Good and Wrong, Bad and Right

Or: "Why I Am a Deontic Consequentialist (and So Are You)"

Deontology is defined by Wikipedia as "a theory holding that decisions should be made solely or primarily by considering one's duties and the rights of others". It goes on to state that "a person's behavior can be wrong even if it results in the best possible consequences". To your typical convinced consequentialist, affirming the possibility that an action was wrong even though it had the best possible consequences is like affirming the possibility of a triangle with four angles. (Hearing deontologists assert exactly this has been known to cause aneurysms around here.)

But there's an easy way to make sense of it from a rule-consequentialist standpoint: if, owing to the complexities and uncertainties of life, the rule "don't lie" produces the best consequences over the long run, and it just so happens that in a particular instance telling a lie led to a good result, then ex ante the liar acted wrongly but ex post did good. I would contend that deontology is a doctrine that operates from the ex ante point of view while consequentialism operates from the ex post point of view. Seen in this light the two are not mutually exclusive, and it seems sensible to use "right" and "wrong" when assessing actions from the former point of view and "good" and "bad" when assessing them from the latter.

It also starts to seem weird that anyone would want to confine themselves to one or the other, because this helps us understand where each style of reasoning falls down on its own: any rational decision-making process requires starting with a set of priors and then updating these as new information becomes available. Figuring out the right set of ethical rules is just a special case of such a process, but exclusive deontology seems to require that we rigidly ignore any new information, and exclusive consequentialism seems to require complete information. Fortunately nobody actually reasons consistently in either of these ways, instead shifting back and forth between the two points of view. And in general, this is just what people should do.

Now let's all join hands and sing Kumbaya. Oh wait, we still have the small matter of what matters. I'll get to that Real Soon Now.

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