Reconciling Consequentialism with Deontology
By Alec Rawls © 1996/1998. (1500 words) Originally published in The Stanford Review 10/28/96.

Liberal and conservative priorities are aligned on opposite sides of two theoretical divides in moral philosophy: "consequentialism" vs. "non-consequentialism" and "deontology" vs. "teleology". On each of these divides, there is a simple necessary answer to which side must be right: any tenable moral theory must be both consequentialist and deontological. Liberals and conservatives are each on the wrong side of one of these divides. By combining the requirements of consequentialism and deontology (only one moral structure satisfies both) we can eliminate what is errant about each of liberalism and conservatism and reconcile them with each other.

Consequentialism embodies the conservative focus on efficient means. It holds that means are to be judged solely by their effectiveness in pursuing ends. Non-consequentialist views counter that the ends do not always justify the means -- that it also matters how ends are pursued.

This conundrum is easily resolved. Of course the ends do not always justify the means, but that does not imply that effective pursuit of ends is not the proper determinant of means. Rather, when the ends do not justify the means, the proper conclusion is that a full accounting of ends would not justify these means, but would call for something else. Either the instrumental reasoning from ends to means is errant, or something that is valuable as an end is not being treated in accordance with the value we can see to give to it (or else the ends in question really do justify the means in question). The one thing we know for sure is that the only thing that can possibly justify means are ends. It is just a matter of keeping straight what "ends" and "means" refer to. There may be some complications to attend to when talking about things that have value both as ends and means, but means qua means can only be judged pursuant to ends. That is what it means for something to be a means. It is a means to an end.

The conflict between deontology and teleology can also be resolved simply by keeping the meaning of words straight -- in this case the concepts of the right and the good. A deontological theory is one that manifests a priority of the right over the good. We know that any tenable moral theory must manifest this priority, simply because "right" refers to those priorities we can assert with certainty, while "good" refers to what we can say about value more generally.

The difficulty is to figure out how to reconcile deontology with what is right about teleology. A teleological theory is one that defines the right as whatever maximizes attainment of the good. Because it focuses on efficient means, it is consequentialist, as we know a tenable theory must be, but it leaves the right subordinate to the good, which is untenable. How can we get efficient means (consequentialism) without sacrificing the priority of right (deontology)?

As it turns out, there are two ways to achieve a deontological structure, a consequentialist way and a non-consequentialist way. The non-consequentialist way is to impose principles of right as constraints on acceptable means for pursuing the good. This violates consequentialism because consequentialism says that means can only be determined by ends. They cannot be imposed from outside without violating the logic of ends and means.

The alternative and necessarily correct way to achieve the priority of right is to get principles of right into the conception of the good. That is, all priorities that can be established as a matter of right must be integral to the full set of values and priorities that is pursued. Then we can pursue ends maximally because we know that the ends that are pursued properly account all value, or rather, that they are not so far off of a full accounting of value as to violate any known principles of right. Efficient pursuit of the good in this case will manifest the priority of right "from the inside" so to speak.

The problem for moral theory is that a way to get the right into the good has not seemed to be available. Thus moral theorists have been faced with the choice of either imposing principles of right from the outside or of failing to manifest the priority of right at all. Here liberals have been the more willing to violate consequentialism in order to achieve deontology, while conservatives, with their focus on efficient means, have been less willing to violate consequentialism and impose restrictions from outside.

If compromise is necessary, some attempt to capture the priority of right is surely called for, but the conservative reluctance to violate consequentialism has proved very valuable too, as conservatives have opposed a parade of ludicrous proclaimed rights. As it turns out, no compromise on either side is necessary. It is perfectly possible to get full deontology without violating consequentialism.

What is needed, in order to build the priority of right into the ends that are pursued, is a theory of ends. The big surprise is that John Stuart Mill actually figured out the theory of ends a hundred and fifty years ago, only no one ever understood him or followed his lead.

The theory of ends begins with Mill's concept of higher ends, the gist of which is that informed choice is superior to, or preferable to, uninformed choice. ("Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure." Utilitarianism, chapter II, PP 5.) A preference for informed choice is a basic principle of rationality. Having more information about what is valuable puts one in a better position to reap value. To follow this preference for informed choice, one must abide by the implications of reason for how to follow and marshall evidence about what there is to value in the world, and this leads to progress in discovering what there is to value.

These discoveries of value in turn imply restrictions on what can possibly be a part of a maximizing pursuit of value, and these restrictions then become one's principles of right -- some being principles of what is right for oneself, some about how it is right to treat others, and some about what should be the legal concept of right.

This necessary structure of moral theory can be summarized as follows: any tenable moral theory must manifest the priority of right (deontology). The only way to accomplish this consistent with efficient means (consequentialism) is to use the theory of ends (the implications of right reason for progress in the discovery of what there is to value in the world) to get those priorities that can be established as a matter of right into the set of ends to be pursued. Those priorities will then imply limits on what can possibly be a part of a maximizing pursuit of ends, yielding principles of right action "from the inside" (from within a complete analysis of value, from ends to means), instead of "from the outside" (imposed as constraints on the efficient pursuit of ends).

The upshot is that rights cannot be imposed as constraints on the cost-benefit analysis of how best to pursue ends, but must derive from this analysis. Thus the liberal habit of proclaiming rights that are to be held above the fray of competing interests violates the most elemental moral logic. Liberals are to be commended for insisting on getting the priority of right into the equation, but this decision to place conclusions ahead of analysis has proved for many to be a slippery slope into irrationality. "Liberal" extremists simply must stop the moral insanity of first refusing to think straight about moral reason, then accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being a racist or a sexist or some other kind of hater.

To those who would deny that such behavior is any part of liberalism, I am in complete sympathy, but it was the liberal decision to shortcut analysis that loosed the beast of unreason in liberal garb. At first I think it was hubris. Trusting in their reasonableness, liberals thought they could indulge a little unreason. Now that the beast is loose, we all have a duty to reign it in where we live. Conservatives are fighting that battle every day, but many liberals are afraid to cross the line and get on the bad side of those who constantly try to undercut analysis with charges of hatred. Worse, I believe many liberals still aren't sure that unreason is necessarily wrong. If it was necessary to declare conclusions superior to analysis before, couldn't it still be necessary now?

So hear what I am saying. It was never necessary. Analysis always had the answer, if only it had been followed. Learn that lesson. The only love that matters is love for the truth and the only real haters are those who let themselves hide from the truth.

(Alexander Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics)


Next article in Utilitarianism volume of Moral Science: Getting Rawlsian Moral Theory Right

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