A confusion about deontology and consequentialism

I think there’s a con­fu­sion in our dis­cus­sions of de­on­tol­ogy and con­se­quen­tial­ism. I’m writ­ing this post to try to clear up that con­fu­sion. First let me say that this post is not about any ter­ri­to­rial facts. The is­sue here is how we use the philo­soph­i­cal terms of art ‘con­se­quen­tial­ism’ and ‘de­on­tol­ogy’.

The con­fu­sion is of­ten stated thusly: “de­on­tolog­i­cal the­o­ries are full of in­junc­tions like ‘do not kill’, but they gen­er­ally provide no (or no in­ter­est­ing) ex­pla­na­tions for these in­junc­tions.” There is of course an equiv­a­lently con­fused, though much less com­mon, com­plaint about con­se­quen­tial­ism.

This is con­fused be­cause the term ‘de­on­tol­ogy’ in philo­soph­i­cal jar­gon picks out a nor­ma­tive eth­i­cal the­ory, while the ques­tion ‘how do we know that it is wrong to kill?’ is not a nor­ma­tive but a meta-eth­i­cal ques­tion. Similarly, con­se­quen­tial­ism con­tains in it­self no ex­pla­na­tion for why plea­sure or util­ity are morally good, or why con­se­quences should mat­ter to moral­ity at all. Nor does con­se­quen­tial­ism/​de­on­tol­ogy make any claims about how we know moral facts (if there are any). That is also a meta-eth­i­cal ques­tion.

Some con­se­quen­tial­ists and de­on­tol­o­gists are also moral re­al­ists. Some are not. Some be­lieve in di­v­ine com­mands, some are he­do­nists. Con­se­quen­tial­ists and de­on­tol­o­gists in prac­tice always also sub­scribe to some meta-eth­i­cal the­ory which pur­ports to ex­plain the value of con­se­quences or the source of in­junc­tions. But con­se­quen­tial­ism and de­on­tol­ogy as such do not. In or­der to avoid straw­man­ing ei­ther the con­se­quen­tial­ist or the de­on­tol­o­gist, it’s im­por­tant to ei­ther dis­cuss the com­pre­hen­sive views of par­tic­u­lar ethi­cists, or to care­fully leave aside meta-eth­i­cal is­sues.

This Stan­ford En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Philos­o­phy ar­ti­cle pro­vides a helpful overview of the is­sues in the con­se­quen­tial­ist-de­on­tol­o­gist de­bate, and is care­ful to dis­t­in­guish be­tween eth­i­cal and meta-eth­i­cal con­cerns.

SEP ar­ti­cle on Deontology