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Mark Vuletic Objection To Consequentialism

Deontological Objections to Consequentialism (1994)

Mark I. Vuletic


One can imagine a deontologist attacking a consequentialist with the following invective:

It is you, not we, who are concerned with your own moral purity. Your position has the effect of absolving you of all personal responsibility for the things you do. There’s no element of personal decision; you simply calculate, and do what the numbers tell you to do, as if you were a machine. You tell your victim, ‘Sorry, it’s not me, you understand, I’m just an instrument of the greater good.’ Moreover, if you’ve done some horrible thing in pursuit of some supposed greater good, and it turns out to have terrible consequences, you shrug your shoulders and say, “I’m not to blame, it just turned out that way.” In essence, you try to transform yourself into a kind of unquestioning slave of utility maximization, and thereby try to escape all personal responsibility by blaming your decisions and actions on your master. [Hypothetical criticism written by Andrew Cross.]

The deontologist uttering these words raises three main questions: (1) do consequentialist systems of ethics absolve their adherents of all personal responsibility? (2) Do consequentialists in fact select their system of ethics in order to absolve themselves of all personal responsibility? (3) Are deontological systems of ethics and their adherents innocent on both charges? I will examine each of the first two questions in turn – the answer to the third question will become clear in the process.

Consequentialism as Absolution of Responsibility?

Our hypothetical deontologist claims that consequentialism absolves its adherents of all personal responsibility for three presumed reasons: (a) consequentialism removes all personal decision, as the consequentialist simply turns himself into a “slave of utility maximization”; (b) consequentialism allows an agent to rationalize away atrocities such as the injury of one person for the benefit of the many; (c) consequentialism allows one to shrug off disastrous states of affairs that are brought about when one’s consequentialist moral calculus advises a course of action that turns out to be wrong.

To reason (a), one may respond that if the consequentialist makes himself a “slave of utility maximization,” then the deontologist makes himself a slave of a set of rules. Is there any a priori reason why a commitment to utility maximization should be morally inferior to a commitment to a set of absolutist rules? It does not seem that there is, unless one begs the question by approaching it from a deontological viewpoint. For reason (a) to stand would necessitate an indisputable argument showing a non-consequentialist system of ethics to be the right system, as Kant tries to formulate – but judging from the depth of controversy in moral philosophy today, it seems rather doubtful that such an argument exists.

Reason (a) also ignores the existence of rule-of-thumb-utilitarianism, in which the element of personal decision certainly is present. The rule-of-thumb-utilitarian has no grand moral calculator to churn out a spreadsheet commanding him to a certain course of action, nor does he have a set of inflexible rules to constrain him to a single course of action, as the deontologist does. The rule-of-thumb-utilitarian consults the collective utilitarian wisdom of the centuries, but the ultimate decision as to what course of action he takes – even while remaining within the framework of consequentialism – is the agent’s personal responsibility.

To reason (b), one may respond that the consequentialist believes the sacrifice of one for the benefit of the many to sometimes be the morally correct thing to do – the consequentialist would no doubt argue that the ethical systems of consequentialism’s deontological critics allow an agent to rationalize away the atrocity of not injuring one person for the greater good. Briefly speaking, the exact nature of an “atrocity” is a matter of perspective. Granting this, the deontologist may reply that, indeed, one person must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good, but that at least the deontologist will recognize the sacrifice of the one person to be morally distasteful, whereas the consequentialist will simply drop the ax on the poor man and go merrily along his way. But such an objection is not without problems. In the first place, if we mean by “morally distasteful” that the action should evoke a sense of guilt in the perpetrator, then there is no reason to assume that the consequentialist, simply in virtue of his system of ethics, will not find his actions morally distasteful. Even if the consequentialist believes that he is “right” to choose the lesser of two evils, what is to prevent him from inwardly longing for a non-existent third alternative that makes everyone happy? There are clearly independent psychological grounds from which guilt springs, such that a person can believe what he did to be right – given the options available to him at the time – yet nevertheless suffer nightmares due to a plagued conscience. It is not clear that an agent must even be in part a deontologist for this to happen to him. But if by “morally distasteful” we mean that the action is in fact not right, how are we to say this in any meaningful way? In the first place, it seems silly to presume that given two actions, one of which is better than the other, and better than doing nothing at all, that performing that action is wrong – even if it is conducive to guilt. Secondly, to insist steadfastly upon this position would amount to question-begging, as it starts off with the assumption that the deontological notion of rightness and wrongness.

It is especially simple to see that consequentialism does not imply a sacrifice of responsibility when one considers rule-of-thumb-utilitarians once again. The rule-of-thumb-utilitarian, while as much concerned with utility maximization as any good consequentialist, is personally responsible for how he evaluates each particular situation. If, through a misevaluation of the situation, he performs actions that produce a very bad state of affairs, he cannot say “I was just following orders.” The deontologist may insist that the rule-of-thumb-utilitarian can always say “oh well, I tried my best,” but the deontologist who produces bad states of affairs can clearly say the same thing – in fact, the ability to shrug off negative consequences so long as one’s motives or intentions were pure is one of the luxuries commonly associated with deontological ethics. To the consequentialist, it would seem that it is deontological ethics that frees one from personal responsibility, not consequentialist ethics. To (c), the consequentialist responds in the same way as the did to (b) – there are grounds independent of one’s ethical system from which guilt springs, and from which the consequentialist might perhaps even encourage guilt to spring so as to discourage other consequentialists from being lax with their calculations. The consequentialist, no less than the deontologist, is concerned with doing the right thing, even if he has a different analysis of what the right thing is. And once again, if the consequentialist can shrug off disastrous results that result from following his moral calculus, the deontologist can certainly shrug off disastrous results that result from following his rules – in fact (once again) this ability is even more pronounced for the deontologist, since it is with actions, and not consequences, that the deontologist is concerned. The accidental performing of an act with disastrously wrong consequences could easily be more morally damaging to the consequentialist, who cares about results, than to the deontologist, who cares about motivations.

Consequentialism as a Refuge for the Morally Irresponsible?

It has been established that devotion to a consequentialist system of ethics does not necessarily entail a shunting of personal responsibility onto a moral calculus of utility. The question remains whether those who choose consequentialism in fact do so in order to avoid personal responsibility. The answer to this question is very brief: there is no reason to assume that consequentialists wish to avoid responsibility. Rather, it is clear that many choose a consequentialist system of ethics because they perceive it to be the right one. Such people may well view deontology as blind “rule worship” – as the blatant discarding of personal responsibility of which the deontologist accuses the consequentialist. For those who assert that consequentialists make themselves into unthinking, mechanical extensions of the principle of utility maximization, there is the response that the deontologists make themselves simple mechanical extensions of a set of perhaps arbitrary rules.

If someone adopts a system of ethics in order to absolve himself of moral responsibility, then that person is reprehensible on almost every account. Granted, such a person could fit into a consequentialist scheme (excluding rule-of-thumb-utilitarianism) quite well, but he could fit into a deontological system equally well. Throwing around charges about which system the irresponsible flock to is pointless. As J.J.C. Smart points out, “it may well be that there is no ethical system which appeals to all people, or even to the same person in different moods”[1], and no doubt it is also the case that consequentialists and deontologists can each be sincere in believing their system to embody “goodness and niceness”[2] and the other’s to embody “evilness and rottenness”[3]. In this light, assertions by deontologists about consequentialists denying their true moral obligations by voluntarily becoming extensions of some impersonal calculus, are seen to be without merit. We can say that the principle of utility maximization and the rules of deontological ethics can each be employed to absolve oneself of personal responsibility, but that people operating within both frameworks are likely to be trying their utmost to be decent, moral human beings.


[1] Smart, J.J.C. 1963. “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics”, p.7. In Smart, J.J.C., Williams, B. 1963. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] This phrase comes from a different Smart altogether.

[3] The venerable Maxwell Smart once again.

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