of the action, but also the proverbial hurricane of which the opening of the front-door might be a remotely antecedent cause, that is (according to J.L. Mackie's analysis of 'cause') an Insufficient but Necessary part of a conjointly Unnecessary but Sufficient condition for a given particular effect (a so-called INUS-condition).
It would also be unwise to include in the concept of an action (as it is represented in moral choice-formation) its unknown consequences.

Concerning actions of moral dimension, these can not be meaningfully conceptualized except as specific behaviour of a moral agent (or group of agents) that has certain effects on the agent(s) and the environment, which itself includes other moral agents.

People differ as to what facts of such they consider relevant - they might simply consider the effects it has on their standing in relation to their preconceived values and duties, or they might consider only how profitable it is to them - or include considerations of how it affects various others.

But in all such cases, the choice is made based on what effects, consequences the options of behaviour would have, if pursued.



As a layman, I can't say I'm certain to have understood all levels of content you express, but I'm pretty sure I agree with you. What I'm trying to say is, I don't have the formal education (although you have helped me find some great sources), but I generally seem to have a 'feeling' for these lines of thought.
Thanks for promoting some actual thought processes, as opposed to the silly creationism discussions (like the one currently going on at Spiegel Online (German) http://forum.spiegel.de/showthread.php?t=6315).

Good to read from you again, I hope your studies are going well.
P.S. my wife finds you very attractive ;)


What a terribly shallow post I just wrote. I blame it on my beer. Sorry.


Sorry again. Forgot to sign my post.
This is Felix from Berlin aka black wolf at rdnet
:) <- that's another silly thing


Re: A dogma of ethics

first: it's great to see someone pondering those questions without the usual apodictic tone and bias - after all and inter alia philosophy is about providing a certain method of discourse scarcely exercised in that very public medium.

on topic:
I'd be the last not to ditch another dichotomy (I'm all with Quine on the analytic/synthetic one), but still: Does it makes sense to talk about performing the very same act in different circumstances? This is equivalent to: Are there several possible worlds having me doing the same?
To negate that question (and hence everything that is build on the notion of possible worlds!) doesn't sound promising, yet without doing so there's the dichotomy again.

Apart from that: What about the intentional component of the act?
If I decide to open the window I do so with an intention which is clearly bounded and identifiable through discourse ("Why did you lift your arm?" "To open the window" and NOT "To create a hurrican").
A deontic argument would then have to limit itself judging that component.

Happy Birthday!


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