“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.