[Topics: Decision-making, Logic, Metaethics]
Moral Decision-making, and Navigating Philosophy:

How Both Consequentialists and Deontologists Actually Make Choices


David Hume Engraving 1754 - consequentalist - deontologist - decision-making


This is a post about moral decision-making, but it is not a post that engages at length with the particular theories involved. As the title is meant to imply, this article discusses a more general point about how any given philosopher uses philosophy to inform both the ises and the oughts of their perceptions and practices.

In the first post in this series, I argued that moral anti-realism may be true and yet have a functionally objective morality nested within it (as a feature of our evolved minds). Across the past few thousand years, compatibilists have argued that determinism may be true and yet have free will nested within it (as a feature of our freedom to act in accordance with our determined motivations). And, as I will treat briefly below, there is a general strategy available here of reconciling two halves of a dichotomous debate by attempting to understand what aspects of each side are really supported by the relevant evidence for each side. In particular, consequentialists and deontologists might make a more compelling case if they ceased to see their views as mutually exclusive.

Evidence, Pragmatism, and Compromise in Moral Decision-making:

This may be obvious to those of you who have been following this series from the beginning, but my orientation toward many issues in philosophy is not only informed by the relevant propositions’ logical, rational, or aesthetic value. It is also informed by how belief in a given stance on an issue relates to the relevant extant evidence, and by how the stance in turn manifests itself when informing practices—via decision-making. Although that sounds somewhat obvious, and many of you might think that those are common elements of such assessments, there are plenty of philosophers who seem to be working in a sphere of pure logic, wherein the formulation of logically consistent theories is the only aim (despite a great many of them not being solipsistic classical rationalists).

Two weeks ago on this blog, on the topic of proposed benefits of moral realism, the theoretical prowess of the system was weighed against the real-world justifications proffered in support of the system itself. There as always, when the epistemic justifications are weak, the beliefs and actions they inform are by definition weakly justified. If you think up a beautiful, consistent, and elegant system of moral and ethical philosophy (or of any philosophy, for that matter), it will remain unconvincing if your reasons for highly evaluating the system’s correspondence to reality are dubious. Similarly, my ability to think up a new set of internally consistent physical laws for a fictional universe has no relationship with the probability that the imagined universe actually exists. (This is precisely the isolation objection to sufficiency coherentism.)

Nor can anything be inferred about the truth or falsehood of a claim by any two parties agreement or disagreement about the claim. It is difficult to even express what sort of philosophy I am advocating, as words and phrases like common sense, practical, and pragmatic have been co-opted for specific philosophical purposes already. Perhaps what I mean is a sort of scientific philosophizing (and not a philosophy of science, nor logical positivism), closely related to actual philosophies of science from the likes of Popper and Kuhn.

J. L. Mackie Sketch by M.R.P. - consequentalist - deontologist - decision-making

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.

Some relevant questions would be: Is it important that we prove or disprove the existence of an external world, or should we simply proceed from a phenomenological position? Is it important that we prove or disprove free will, or should we simply proceed from our practical cases poised between what we seem able to freely choose and what we seem unable to freely affect? Is it important that we prove or disprove the existence of morals, or should we proceed from the functional, though not actual, objectivity we perceive?

These are by no means closed questions, and you will likely note that they have implicit within them certain definitions of importance and truth which are themselves philosophically contentious. But if your inclination in considering those questions is to think that we ought to proceed from the evidence available to us, then you might agree with this process of scientific philosophizing.

When a pure consequentialist and a pure deontologist argue over which point of view is the correct choice for informing moral decision-making, both are making unjustifiable assumptions about what is or can be known. The consequentialist is doing so with regards to the degree that all or most relevant consequences of an action can be known by an agent, whereas the deontologist is doing so with regards to the validity of the posited authority or reason from which their principles derive. Obviously there are more limited versions of both stances (which do not share as grand a helping of unjustified assumptions) that may help them oppose each other, but there is no reason that the two should be holding to their opposition in the first place.

Two drives in conflict may yet consistently exist, as any human who has ever made a difficult decision can well attest. If some basic morals are a part of the way in which the brain is structured, then those morals are part of a deontologically operating system forged in the fires of a consequentialist process. (For those astute readers that notice that this account deals only in amoral ises, there will be a future post confronting that fact directly.)


The truth is that both consequentialists and deontologists do most of their decision-making just like the vast majority of humanity, by comparing their impression of the consequences of an action to their impression of what they value or what they feel they ought to value.

So the lesson is much the same as last week: proceed with caution; do not be drawn into unrealistic absolutisms; and philosophize scientifically. But the door is now left open to discuss a similar common ground between two other old foes, rationalism and empiricism, in another post (a kind of pragmatism, but not fully Jamesian pragmatism).

[Topics: Decision-making, Logic, Metaethics]
Moral Decision-making, and Navigating Philosophy:

How Both Consequentialists and Deontologists Actually Make Choices

was last modified: March 26th, 2020 by Daniel Podgorski
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