Last week, Michael Bennett proposed an ‘ad-hominem attack’ on non-consequentialism. He suggested, quite plausibly, that philosophers and political theorists tend to produce work that is complex, at least partially because ‘[p]romotion and prestige requires a constant stream of publications’ and it is ‘difficult to keep that up unless you have complex theories that require a great deal of elaboration’. This provides support for a kind-of debunking argument against contemporary anti-consequentialism:

It does seem awfully suspicious that the normative realm would turn out to be so complicated, given our career incentives to make it look complicated. I think we have reason to be less confident in complex philosophy as a result, and less confident in anti-consequentialism in particular.

I think it’s clear that among academic philosophers there is a tendency to overcomplicate things. This applies to philosophers of all stripes and backgrounds, but is perhaps particularly jarring among philosophers of the ‘analytic’ or ‘Anglo-American’ tradition, given our avowed focus on analysis, logic argument and rigour (this characterization of the analytic tradition can and has been questioned, but let’s go with it for the time being). Indeed, the focus on providing logical arguments for our positions seems to me to contribute significantly to this  tendency towards complexity, often at the cost of clarity.

But to get to the point – does this institutional and epistemic bias in favour of complexity provide an argument (debunking or otherwise) against anti-consequentialism? I’m not sure that this is the case.

Kant for Dummies

It’s undeniable that most anti-consequentialist theories are more complicated than most consequentialist theories. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re particularly complicated. Take Kant, poster-child of overcomplicated ethical theories. He takes a while to get to the point, sure, but his core principle – the analogue to the utilitarian’s core principle that an act is morally right if and only if that act maximises the good – is of course pretty straightforward:

  1. Act only according to principles that you could (logically) want to be universal laws;
  2. Act in such a way that you treat humanity, yourself and others, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end;
  3. Act only on principles which could earn acceptance of a community of fully rational agents each of whom have an equal share in legislating these principles for their community [i.e., a ‘merely possible kingdom of ends’].

It’s three sentences instead of one – that makes it a bit more complicated than the consequentialist’s core principle, which can usually be summarised in one. But it’s pretty straightforward nonetheless.

Of course, of course things are more complex – what is the relationship between these principles? Where do they come from? How do we operationalise them? What do we do if they don’t provide clear guidance or if they seem to conflict? And so on. However, the same can be said of consequentialism. Take the simple principle ‘an act is morally right if and only if that act maximizes the good’. This, like Kant’s principles, raises a number of important questions that need to be addressed before we can get anywhere. Why this principle? What do we mean with ‘the good’? What should we want to maximise? What do we mean with ‘maximise’, and how do we determine whether we actually manage to maximise what we say we want to maximise? What should we take into account in our measurements? For example, should we weigh the interests of potential future people the same as currently existing people? What about animals? Aliens?

Thus, if Kantianism anti-consequentialism is complex – and therefore suspect – on account of the follow-up questions raised by the core principles, then so is consequentialism. And if consequentialism is straightforward – and therefore less suspect – because all these questions are downstream from the ethical principle itself, then the same can be said of Kantianism.

(As for virtue ethics, another approach to ethics which is often considered to be complex, what could be a simpler principle than ‘live virtuously’?)

When theory met reality

Another point worth noting is that a lot of the intricacy of contemporary moral philosophy (though of course by no means all) comes from trying to apply simple theories to complex social realities. This often results in either the principles becoming more complex in order to ‘fit’ better, or in a number of sub-principles, exceptions or ethical epicycles being added to make things work. This is quite obvious in a lot of contemporary just war theory, the area of philosophy I’m most familiar with. For example, Jeff McMahan’s (in)famous distinction between the ‘deep morality’ and law of war, is a clear example of trying to reconcile an extremely simple principle with a complex reality characterised by a high degree of uncertainty. I happen to believe it’s a very plausible approach – but that doesn’t take away the fact that a simple, elegant theory of the morality of warfare has become considerably more confusing as a result of its interaction with reality.

Incidentally, war is a good example of the dangers of (over)simplification in ethics as well. Without making allowances for the fog of war, McMahan’s original principle could potentially be read to license what we all would recognise as war crimes. The same is true of simple act-consequentialism. A more complex, intricate version of act-consequentialism could of course be devised to fit better, but this would come at the cost of the simplicity of straightforward act-consequentialism. (Or we may deny that the large-scale killing of civilians should be considered a war crime. But in that case, we would likely need to make our theory more complex to explain why people’s intuitions on this are so wrong.)

To conclude, it’s undeniable that academic philosophers have a tendency to overcomplicate things. It certainly seems plausible that this is to some extent due to the institutional pressures of modern academia. But I’m not sure this undermines our confidence in complex philosophy in general, or anti-consequentialism in particualr. There are too many other factors that may explain the complexity we find in philosophy. And in any case, it’s not clear that anti-consequentialism is particularly vulnerable. It looks like we may have to continue to try settle the consequentialism/anti-consequentialism debate the old-fashioned way: through increasingly complex and opaque argument.

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge. I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.