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An ad-hominem attack on anti-consequentialism

I think there’s something unintentionally revealing about the title of Frances Kamm’s book Intricate Ethics. Most people, I expect, would find it quite odd for intricacy to be a key selling point for a theory of ethics. Yet this actually makes complete sense, albeit not in the way Kamm intends. Philosophers need ethics to be intricate. If it were simple, they’d be out of a job.

To be clear, this isn’t about Kamm in particular, but about all ethical and political philosophy, or maybe even something more general.

Try to put aside everything you think you know about the subject for a second. Think about what kind of work you would expect contemporary philosophers and political theorists to produce given the conditions under which they work. Maybe we would expect them to produce work which tends to be true. This seems reasonable. But what else? Independently of their inclination towards truth, I think we would also expect them to produce work which tends to be complex. People who think ethics or politics are simple are unlikely to want to devote their careers to philosophising about these topics. And once the simple theory has been published, what else is there to write? Promotion and prestige requires a constant stream of publications. It’s difficult to keep that up unless you have complex theories that require a great deal of elaboration. And I think most philosophers need to believe that things really are complicated, because the alternative – that lots of very intelligent people are wasting their working lives creating ever-more complex theories for no epistemic gain – is depressing.

Hence the rejection of consequentialism. My hypothesis may have implications in other fields, but this is the one I know best. Yes, consequentialism can get complicated. But as anyone who has tried teaching Kant and Bentham to first-year undergraduates can confirm, it’s nothing compared to the alternative. Let me give an example from my own work. I’m interested in applied, practical topics like corporate governance. But if your underlying normative intuitions are relatively simple, it can be hard to know what a philosopher can add. If the goal is clear, then it’s over to the social scientists to study how it can actually be attained. In this light, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of works on the political philosophy/theory of finance, work or markets defend some form of non-consequentialism. It’s the best way of defending your territory against economists and social scientists.

There’s publication bias in favour of more complex theories, and that tends to go along with a rejection of consequentialism. Publication bias is a problem in experimental sciences too, but we don’t have any experimental data all to keep us honest. You might think of a moral intuition as a kind of experiment, but this makes it worse: the set of people writing about their intuitions is systematically skewed towards those who have particular kinds of (complex, anti-consequentialist) intuitions.

What I’m proposing here is a “debunking argument” against contemporary anti-consequentialism. Debunking arguments are tricky – just because there are some bad reasons we might arrive at answer X doesn’t mean that X is actually wrong. I might be telling the time from a clock which has stopped at 3.15, but it might nonetheless actually be 3.15.

Still, 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 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.


Countering Social Oppression


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


  1. Really interesting post! As someone with a lot of sympathy for consequentialism, may I nevertheless take issue with both conclusions? While it’s true that there are perverse incentives for academic philosophers to seek complications, it would be very surprising, I think, if ethics was simple. I’d believe that even if I wasn’t an academic. Second, if consequentialism was true, ethics could still be complicated and there could still be a lot to do for philosophers: consequentialism calls for a theory of value, and that can be very intricate indeed.

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking read. I wonder if we as political theorists and philosophers also sometimes assign value to theories that have a kind of simple elegance at their heart? E.g., while a fully developed theory of moral contractarianism is obviously complex and intricate, its central claim about mutual justification is rather simple and elegant.

  3. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks for the very provoking and interesting piece! There might be a perverse incentive to seek complication, yes (although I agree with Anca that there is no reason why ethics would be simple). I just wanted to suggest that this adds to the perverse incentive to exaggerate disagreements with other philosophers to justify adding further publications and to claim originality. That’s what makes Parfit stand out, with his interesting thesis that the main moral theories actually converge – or could converge if philosophers were really seeking agreement more than originality!

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