Deontologist Envy

Many con­se­quen­tial­ists of my ac­quain­tance ap­pear to suffer from a tragic case of de­on­tol­o­gist envy.

In con­se­quen­tial­ism, one makes eth­i­cal de­ci­sions by choos­ing the ac­tions that have the best con­se­quences, whether that means max­i­miz­ing your own hap­piness and flour­ish­ing (con­se­quen­tial­ist eth­i­cal ego­ism), in­creas­ing plea­sure and de­creas­ing pain (he­do­nic util­i­tar­i­anism), satis­fy­ing the most peo­ple’s prefer­ences (prefer­ence util­i­tar­i­anism) or in­creas­ing the num­ber of pre-defined Good Things in the world (ob­jec­tive list con­se­quen­tial­ism). Of course, it’s im­pos­si­ble to figure out all the con­se­quences of your ac­tions in ad­vance, so many peo­ple fol­low par­tic­u­lar sets of rules which they be­lieve max­i­mize util­ity over­all; this is some­times called “rule con­se­quen­tial­ism” or “rule util­i­tar­i­anism.”

In de­on­tol­ogy, one makes eth­i­cal de­ci­sions by choos­ing the ac­tions that fol­low some par­tic­u­lar rule. For ex­am­ple, one might do only the ac­tions that you’d will that ev­ery­one do, or ac­tions that in­volve treat­ing other peo­ple as ends rather than means, or ac­tions that don’t vi­o­late the rights of other be­ings, or ac­tions that don’t in­volve ini­ti­at­ing ag­gres­sion, or ac­tions that are not sins ac­cord­ing to the teach­ings of the Catholic Church. While it’s al­lowed to care about whether things are bet­ter or worse (some de­on­tol­o­gists I know call it their “ax­iol­ogy”), you can only care about that within the con­straints of the rule sys­tem.

In spite of my sym­pa­thies for virtue ethics, I do think it is gen­er­ally bet­ter to make de­ci­sions based on whether the out­comes are good as op­posed to de­ci­sions based on whether they fol­low a par­tic­u­lar set of rules or are the de­ci­sions a per­son with par­tic­u­lar virtues would make. (I con­tinue to find it weird that these are the Only Three Op­tions For De­ci­sion-Mak­ing About Ethics, So Says Philos­o­phy, but any­way.) So do most peo­ple I know.

I have some con­se­quen­tial­ist be­liefs about free speech. For in­stance, I sup­port mak­ing fun of peo­ple who say sex­ist or racist things in pub­lic. I think it is fine to call some­one a bi­goted ass­hole if they are, in fact, say­ing bi­goted ass­hole things. I ap­pre­ci­ate Charles Mur­ray re­fus­ing to speak at an event Milo Yi­annopoulous is at be­cause he is “a de­spi­ca­ble ass­hole” and I wish more peo­ple would fol­low his ex­am­ple. And when I ex­press my con­se­quen­tial­ist be­liefs about free speech a sur­pris­ing num­ber of my con­se­quen­tial­ist friends re­spond with “but what if your poli­ti­cal op­po­nents did that?”

I did not re­al­ize we are all Kan­ti­ans now.

I think there are three things that peo­ple some­times mean by “but what if ev­ery­one did that?” The first is sim­ple em­pa­thy: if it hurts you to be shamed, then you should con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that it hurts other peo­ple to be shamed too, no differ­ently from how you are hurt. I agree that this is an im­por­tant ar­gu­ment, and we could all stand to be a lit­tle bit more aware that peo­ple we dis­agree with are peo­ple with feel­ings. But even de­on­tol­o­gists agree some­times it’s nec­es­sary to hurt one per­son for the greater good: for ex­am­ple, even if you are very lonely and it hurts you not to get to talk to peo­ple, you don’t get to force peo­ple to in­ter­act with you against their will. So I don’t think that the mere fact that it hurts peo­ple im­plies that (say) pub­lic sham­ing should be off-limits.

The sec­ond is a rather touch­ing faith in the abil­ity of peo­ple’s vir­tu­ous be­hav­ior to in­fluence their poli­ti­cal op­po­nents.

Now, if it hap­pened that my ac­tions had any in­fluence what­so­ever over the be­hav­ior of r/​Tum­blrInAc­tion, that would be great. I don’t screen­shot ran­dom tum­blr users and mock them in front of an au­di­ence of over three hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple, so the en­tire sub­red­dit would close down, which would be a great benefit to hu­man­ity. While we’re at it, there are many other places peo­ple who read r/​Tum­blrInAc­tion could fol­low my illus­tri­ous ex­am­ple. For in­stance, they could be tol­er­ant of teenagers with dumb poli­ti­cal be­liefs, re­mem­ber­ing how stupid their own teenage poli­ti­cal be­liefs were. They could stop mak­ing fun of de­itykin, oth­er­wise known as “psy­chotic peo­ple with delu­sions of grandeur,” be­cause je­sus fuck­ing christ it is hor­rible to mock a men­tally ill per­son for show­ing men­tal ill­ness symp­toms. They could stop with the “I iden­tify as an at­tack he­li­copter” jokes; I mean, I don’t have any eth­i­cal ar­gu­ment against those jokes, it’s just that there is ex­actly one of them that was ever funny.

In gen­eral peo­ple rarely have their be­hav­ior in­fluenced by their poli­ti­cal en­e­mies. Trans peo­ple take pains to use the cor­rect pro­nouns; peo­ple who are overly con­cerned about trans women in bath­rooms still mis­gen­der them. Anti-racists avoid the use of slurs; a dis­tress­ing num­ber of peo­ple who be­lieve in hu­man bio­di­ver­sity ap­pear to be in­ca­pable of con­struct­ing a sen­tence with­out one. So­cial jus­tice peo­ple are con­scien­tious about trig­ger warn­ings; we are sub­jected to many te­dious ar­ti­cles about how men­tally ill peo­ple should be in ther­apy in­stead of bur­den­ing the rest of the world with our ex­is­tence.

There­fore, I sus­pect that if sup­port­ers of so­cial jus­tice uni­ver­sally be­came con­scien­tious about rep­re­sent­ing their op­po­nents’ views fairly, de­fault­ing to kind­ness and us­ing cru­elty only as a last re­sort when it is nec­es­sary to re­duce over­all harm, and not get­ting peo­ple fired from their jobs, it would not have any effect on how of­ten op­po­nents of so­cial jus­tice rep­re­sent op­po­nents’ views fairly, be­have kindly, and con­demn cam­paigns to fire peo­ple. In fact, they might end up do­ing so more en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, be­cause sud­denly kind­ness and char­ity and not get­ting peo­ple fired are So­cial Jus­tice Things, and you don’t want to sup­port So­cial Jus­tice Things, do you?

(I’m mak­ing this ar­gu­ment with the so­cial jus­tice side as the good side, but it works equally well for liter­ally any two sides in the rele­vant po­si­tions.)

Third, there’s an ar­gu­ment I per­son­ally find very com­pel­ling. Nearly ev­ery­one who does wrong things, even evil things, thinks that they’re on the side of good. There­fore, the fact that you think you’re on the side of good doesn’t mean you ac­tu­ally are. (The tra­di­tional ex­am­ple is Nazis, but I think Stal­inism is prob­a­bly bet­ter, be­cause in my ex­pe­rience most peo­ple agree that your av­er­age rank-and-file Stal­inist sup­ported an ide­ol­ogy that kil­led mil­lions of peo­ple be­cause they had a good goal but were hor­ribly mis­taken about how to bring it about.) So it’s im­por­tant to take steps to re­duce the harm of your ac­tions if you’re ac­tu­ally do­ing evil.

Like I said, I find this ar­gu­ment com­pel­ling. But you can’t get an en­tire eth­i­cal sys­tem out of try­ing to avoid be­ing a Stal­inist. Lots of gen­er­ally neu­tral or even good things are evil if a Stal­inist hap­pens to be do­ing them, such as try­ing to con­vince peo­ple of your point of view or go­ing to poli­ti­cal ral­lies or donat­ing to causes you think will do the most good in the world. If you were a Stal­inist, the max­i­mally good ac­tion you could do, short of not be­com­ing a Stal­inist any­more, is sit­ting on the couch watch­ing Star Trek re­runs. This moral sys­tem has some virtues—de­pressed peo­ple the world over can defend their ac­tions by say­ing “well, ac­tu­ally, I’m one of the best peo­ple in the world by Not-Hav­ing-Even-The-Slight­est-Chance-Of-Be­ing-A-Stal­inist-ianism”—but I think it is un­satis­fy­ing for most peo­ple.

(I can tell some­one is about to say “you can donate to the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion, there’s no pos­si­ble way that could be evil!” and hon­estly that just seems like a failure of imag­i­na­tion.)

That’s not to say that try­ing to avoid be­ing a Stal­inist should have no effects on your eth­i­cal sys­tem at all. Per­haps most im­por­tant is never, ever, ever en­gag­ing in de­liber­ate self-de­cep­tion. Of al­most equal im­por­tance is not hid­ing in­con­ve­nient facts. If you know damn well the Holodomor is hap­pen­ing, do not write a bunch of ar­ti­cles de­nounc­ing ev­ery­one who says the Holodomor is hap­pen­ing as a re­ac­tionary who hates poor peo­ple. On a less dra­matic level, if there’s a study that doesn’t say what you want it to say, men­tion it any­way; if you can mas­sage the ev­i­dence into say­ing some­thing that it doesn’t re­ally say, don’t; take care to men­tion the down­sides and up­sides of pro­posed poli­cies as best you can. Th­ese are most im­por­tant, be­cause they di­rectly harm the abil­ity of truth to hurt false­hood.

And there are some things that I think it’s worth putting on the list of things you shouldn’t do even if you have a re­ally re­ally good rea­son, be­cause it is far more likely that you are mis­taken than that this is ac­tu­ally right this time. Violence against peo­ple who aren’t be­ing vi­o­lent against oth­ers, out­side of war (and no rules-lawyer­ing about how be­ing mean is vi­o­lence, ei­ther). Be­ing a dick to peo­ple who are re­ally weird but not hurt­ing any­one (and no rules-lawyer­ing about in­di­rect harm to the so­cial fabric, ei­ther). Firing peo­ple for rea­sons un­re­lated to their abil­ity to perform their jobs. I’ve added “not listen­ing to your kid and re­spect­ing their point of view when they try to tell you some­thing im­por­tant about them­selves, even if you dis­agree,” but that’s a per­sonal thing re­lated to my own crappy re­la­tion­ship with my par­ents.

But that’s not a com­plete eth­i­cal sys­tem. At some point you have to do things. And that means, yes, that there’s a pos­si­bil­ity you will do some­thing wrong. Maybe you will be a par­ti­ci­pant in an on­go­ing moral catas­tro­phe; maybe you will make the situ­a­tion worse in a way you wouldn’t have if you sat on your ass and watched Net­flix. On the other hand, if you don’t do any­thing at all, you get to be the per­son sit­ting idly by while on­go­ing moral catas­tro­phes hap­pen, and those peo­ple don’t ex­actly get a good rep­u­ta­tion in the his­tory text­books ei­ther. (“The only thing nec­es­sary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do noth­ing,” quoth Ed­mund Burke.)

The virtue of con­se­quen­tial­ism is that it pays at­ten­tion to con­se­quences. It is con­sis­tent for me to say “fem­i­nist ac­tivism is good, be­cause it has good con­se­quences, and anti-fem­i­nist ac­tivism is bad, be­cause it has bad con­se­quences.” (Similarly, it is con­sis­tent to say that you should lie to axe mur­der­ers and ho­mo­pho­bic par­ents, but not to more proso­cial in­di­vi­d­u­als.) This is com­pat­i­ble with me be­liev­ing that if I had a differ­ent set of facts I would prob­a­bly be en­gaged in anti-gay ac­tivism, and in fact many lov­ing, com­pas­sion­ate, and in­tel­li­gent peo­ple of my ac­quain­tance do or have in the past. Mo­ral luck ex­ists; it is pos­si­ble to do evil with­out mean­ing to. There would be worse con­se­quences if ev­ery­one adopted the policy of never do­ing any­thing that might pos­si­bly be wrong.

There is a com­mon crit­i­cism of con­se­quen­tial­ism where peo­ple say “well if tor­ture had good con­se­quences then you’d sup­port tor­ture! CHECKMATE CONSEQUENTIALISTS.” Of course, in the real world tor­ture always has bad con­se­quences, which is why con­se­quen­tial­ists op­pose it. If stab­bing peo­ple in the gut didn’t cause them pain or kill them, and in fact gave them six­teen or­gasms and a choco­late cake, then stab­bing peo­ple would be a good thing, but it is not ir­rele­vant to con­se­quen­tial­ism that stab­bing does not do this.

Some peo­ple seem to want to be able to do con­se­quen­tial­ism with­out ever mak­ing refer­ence to a con­se­quence. If you just find enough lev­els of meta and use the cat­e­gor­i­cal im­per­a­tive enough, then maybe you will be able to do con­se­quen­tial­ism with­out all that scary “ev­i­dence” and “facts” stuff, and with­out the pos­si­bil­ity that you could be mis­taken. This seems like a per­verse de­sire, and in my opinion is best dealt with by no longer en­vy­ing de­on­tol­ogy and in­stead just be­com­ing a de­on­tol­o­gist.