Crash Course: Consequentialism & Deontology in Contemporary Normative Ethics


We’re going to try to solicit recommendations for a “crash course” on an aspect of contemporary ethics.

As with other installments in the crash course series, the idea is to come up with a set of primary readings a person could reasonably complete in 1-3 weeks that provides a sense of the central developments and matters of dispute in the selected area, as background to further study in it. Here’s a great example of the kind of answer we’re looking for, from our crash course on the epistemology of disagreement; note that it contains several works, organized in a particular order.

photograph by Derek Parfit

Today’s crash course topic—consequentialism and deontology in contemporary normative ethics—is quite a bit broader than our last one on the epistemology of disagreement, so it may be useful to give commenters some options about what to focus on: (1) contemporary consequentialist theories, (2) contemporary deontological theories, (3) a combination of 1 & 2, and (4) the important loci of disagreement between contemporary consequentialists and deontologists. In providing your answer, please let us know which of these best describes your recommendations. (Also, I think we should assume that the person taking your crash course has taken an introductory level course that covered the basic elements of the moral philosophies of major historical figures, such as Aristotle, Kant, and Mill.)

As I’ve noted in previous installments, some online resources (such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and PhilPapers) are quite helpful in learning about these areas, as are some textbooks. But I ask that commenters limit their suggestions here to substantive primary works on the subject—books and articles—keeping in mind that it’s supposed to be a crash course and not a semester’s worth of readings.

Thanks for your suggestions.

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IGS
IGS
2 years ago

Without question, T. M. Scanlon’s “Contractualism and Utilitarianism” should be on the list. It is short, clear, and lucidly describes the strengths people see in utilitarianism and how an alternative theory contractualist theory may speak to those concerns.Report

Douglas W. Portmore
2 years ago

Regarding (4), I think that these are classics:
Nozick, “Side Constraints,” Anarchy, State, and Utopia
Foot, “Utilitarianism and the Virtues,” Mind
Scheffler, “Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues,” Mind
Sen, “Rights and Agency,” PAPA
Dreier, “Structure of Normative Theories,” The Monist

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Mieke
Mieke
2 years ago

I think Shelly Kagan’s paper “The structure of normative ethics” provides a very useful framework for understanding these theories.Report

Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

Since about 1982, the consequentialism/deontology debate has been nicely separated into three main topics: (1) reasons to promote the good; (2) side-constraints, like rights against harm, which can make it *wrong* to promote the good; and (3) prerogatives, like the prerogative to promote self-interest, which can make it permissible *not* to promote the good even when constraints aren’t in the way. This helpful setup seems to have been ushered in by Scheffler’s The Rejection of Consequentialism.

About reasons to promote the good. Jimmy Lenman has a wonderful paper on what consequentialists should make of the fact that we are basically clueless when it comes to the long-run consequences of our actions, which — when you think about it — are certain to be vastly more significant than any of the short-term outcomes we can actually foresee. The paper is called “Consequentialism and Cluelessness.” There has also been some debate over what to make of individual actions (like buying a roast beef sandwich) that take place in gargantuan social systems (like the U.S. meat market). Given how these systems are actually set up, can consequentialists condemn acts whose badness is so diffuse? Shelly Kagan’s “Do I Make a Difference?” has attracted some discussion, and Parfit’s “Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics” is a classic. Finally, I can’t help but mention Caspar Hare’s “Should We Wish Well to All?” — a fresh spin on the trolley problem that shows how selective ignorance might make even deontological do-gooders kill one to save five.

(A controversial but legendary paper — which argues against there being a reason to help the many over the few — is John Taurek’s “Should the Numbers Count?” A precursor is Anscombe’s breezy “Who is Wronged?” which is a reply to Foot’s “Abortion and the Doctrine of Double-Effect,” itself arguably the greatest paper of 20th-century deontology.)

About side-constraints. I second Doug’s recommendations of Foot and Nozick (I’d also recommend one of his papers: “Consequentializing Moral Theories.”) For some in-the-trenches work on how constraints operate, I think you have to go back to Foot’s “Abortion” and Thomson’s papers on the Trolley Problem. More recently, Judy changed her view in the nicely readable “Turning the Trolley.” Kamm’s work in Morality, Mortality 2 is incredibly deep and relevant but also difficult; Intricate Ethics Chapter One is probably where to start.

I should mention that one classic constraint, the Doctrine of Double-Effect, is having a bit of a comeback. The principle says that it’s harder to justify harms when they are a means to one’s end (pushing someone in front of a trolley to stop it) than when they are a merely foreseen side-effect (as when the trolley is diverted onto a side-track and kills someone there). People used to dismiss the Doctrine as implausibly focused on agents’ psychologies, so that evildoers could evade the constraint just by having quirky motives. Defenders of the Doctrine are now arguing that this complaint doesn’t really make sense. See Uwe Steinhoff’s “Bennett, Intention, and the DDE”,” if you have a little background from reading Foot (and you might want to read some of the stuff Steinhoff cites).

Finally, prerogatives. I think Tom Hurka and Esther Shubert’s paper “Permissions to Do Less Than Best” is super clear and extremely important; they argue that we need primitive permissions, not just non-moral reasons, to make sense of the value of heroic self-sacrifice. From a more consequentialist point of view, Yetter Chappell’s “Willpower Satisficing” has given a beautiful solution to the problem of how to have (something like) prerogatives without letting people get away with gratuitously bad acts. Suppose, for example, that you have a prerogative not to give your money to charity. We’d still want to say that, if you decide to give, it’s wrong to give half your money and then burn the other half! Gratuitous badness has also become a hot topic in the deontology literature: see Joe Horton’s “The All or Nothing Problem” and Theron Pummer’s “Whether and Where to Give.”Report

Daniel Munoz
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

Also, one caveat. The reason I mentioned 1982 is that if you read stuff from *before* then, in the dark deontological ages, it’s pretty common to find that constraints and prerogatives get blurred together, or else prerogatives just get ignored. Williams’ “A Critique of Utilitarianism” uses prerogatives-talk when the issue seems to be constraints. W.D. Ross’s “What Makes Right Acts Right?” — which is still outrageously good! — doesn’t mention prerogatives.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Daniel Munoz
2 years ago

Exactly right about both Williams and Ross.Report

MM
MM
2 years ago

I’m not sure what number my list falls under (maybe 3? 4?), but here’re some <15 year old articles
"The Paradox of Deontology, Revisted," by Ulrike Heuer
"Consequentialize This*" by Campbell Brown
"Consequentializing Moral Theories" by Doug Portmore (see his list too)
"The Means Principle" by Larry AlexanderReport

Jussi
Jussi
2 years ago

This is a very tricky topic for a crash course and most of the suggestions above are already excellent. Perhaps my perspective on this is idiosyncratic but, even if I’m not sure which exact papers I would include on each section, I do know how I would like to structure and order this kind of a crash course to create a narrative as I see the recent developments. My course would have three parts:

1. Traditional extensional disagreements. I would begin from what I take to be the historically first stage of the debate. At this point, the disagreement was seen as extensional one: consequentialists and deontologists disagreed about which actions are right and wrong. These debates focused on constraints, prerogatives, dilemmas and various deontic principles such as DDE and DDA. So, for this point, I would probably choose one classic deontological defence of these non-consequentialist principles and a consequentialist critical discussion. Much of these are already listed above.

2. The consequentializing phase. In the recent second stage, philosophers have tried to show that the previous way of seeing the disagreement between consequentialists and deontologists just cannot be right. The way to do this has been to try to show that consequentialism is such a flexible framework that whatever first-order deontological set of verdicts you take it is possible to formulate a version of consequentialism that is extensionally equivalent to it. If this is right, then whatever the disagreement between consequentialism and deontology is it’s at least not about which actions are right and wrong – whatever those actions might be. Portmore’s Consequentializing Philosophy Compass paper is a nice overview of this stage, but ‘classic’ papers would include more papers by him, Dreier’s papers on the topic, Jennie Louise’s 2004 paper ‘Relativity of Value and the Consequentialist Umbrella’ and some of the objecting papers to this project as well from Campbell Brown and Mark Schroeder, for example.

3. The current and future phase. As a I see it, where this debate will go next is the question of what, if any, there is for the deontologists and consequentialists to disagree about after the phase 2 of the debate. Is that the disagreement is merely a superficial one about how the moral reality should be best presented? Is it a disagreement about the deeper structure of that reality even if not about which actions are not right and wrong? Is it about right- and wrong-makers? Is it a disagreement within value theory? Is it about proper methods of first-order moral philosophy? At this point, I don’t think we are even clear about what the alternatives are and certainly even if we have fascinating literature on the topic I’m not sure there are ‘classic’ papers yet that have emerged about where the debate is going. But, there are some things already that could be read.

That would be my crash course but I’m aware that most other people would do something very different given that I am a bit of a partisan here.
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Ed
Ed
Reply to  Jussi
2 years ago

This is really useful, Jussi. Thanks!

Though there might not yet be any classics at the third stage, would you mind suggesting some candidates?Report

Jussi
2 years ago

Thanks Ed! The third part I know the literature slightly less well – for one, it is a topic that gets discussed more as a part of papers on something else and it’s also something that I have only recently started to look into. But, here’s some suggestions for various options:
1. The idea that the debate is about what the right and wrong makers are was discussed by Portmore in section 6 of his ‘Consequentializing’ paper.
2. Jamie Dreier’s ‘In Defence of Consequentialising’ 2011 paper is a nice critical discussion of the previous view and a defence of the idea that the difference between deontological and their consequentialist versions are merely presentational though he suggests that presenting different first-order views in the consequentialist way can clarify things about the structure and so this can be methodologically helpful. There is a nice critical discussion of this thought in Andrew Schroeder’s ‘Consequentializing and Its Consequences’ paper.
3. The idea that the difference between deontological views and their consequentialist versions is structural – about whether good is prior to right or not goes back to Rawls at least. For example, Jonas Olson’s ‘Buck-Passing and the consequentialism/deontology distinction’ is a nice discussion of this proposal in a slightly different context.
4. The idea that the deontology/consequentialism distinction will become a distinction in value theory after the consequentializing project is nicely discussed in the paper by Jennie Louise I mentioned above.
In any case, predictions are hard to make but I wonder whether the debate will move towards this direction next.Report

Richard Y Chappell
2 years ago

On the development of consequentialism:

(1) Parfit, Reasons and Persons, chp. 1 provides essential background for thinking clearly about self-effacing theories and potential conflicts between utility-promoting acts vs utility-promoting dispositions. (Subsequent chapters are also, of course, fantastic.)

(2) Railton’s ‘Alienation’ paper is also a classic in this vein, though his subsequent ‘How Thinking about Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism’ is even better.

(3) Pettit & Smith, ‘Global Consequentialism’, might be seen as one culmination of this tradition, though I actually consider global consequentialism to be subtly misguided, in ways I explain in my ‘Fittingness: the sole normative primitive’ (highlighting the sense in which acts are normatively special).

On key points of dispute with deontologists:

(i) Scheffler, ‘Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues’ on the “paradox of deontology”; though for a recent challenge see Setiya, ‘Must Consequentialists Kill?’

(ii) Parfit, ‘Justifiability to Each Person’ offers a classic defense of aggregation. For a well-developed opposing view, see Voorhoeve, ‘How should we aggregate competing claims?’

(iii) Voorhoeve and others often motivate the anti-aggregative perspective as a matter of respecting the “separateness of persons”. Against this, my ‘Value Receptacles’ paper argues that the separateness of persons is best understood in terms of non-fungibility, which in turn is compatible with (a properly formulated) utilitarianism. Pairs nicely with G.A. Cohen, ‘Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value’.

(iv) Sobel, ‘The Impotence of the Demandingness Objection’, does a great job of challenging the demandingness objection. Woollard, ‘Dimensions of Demandingness’, offers a nice response.Report

Julia Driver
Julia Driver
2 years ago

I think the work by Frances Howard-Snyder and Ellie Mason on subjective consequentialism is quite good. See, for example,

Frances Howard-Snyder, “The Rejection of Objective Consequentialism,” Utilitas, 1997 and
Elinor Mason, “Consequentialism and the “Ought Implies Can” Principle,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 2003Report

Mark Schroeder
2 years ago

I think you can still do pretty well just by reading parts 3 and 4 of The Methods of Ethics, Williams’ contribution to the Smart and Williams volume and then taking a break. Report