Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Conservatism of Deontology

Opponents of consequentialism seem implicitly committed to the idea that the status quo is a morally privileged state of affairs. They abhor the idea of "utilitarian sacrifice", i.e. harming one person to help another more. But why? (It's not a failure to treat people as ends in themselves.) The resulting state of affairs is a better one. If deciding from a neutral position or "God's eye view" whether to actualize the former or the latter state of affairs, we should (ceteris paribus) prefer the latter. Why should things suddenly change merely because we're in the world, with the former state as the status quo? (I argue here that such a shift in context should make no difference.)

People simply assume that the status quo involves a just distribution. (Witness the absurd cries that redistributive taxation is "theft".) But this is often not the case. It is sheer luck what circumstances one is born into, and even later in life we never manage to wrest full control back from the whimsies of fortune. So it will often happen that someone is better off than another without especially deserving this to be so. So why not benefit another at a lesser cost to him? He has no special entitlement to the extra welfare fortune has granted him. It's good that a person be well-off, of course. We certainly wouldn't want to harm him unnecessarily. But it is even better for someone to receive a greater benefit. We shouldn't refrain from shifting to a better state of affairs merely due to a prejudice in favour of the existing distribution. Of course, it's easy to see why traditional elites would want to promote a "morality" which favours their entrenched interests and the status-quo. It's less clear why we should support such a bias.

Such concerns are bolstered once we recognize how hollow the so-called "doing/allowing distinction" is. There isn't any significant difference between harming someone to benefit another, and deliberately refraining from preventing such a harm. To prefer passivity is again to idolize "the natural way of things", what's historically "given", the world as it is rather than as it could be. It is, that is, to exhibit an unthinking deference to the status quo. Conservatism at its worst.

Finally, those of a more egalitarian bent might balk at the idea of imposing significant harms on one person in order to provide a vast number of individually smaller (but larger in aggregate) benefits to others. But if we are to be unbiased about this, we must consider the situation from a neutral perspective, i.e. without privileging the arbitrary historical distribution. So consider the situation in reverse: would you recommend imposing vastly many small harms in order to greatly benefit one person? If not, then the initial judgment rests on a conservative bias.

From a neutral perspective, there is no distinction to be made between imposing harms and withholding benefits. The only difference between the two cases concerns what we understand to be the status quo. If we refrain from idolizing the status quo, then we reject the idea of an absolute baseline that can ground the purported distinction. The only real assessments to be made here are relative ones. Suppose scenario A is better for you than B. Then to shift from A to B would be a "harm", while to prevent a shift from B to A would be to "withhold a benefit". This is a merely descriptive difference. If we deny that the historically given starting point provides a morally privileged baseline, then we must say that the relative harm done in either case is the same, namely the difference in utility of (A - B). It doesn't matter where we start from. (We know that, we're not tradition-bound conservatives.) What matters is how our end result compares with the various other alternatives that were open to us.

(Of course, as in the political case, there might be practical reasons to take tradition into account. I merely mean to deny it any intrinsic significance. There may be indirect utilitarian reasons for us to invent some form of doing/allowing or harm/withheld-benefit distinction, or the like.)


  1. There is a lot going on here, but I offer a quick thought that may be problematic: You are simply ignoring intentionality. It is only (though not intrinsically) on a utilitarian picture that JUST state of affairs are important. This, it is clear to me, is an oversight by utilitarian theories. In ignoring intentions and focusing solely on consequences, utilitarianism misrepresents our moral experience. I'm almost certain your response is going to be something along the lines of "this is just what I'm talking about in the acceptance of the status quo." But I do not think that reflective equilibrium can fairly be equated with the status quo. They are different things, the former grounded in the evolutionary picture, the latter grounded in culture alone.

    Two more points I'll just mention. I think that actually, by acting to maximize happiness and minimize suffering utilitarians have committed themselves to never treating humans as ends in themselves, they are always just means to increasing happiness (especially if you don't differentiate between animal and human happiness). Second, I see no reason to prefer the "God's eye view." This again fails the human test. We have no objective point of view as subjective beings. And to attempt to detach ourselves completely in order to make moral decisions seems to ignore the facts of the matter: namely that we are a certain type of being in a certain type of world. This last point is going to be hard to reconcile with you I think without going back to the source, you're post on "Right is making the world better." Which I don't want to do here.

  2. Utilitarianism is fundamentally about maximizing welfare, whatever that might consist in. (Often, objections which purport to target utilitarianism are really just objections to welfare hedonism. The assumed association is most unfortunate.) I don't know if it makes as much sense to object that utilitarianism treats people as a means to improving their welfare. At least, I've suggested before that you can't separate interests from their lives in the way that you accuse utilitarians of.

    As for intentionality, I don't think it's relevant in the context of this post. Indirect Utilitarianism can grant it an important place in our practical morality, so we might disagree less than you think. But here I'm just concerned about what has intrinsic moral import. (Moral intentions might be a conclusion rather than a premise of this discussion, if you pretend I'm deliberating with an ideal agent over what to want/intend/do.)

  3. I still think you're not being very charitable to the follower of deontology. No way, no how will they agree to your characterization of them that they are approving of one state of affairs over another because it is the status quo.

    They are going to deny that what you claim is the better state of affairs is indeed the better one. And they will also deny that is the only thing of intrinsic moral import. I really like your indirect utilitarianism post in its attempt to throw out straw man theories of utilitarianism, but it seems here like you are attacking a straw man deontology.

    No deontologically diposed agent is going to agree that the status quo involves a just distribution. In fact, I don't think many laymen do either (certainly with respect to philosophers, the most famous rejector of this is Rawls).

  4. Yes, I don't expect most deontologists want to admit to such conservatism. But I was arguing that it is implicit in their asymmetric treatment of "harms" and "withheld benefits". And once we explicitly reject it, utilitarian sacrifice is not so obviously objectionable after all.

  5. pat/ben,
    maybe we need a scenario where one side is vastly better in a utilitarian sense but vastly worse off in a deontological sense (if such a thing exists). I imagine this had been done many times before but here we go…

    Lets say we have two worlds one where everyone is happy doing what they want and happy (achieving their desires and free in a consequential sense) and another where they have a set of rights (against interference or whatever) but are unimaginably miserable and constantly in agony.

    Maybe in world one some arbitrary actor (lets say god) grossly breaches everyone’s rights in setting up this near Shangri-la while in world two he sits by idly.

    do deontologists prefer world 2?

    > You are simply ignoring intentionality.

    proper utilitarianism doesnt ignore intentionality - that is just another variable with corresponding concequences, what it doesn't do is ignore everything else.

  6. Pat, "rights" are an essentially conservative notion, favouring the preservation of the status quo over the attainment of a better future. As such, rights are just one way that deontologists go about implementing the conservative bias I'm talking about here. It's not a way for them to avoid my criticisms.

    (I'd also add that a concern with rights seems obviously more fetishistic than a concern for welfare -- as I explained to you back here.)

  7. Non consquentalists such as myself don't think the status quo is good, indeed in areas of moral choice like governance it is usually very bad. But that's not the point, ethics for the non consquentalist isn't necessarily about trying to create a maximally good world. Sometimes it is good to act in ways which will actually make the world a worse place (i.e not organ farming).

    May I suggest you are illictly assuming others are, deep down, consquentalists.

  8. Unfortunately, genius, your example is totally ad hoc and simply doesn't gain a foot hold.

    And with respect to "proper utilitarianism doesn't ignore intentionality" neither does proper deontology ignore consequences.

    In fact, all proper ethical system are interested in consequences and intentionality. The problem here is that one side wants to give itself a proper formulation and all of its opponents a meager formulation. No Kantian wants to ignore consequences, and no utilitarian wants to ignore intentionality. But this is exactly what Richard does in his post. He ignores the intentionality with respect to utilitarianism and consequences witih respect Deontology.

    I think T. Scrivener has it right in saying that there are more goods than maximizing the aggregate welfare of the world (or rather it's inhabitants). But I do want to clarify his point and say that in times when our actions might actually make the world worse, what is going on is that your actions there are one that characteristically make the world better (Even a rule-utilitarian agrees with this idea).

    Interestingly enough, rights are NOT a conservative notion if by conservative one means that they aren't new. In fact they are brank spanking new. Until the rise of Chrsitinanity, no one had ever heard of such things. There's not even words for rights in Ancient Greek!

    No, I don't think it makes sense to conflate the conception of rights with the status quo, maybe this could be argued with respect to the general public, but certainly Richard can't really believe that a philosopher like Christine Korsgaard has really made that huge of a bungle?


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