“Deontology” and why our jargon for ethical theories is a mess

I keep meaning to reply to Yvain’s reply to my recent post on abortion, but there’s one preliminary I need to get out of the way first: Yvain asks if I’m  “a deontologist (ie you believe things are wrong not because of their consequences, but because they fit into predetermined Categories of Wrong Things).”

Well, defined that way deontology sounds silly, and I’m agnostic about what moral theory is right, so technically I can answer “no” to all questions of the form, “are you an adherent of [moral theory]?” But it’s still an awkward question to answer because as a rule, people don’t use the word “deontology” in any coherent way.

Here’s the intro paragraph of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Deontological Ethics”:

The word deontology derives from the Greek words for duty (deon) and science (or study) of (logos). In contemporary moral philosophy, deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do (deontic theories), in contrast to (aretaic [virtue] theories) that — fundamentally, at least — guide and assess what kind of person (in terms of character traits) we are and should be. And within that domain, deontologists — those who subscribe to deontological theories of morality — stand in opposition to consequentialists.

You may have noticed that this paragraph fails to give a definition of “deontology.” The rest of the article doesn’t either, though it does say quite a bit about features of consequentialism that deontology doesn’t have. From that, you might conclude that “deontology” just means “any moral theory that isn’t consequentialism,” and there’s a lot to be said for that definition as an explanation of how philosophers actually use the term.

Of course, that leaves out virtue ethics, which the authors of the SEP article give a nod to in the first paragraph and then ignore for the rest of the article. That’s a reflection of another general rule about how the jargon is used: “virtue ethics” fits really awkwardly into the standard deontological vs. consequentialist scheme. (Note that the authors’ proposed solution doesn’t really work, as self-described virtue ethicists typically do have things to say about what we ought to do.)

Another indicator of how inadquate these terms are is the is the PhilPapers survey. In one question, they asked respondents to chose between “deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics,” and if you look at the coarse-grained results, the winner turns out to be–*drum roll*–”other,” with nearly a third of the vote.

Now if you look at the finer grained results, some of that “other” was things like “agnostic/undecided,” but it looks to me like at least 10% of the total answers are ones that indicate some dissatisfaction with the options given. That’s in spite of the fact that the PhilPapers survey seems to have been designed to push respondents away from saying “other” in any form.

There’s also the issue that when students are introduced to the issue, they’re often given the impression that deontology = Kantian ethics. But there are a number of fairly clear problems with Kantian ethics, including:

  1. The fact that Kant claimed the consequences of our actions don’t matter at all for morality, which seems pretty implausible.
  2.  The fact that Kant gave a bunch of different formulations of his Categorical Imperative, which he claimed were all equivalent to each other but which look obviously different.
  3. Problems with individual formulations of the Categorical Imperative, such as the problems with identifying what the heck the “maxim” behind an action is for the most famous “universal law” formulation.

For reasons like these, I suspect the ~25% of deontologists from the PhilPapers survey would not insist on strict adherence to Kant, even in the main outlines of his theory and before you get into things like what Kant said about lying to Nazis who want to know if there are any Jews in your house among other issues.

To make a long story short, the philosophical terminology for theories in (normative) ethics is kind of a mess. Consequentialism is reasonably coherently defined (though there are some complications), but the main term for something that’s supposed to be an alternative to consequentialism doesn’t actually mean very much beyond “not consequentialism.”

That makes it kinda useless. If you want to say that, you can just say, “not consequentialism,” and using a big fancy word like “deontology” makes it sound like you’re saying something more (and may lead you to fool yourself into thinking you’re saying something more) when really you’re not.

  • smrnda

    I actually had a pretty heated exchange with a person who took me to task for being a ‘consequentialist’ and at the time I had never heard the term. The discussion was over business regulations – the person was opposed because he viewed them as inherently wrong regardless of the benefits to people from having them or the harm caused by not having them. I wish I’d payed more attention to the exact words he used, but it all seemed like jargon at the time.

    I kind of interpret the conflict between a sort of materialism or idealisim thing, but I don’t want to misuse philosophical terms.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I find it interesting that you say you are “agnostic about what moral theory is right” yet you are sure abortion is OK. It seems like questions of moral theory should be answered first.

    • http://peicurmudgeon.wordpress.com/ peicurmudgeon

      It seems that what the problem is not in the concept of a personal moral theory, but in how one’s personal theory fits under one of the labels. My understanding of Chris’ post is that deontology is very poorly defined. Without a good definition, I could not say whether I fit there or not. I tend to work out my own ethical system without worrying what label fits. Much the same as I avoid terms like left and right in politics. people rarely fit into nice little boxes.
      But then, my philosophy is more from reading than studying, so I sometimes end up contradicting myself. I’m working on that.

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        I thought agnostic means more than not having a name for what you believe. I thought it means not knowing what the truth is.

    • Matti

      Practically all rationally based moral theories (as opposed to religion-based) come out on the side of bodily autonomy (and hence abortion) so no, we don’t have to know which one of those is the correct one to OK abortion.

    • eric

      Making decisions under uncertainty is what humans do. We do it every hour of every day. Sure, it would be really nice if we could resolve which is the correct (in some absolute sense) moral theory first, then derive our specific moral conclusions from that theory. But that resolution is not here yet, and in the mean time, people are going to make moral judgements because not doing so – philosophical paralysis – is impractical.

    • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

      Moral theories are judged against the desired answers to moral questions. Moral questions aren’t judged according to moral theories. There is supposedly some back-and-forth going on (reflective equilibrium) but in reality, few people are willing to stick to a moral theory the first time they don’t FEEL happy with a result.

  • Laurence

    Virtue ethics is the superior moral theory.

    • MNb

      Yeah, especially given the worldwide and historically constant consensus about what is virtuous and what not.

      • Pseudonym

        I’m not Laurence, but I didn’t see him claim that virtue ethics is unambiguous, merely that it was superior.

        I suspect that any coherent view of morality involves a certain amount of all three approaches, and possibly more besides. However, I do seem to think more in terms of virtue and vice than consequentialism.

        Consequentialism is great when it works. If you can predict in advance, with sufficiently high certainty, that the outcome of some act will be good or bad, then this can clearly help inform (possibly determine, even) what you should do. But these are likely the easy cases as far as ethical quandries go. They’re the type of case for which any half-decent notion of “duty” or “virtue” will probably come to the same conclusion.

  • Annatar

    Question regarding these moral theories: What about non-foundationalism? It seems to me that all these theories are interesting and thought provoking, but they all obviously have problems with them. Couldn’t one say “There are real moral facts, but there isn’t any deeper metaphysical account of what makes them moral facts, they just are?”

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    I agree about “deontology” being a fuzzy term that reliably only means, “An action can be morally wrong even if — everything else considered — it leads to a better outcome.” People seem to avoid consequentialism because they have a limited view of what that can involve; the tip-off is when they argue against consequentialism by citing unwanted consequences.

  • smrnda

    I think the real issue of people who argue against consequentialism is that they want to argue that something is good which happens to benefit them but which would cause harm to others. They really are consequentialists, but they are often just trying to hide the fact that their position is just held out of pure self-interest and nothing more. I’ve never met a non-consequentialist who would not have benefited personally (at least as far as it could be determined) from the objective, non-consequentialist morals they were promoting.

    I look at the lack of a moral theory the way a person might know that Drug X fixes Problem Y, and that Problem Y happens when you do Z. The knowledge of what happens is there, but there is no theory to explain what’s going on. It’s nice to have a theory, but knowing what works is still real knowledge.

    • Pseudonym

      So let me try you out with a scenario. Yes, just like the trolleys, this is a completely artificial example.

      Suppose that you are a public officer who has to make a decision. Your choice is between X and Y. You look at the facts rationally, and decide that option X is objectively superior to option Y, and hence that is the decision you will make.

      Before you publish your decision, you are met by someone who works for a person or company who have a financial interest in the outcome of your decision. They offer you a bribe if only you’ll choose option X over option Y. Suppose, furthermore, that it is guaranteed (this is hypothetical, so I don’t know how) that nobody would ever find out that you took the bribe.

      The question is: Do you take the bribe?

      From the point of view of deontology, you should answer “no”. Taking bribes is against your duty as a public officer. From the point of view of virtue ethics, you should also answer “no”, because you are (presumably) not a corrupt official and you don’t want to start being one now.

      From the point of view of consequentialism, the answer is less clear. Taking the bribe or not taking the bribe doesn’t change your decision. You did make that decision on the merits. The only difference is you get some money from someone who is perfectly willing to give it to you. Is there a consequentialist downside to taking the bribe?

      That was an honest question, by the way. I don’t know the answer.

      • smrnda

        Perhaps I don’t understand the distinctions well enough, but I would argue that though taking the bribe does not influence the decision of the officer, having it known that public officials take bribes can bring about some bad consequences in that more people will attempt to bribe public officers. With more money coming in, more public officers might start letting the money to the thinking for them. From my own point of view, if it is known that I have taken a bribe, it could damage my future in that my decisions will not be trusted, or that I will be removed from office.

        An example that a person who said he was a ‘non-consequentialist’ gave was that he was opposed to all workplace safety regulations since he simply opposed all government interventions into business as a matter of fact. To me, he was being irrational since he’s arguing something is ‘good’ even though he admitted that the outcomes would be very bad for most people – he just felt that government intervention in businesses was inherently bad. To me, this seemed irrational since it was just like creating a god and then serving it regardless of consequences.

        • Pseudonym

          I would argue that though taking the bribe does not influence the decision of the officer, having it known that public officials take bribes can bring about some bad consequences in that more people will attempt to bribe public officers.

          It’s a crucial part of the scenario that you can be certain that nobody would find out, so the problem of having it known that bribery is happening doesn’t arise.

          To me, he was being irrational since he’s arguing something is ‘good’ even though he admitted that the outcomes would be very bad for most people – he just felt that government intervention in businesses was inherently bad.

          I would say that’s a rational conclusion given the (highly controversial) assumption.

          I’d want to know why he thinks that government intervention in business is inherently bad. If he answered “because it has historically produced bad outcomes”, then he is actually a consequentialist.

          Of course, this seems, to me, to be one of those situations where all of the three main approaches to ethics give essentially the same answer. A deontologist might speak of the “duty of care” of an employer. A virtue ethicist might speak in terms of “probity”, or ask if the employer is a “fit and proper person”.

  • http://specterofreason.blogspot.com Jason Streitfeld

    If you look at the fine-grained results of the PhilPapers survey, you’ll see that more philosophers lean towards deontology than consequentialism or any other option. More philosophers accept deontology more than consequentialism or any other option. So either philosophers generally have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to normative ethics, or your thesis (that the terminology is vacuous and worthless) is wrong. I’m inclined to think that your thesis is wrong and that you haven’t given the subject a fair trial. First of all, the Stanford Encyclopedia entry does not reflect the general wisdom. SEP entries are known to be controversial. However, I think this SEP entry is pretty clear about what deontology is about. It says that Right trumps the Good: that morality is about promoting the right choices, regardless of their consequences: “For deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm.” So, for deontologists, what is morally right is what is in conformity with behavioral norms.

    I’m not saying this is a satisfying metaethical view–or even a satisfying family of views–but it does seem coherent, at least. I don’t you’ve identified a reason to object to the terminology.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I think the dilemma you set up is a false one. Philosophers can slip into using jargon in ill-defined ways without “having no idea what they’re talking about.” I also suspect the survey design may have nudged philosophers to picking one of the main list of choices (in this case deontology vs. consequentialism vs. virtue ethics) even if they weren’t totally happy with the answers. See, for example, the surprisingly small number of agnostics on most issues–would there have been that few agnostics if you didn’t have to go to a drop down menu for “agnostic”?

      Also, the “other” options are *very* finely grained, dividing the vote of the people who aren’t happy with the listed options. How different are “Accept an intermediate view,” “Accept another alternative,” “Reject all,” and “The question is too unclear to answer,” really? (Collectively, they were 12% of the vote on the normative ethics question.)

      • http://specterofreason.blogspot.com Jason Streitfeld

        You’re still not giving a reason to think there’s any lack of coherence in the definition of “deontology.” You’re just speculating about the thoughts and inclinations of the people who took that survey in an attempt to make the results better fit your thesis. I happen to think your speculations are unawarranted, but even if you are right–even more philosophers are dissatisfied with deontology than the survey suggests–you still wouldn’t have a case against the very coherence of the term “deontology.”

  • http://specterofreason.blogspot.com Jason Streitfeld

    Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have said “philosophers generally” in my previous comment. True, only a minority either accepts or leans towards deontology, but even those who reject it are still sometimes found to treat it as a coherent option. So it would be strange if the single most popular view in normative ethics is simply without any coherent definition at all. Not that it’s impossible, but, as I said, I don’t think you’ve given a reason to think it is so.

  • smrnda

    Here’s a question that I have. I think that these two sentences are very different in meaning:

    “You should do the right thing regardless of consequences.”


    “You should do the right thing regardless of the consequences TO YOU.”

    I tend to agree with the second, but the second seems (to me) to be totally consequentialist. But (I’ll ask Jason) would that fit into a deontologist scheme? Under a deontoligist vision of ethics, could the correct choice be bad for everybody?

    • http://specterofreason.blogspot.com Jason Streitfeld

      Yeah, I’d agree those sentences are different in meaning, smrnda. But how should we interpret them? if you’re a consequentialist, then “doing the right thing” just means doing whatever will produce the best outcome. (Now, if you’re a realist, then you think there really is something that determines what is the best outcome, regardless of what anybody thinks of it. If not, then I’m not sure what “best outcome” is supposed to mean.)

      So, if you’re a consequentialist, then what the first sentence means is that you should do whatever produces the best outcome regardless of the consequences. That’s not so coherent.

      If you’re a consequentialist, then the second sentence just means that you should do what will produce the best outcome regardless of how you will personally be affected. That makes sense (so long as you have some way of making sense of the idea of “the best outcome.”)

      But if you’re a deontologist, then both sentences make sense and can be true. The first sentence just means that you should be a deontologist. The second sentence means you should me morally upright and not focused on your own situation. Both make sense for a deontologist. Neither is inherently consequentialist.

      For a deontologist, there doesn’t have to be a coherent notion of “good for everybody” or “bad for everybody.” But if there was some way of measuring these things, and if we had some metric for deciding on what is good for everybody, then the question for the deontologist is this: Is there a moral obligation to do what is best for everybody? I’m not sure of the answer, but you can say that the answer is “yes” and still be a deontologist.

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