How to Justify Consequentialism Without Pointing at the Consequences?

What makes an action good or bad? People adhering to deontological ethics judge the morality of their actions based on whether their actions follow certain rules. ‘You should not kill’, ‘You should not steal’ and ‘You should not lie’ are examples of such rules. On the other end there are people who say that ‘ the ends justify the means’, and that the rightness or wrongness of an action is ultimately based on the outcomes of the action. ‘You may lie if the damage caused to the person you lie to is negligible in comparison to the utility you gain/the dis-utility you prevent from happening’ could be an example. The latter position is an instance of a the broader position of consequentialism

So: what position to choose? Should you base your conduct on absolute rules, or should you weigh the expected outcomes of actions in order to decide what action is the right one to take? One could say that it is reasonable to judge each case on its own merits. That it does not make sense to hold on to the rule ‘You should not lie’, because in some cases lying might be ‘better’ – in whatever sense defined – for both you and the person you lie too. For example: suppose your father is lying on his deathbed. You have just heard that your sister – the apple of your dad’s eye – got cancer. Given that you know that your dad cares an awful lot about your sister, and that telling about your sister’s situation is likely to worsen his health, it might in fact be bad – in terms outcomes – to tell him about your sister’s situation. Furthermore, given your own happiness, it might be better not to say anything (saving you the painful outcome of seeing your dad suffer from the news). Hence one could reasonably say that there are instances, such as this example, that falsify an absolute rule of conduct – ‘You should not lie,’ in this case. That implies that deontological ethics is not necessarily – or not always – the best stance to adopt.

That brings us to consequentialism: might this be a more reasonable position to adopt? In order to reasonably claim so, one should at least come up with a reasonable answer to the following question: how can you base your conduct on the outcomes of your actions if you don’t know what the consequences of your actions will be? We can – after all – not look into the future, hence we cannot know what the consequences of our actions will be. You could – for example – think that your girlfriend would not mind it if you’d post a photo of you and another girl on your social media (‘because she is so reasonable’), but it might turn out that, contrary to your expectation, she does. You can of course have expectations, but are expectations sufficient to ground moral conduct? After all, each case is unique – each case has innumerable factors that influence the outcome of one’s action. Hence even coming up with a reasonable expectation might – a priori – be impossible.

A more fundamental problem with consequentialism might be the premise on which the doctrine is based: something along the lines of ‘An action is good if its outcomes are good’. It seems that this rule – which forms the foundation of the consequentialist position – is, by definition, deontological in nature. But what then justifies this rule? If the reason would be that adopting this rule is good because it leads to the best outcomes, then we are justifying consequentialism with consequentialism, which seems intolerable. On the other hand, if we take this rule to be applied without looking at its expected outcomes, then we are deriving consequentialism – at least in part – from deontological ethics, which could cast doubt on whether one is actually applying consequentialism instead of deontological ethics.

I find this a difficult issue. What do you think?

P.S. For the sake of the length of this article, I left out pragmatic ethics. This seems to be a middle ground between deontological ethics and consequentialism that could be reasonable.

Written by Rob Graumans

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