a blog about philosophy in public affairs

An ad-hominem attack on… actually, let’s just call it Reply to Van Goozen

Thanks to Sara for a thoughtful response to my initial post. Sara’s very reasonable, and I confess a certain deliberate provocativeness in the original post. Nonetheless, I want to push back on a few things.

Relative complexity of deontology vs. consequentialism

Sara’s first main theme is doubting my claim that deontology is more complex than consequentialism.

Although it’s a relatively minor point in the great scheme of things, I still think Kantianism is quite a lot more complicated! In particular, I’ve found that when it comes to the first formulation of the categorical imperative (“Act only according to principles that you could (logically) want to be universal laws”), students tend strongly to initially interpret this as a pseudo-consequentialist “how would you feel if everyone were acting like that?” kind of test. By contrast, Kant’s concept of a logically (non)universalizable maxim people find quite a bit harder just to get their heads around, let alone apply it.

Of course, I was dreading that population ethics (questions about potential beings) would be brought up as an example of the complexities of consequentialism. It’s a fair cop, although I’ll just note that deontology doesn’t do any better (the non-identity problem), so this seems to be a bit of a quagmire for any ethical theory.

Sara also brings up the complexities introduced into consequentialism by the need for a theory of value, a point also made by Anca Gheaus. However, I will double down and say that the bias towards complexity also exists within the family of consequentialist theories. In particular, it favours more complicated “objective list” theories of value as opposed to (relatively!) simpler “hedonistic” and “desire-satisfaction” theories. Maybe I should have put “utilitarianism” rather than “consequentialism” in the title of the original post, since the pervasive snobbery towards utilitarianism in contemporary philosophical circles is part of what motivated me to write it.

All that said, I must admit my original concerns were less about pure ethical theory and more about applied ethics, which is Sara’s second theme.

Applied Ethics

My original example was workplace democracy. If you want to make a normative argument for/against mandatory worker control of firms, there are a number of ways you can go about it. Perhaps you have an extremely strong conception of autonomy which rules out the employer/worker relationship. Perhaps you have a contractarian theory of justice in social co-operation which applies to all organisations, not merely states. Perhaps you have a theory of value according to which it’s good for people to have certain kinds of workplace, regardless of what workers themselves think. In all these cases there’s quite a lot of philosophical work to be done in setting out the view.

But suppose you think we should just adopt whatever workplace arrangements promote aggregate welfare? In that case, there’s not actually a whole lot of capital-P Philosophical work to do – it’s mainly up to social scientists to figure out the effects of different kinds of policies. This will still be very complicated, but it won’t be very philosophically complicated. But normative theorists want to normatively theorise, and so normative work on the topic is biased against views that leave less work for philosophers and more for social scientists.

My complaint is with a pervasive desire to settle policy questions at a basic normative level, rather than allowing underlying principles to be relatively indeterminate. One motive for this is probably a fear that the only safe way to avoid Bad Things is by making categorical pronouncements on a moral level rather than leaving anything up to empirical contingency. But another factor, I suggest, is an institutional incentive to make exaggerated claims for the importance of one’s own disciplinary expertise.

It seems to me that Sara’s example of just war theory could be looked at a similar way. There is definitely valuable work to be done figuring out what G.A. Cohen called “rules of regulation”: the maxims implied by our fundamental principles in different empirical situations. A distinction between “philosophy” and “political theory” might be meaningful here, because that work isn’t quite “philosophical” in a strong sense (which is no criticism!). Nonetheless, I still worry that, in practice, the training of political theorists leans much more heavily towards philosophy than to social sciences, and we consequently tend to over-estimate the degree to which the action lies on the philosophical side. (To be clear, I think I’m guilty of this as much as anyone).

Virtue and the Ineffable

Perhaps the most glaring deficiency of my original post, as Sara briefly alluded to, was that despite the title I had nothing at all to say about virtue ethics, which is very plausibly simpler than consequentialism. David Owen similarly pointed out that Bernard Williams’ well-known critique of utilitarianism was that it overcomplicates things relative to our pre-theoretic ethical reactions.

This makes me think that maybe I didn’t go far enough. According to the Daoist classic the Zhuangzi, our ability to aptly characterise ethics (and everything else!) using language and rational thought is highly limited; the consequences of pretending otherwise are damaging. So if there’s a bias towards complexity that works in favour of deontology at the expense of consequentialism, this is probably dwarfed by the bias working against views which hold that we can’t build much of a theory of ethics at all. (Of course, such views are very well at an individual level but it’s much harder to know what that would mean for public policy!)

Tools for breaking impasses

Sara concludes that “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.” However, part of what motivated my suggestion was the old-fashioned way’s failure to settle the debate. Consequentialists and deontologists are well dug into their positions, with no sign of converging reflective equilibria. In such an impasse, “debunking arguments” against the opposing position are an interesting way forward. If you can offer a persuasive explanation for why your opponents hold a particular position other than its truth, this counts as a point in your favour. Obviously, it doesn’t begin settle the matter. But at least it offers something new to say. And that’s what academic philosophy is all about… right?

I am a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I have worked on the justification of democracy, the relationship between democracy and the market, and the political theory of business corporations.


An ad-hominem attack on an ad-hominem attack on non-consequentialism


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1 Comment

  1. Incidentally, if there’s anyone who’s made it this far and thinks there might be a paper in here somewhere, please let me know!

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