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Moral Moments


by Joel Marks

I have written many times about the superiority of a particular type of ethics to its main alternative. It is time to face the issue head on. I ally myself with the kind of ethical theory associated with Immanuel Kant. Sometimes called ‘deontology,’ from the Greek word for duty, deon, its hallmark is that the outcomes of our actions matter less (if at all!) than the motives of our actions. Its connection with duty is that the right sort of motive or ‘will’ is to be responsive to moral obligation or duty; we should do the right thing precisely because it is the right thing to do. In particular, according to Kant, our constant concern should be to treat people as ends in themselves and not simply as means to achieving our own purposes. Every rational being (or as I prefer, living being) is to be respected as having intrinsic value.

The opposed position, associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is that the consequences of our actions are what determine whether we have done the right thing. If the results are better than those any alternative action could have brought about, then we have acted morally; otherwise, not.

Each of these two doctrines is compelling in its own way, but the consequentialists think they can trump the deontologists quite handily. Suppose that deontology prohibits lying in some instance because it would involve treating somebody as a mere tool to achieve a goal; the consequentialist would remark that the prohibition makes sense only if the effect of the lie would be worse than the effect of telling the truth. But if the contrary were the case, then why should we not lie? Suppose that saving your child’s life depended upon deceiving a malicious kidnapper: Could any respect that is owed the fiend as a person possibly outweigh the judgment that is rendered by the results?

I have pondered these matters for many years and remain convinced that Kantianism gets the better of consequentialism every time. I have many reasons, but for now I will concentrate on dealing with the consequentialist’s objection. First I will concede that any Kantian judgment has to coincide with a corresponding consequentialist judgment. Thus, in the kidnapping example, if indeed there were no way to conceive the likely outcome other than in the way indicated, then it would be crazy for a Kantian to behave in virtuous indifference to that fact. But she wouldn’t have to. There is clearly a story to be told about respect for the kidnapped child, and for oneself, as well as for the kidnapper, who, while not forfeiting all respect (for example, he should not be paraded around Abu Ghraib in women’s panties after he is captured), may nonetheless not deserve every consideration he might wish for.

In the vast majority of cases where there might appear to be a Kantian/consequentialist divergence, however, a careful analysis of the situation would present a far more ambiguous characterization of the likely results. To put that more simply: The future is unknowable. Yes, of course, we fancy we are pretty good at predicting short-term outcomes, such as what will happen if you turn the doorknob and pull (the door will open ... although certainly not always!), and incredibly good at making long-term astronomical predictions, such as the date of Halley’s Comet’s next closest approach to Earth (July 29, 2061 ... barring unforeseen circumstances!). But when one considers that the only outcomes that matter for any consequentialist ethics are the highest net long-term outcomes of all of the available options, realization must dawn that any such calculation is impossible; for example, when does ‘long-term’ end?

The practical result is that consequentialists adduce either more reliable (but irrelevant!) short-term predictions, or else whatever long-term predictions suit their purposes (whether by devious intent or innocent bias). But Kantians can play that game too, which is why I am confident a compatible judgment based on assessing outcomes can always be found for any Kantian judgment based on respecting persons.

Still, consequentialists might insist that some sort of consequentialist intuition underlies Kantianism (however unknowable the actual, relevant consequences may be). The argument here would be that ethics is about justification, not motivation; the philosophical theorist wants to know what makes something right or wrong – for example, why is it (ever) wrong to lie? Thus, for Kantianism in general, even if the prescription is always to act from a certain sort of motive (namely, to respect persons), one wants to know why one ought to do that. And it seems to the consequentialist that the only plausible answer would be: Because acting on the basis of that sort of motivation generally leads to better outcomes than acting from other sorts of motives (including explicitly consequentialist ones!).

For example, a recent study by researchers at Yale University found that “Patients receiving care from for-profit hospices received a narrower range of hospice services than patients who received care from not-for-profit hospices” and therefore advises more attention be paid by the public health community to “the impact of profit motive on patient care” (Yale Bulletin and Calendar, May 7, 2004). One could therefore conclude that some sort of Kantian motive (e.g., to treat dying persons with dignity) is more likely to lead to the best outcome than is a consequentialist motive (e.g., to maximize revenues).

Why not, then, accept this ‘best of both worlds’ solution of consequentialist justification for non-consequentialist motivation? My reply: Occam’s Razor. This consequentialist parsing does no work. We have already seen that one can tell any consequentialist story one likes; yet our Kantian obligation remains, no matter what. I am almost ready to regard respect for all living beings as a brute obligation, which is as much a part of the fabric of the universe as are the laws of physics.

© Joel Marks 2005

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com

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