Wednesday, 27 January 2010


The previous postings have indicated some difficulties with the discussion of the ethical positions that are often (not entirely consistently) classified under the headings of deontology and the priority of the right and indicated that the notion of teleology, as used in moral philosophy, is less clear-cut than many would lead us to believe. In turning to consequentialism as the next topic it would appear that at last we are on safe ground, both in terms of the general view, and in terms of its relationship to Kantian positions in moral philosophy. 

The reason why this appears so is that the general position of consequentialism is not as difficult to state as some of the previous views considered. It consists, as pretty much anyone agrees, in the claim that the rightness or wrongness/goodness or badness of an action consists in its consequences and not in any other attribute of the action in question. This much is, indeed, generally granted. But we only need to look at the general article on consequentialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to see that things quickly become complicated when you try to unpick what is meant by "consequences". The author of this piece, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, quickly makes clear that the ability to pick out such consequences is less than evident since a number of different things can be meant by "consequences". After all the consequences could be what actually follows from some action (as opposed to what was foreseen to follow from it), only on the "value" of the consequences (however these are determined), only on pleasures and pains as specific consequences (hedonistic version), only on the best consequences (so that a procedure of maximization is required), on either the total or average net good produced or on the effect on all affected (as opposed to only counting some). Other complications, not noted by Sinnott-Armstrong, concern whether the results should be assessed in terms of total benefits produced or in total harm reduced (positive and negative versions).

What is clear from looking at this array of questions is that the term "consequentialism" is a very broad-brush way of characterising a very varied family of views. This accords with the point made by C. D. Broad when he argued that the notions of teleological and deontological ethical theories should be seen only as ideal limits and not as characterisations of actual theories. What is evident from assessing the variety of types of things that could be meant by "consequences" is that the nature of what it is that is meant to be measured by this reference can vary very widely. Since it can so vary the question arises of the general point of this classification as a way of looking at a type of moral theory. The general point is, clearly, to characterise this type of theory by contrast to a different type. On these grounds consequentialism is the prime notion (or, rather, as is now apparent, set of notions) taken to be linked to teleological theories of ethics. It should be far from evident, however, why we should see consequentialist theories as teleological at all. If teleological theories involve taking an end as crucial for ethical evaluation and if this end could even be understood as self-sufficient (as in the idea of an end-in-itself) then such a prioritization of "ends" may well not lead to a concentration on consequences.

The second question this posting is meant to address is whether the family of views known as "consequentialism" have to be seen as intrinsically alien to Kantian ethics. Well, they certainly are so generally seen as the main position in moral theory seems to be that whatever we mean by "consequentialism" this position is widely at variance with Kant's view. However this view has been challenged, in a book-length work, simply called Kantian Consequentialism by David Cummiskey. Cummiskey points out that the position that Kant consistently defends as being his own is what is based on formal rather than material considerations (i.e., Kant begins from certain formal characteristics that describe the nature of a law and then arrives from these at a description of how we should approach any given matter). But this is not sufficient in itself to show that "consequences" (in the general sense) are of no relevance to Kant. And it is surely the case that Kant's view is one that will require some attention to consequence sensitivity and thus in one of the many senses of "consequentialism" could relate more or less closely to a view of ethics that would have some meaningful connection to one or another of the views listed under that title.

It is perhaps needless to add that Cummiskey's own view of Kantian ethics is somewhat controversial and nor am I suggesting that it should be endorsed. However, the fact that it is possible to advance it at all as a respectable notion that can be taken to have some sense should give pause to the general consensus that Kant and "consequentialists" are clearly and easily at polar opposites in ethical theory. In the next posting I will look at intuitionism.

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