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«ON DEFENDING DEONTOLOGY* David McNaughton and Piers Rawling Abstract This paper comprises three sections. First, we offer a traditional defence of ...»

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© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main

Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

Ratio (new series) XI 1 April 1998 0034–0006


David McNaughton and Piers Rawling


This paper comprises three sections. First, we offer a traditional

defence of deontology, in the manner of, for example, W.D. Ross

(1965). The leading idea of such a defence is that the right is independent of the good. Second, we modify the now standard account of the distinction, in terms of the agent-relative/agentneutral divide, between deontology and consequentialism. (This modification is necessary if indirect consequentialism is to count as a form of consequentialism.) Third, we challenge a value-based defence of deontology proposed by Quinn (1993), Kamm (1989, 1992), and Nagel (1995).

Each time we act, we make the world different from what it would otherwise have been. In principle, the various outcomes that would result from the different courses of action open to us can be ranked in terms of their value. According to direct-act consequentialism, our task as moral agents is to increase value. And the more good we can do the better. So the right action is the best one; the one that produces more good and less harm than any other1 – and it is solely the value of the actions open to us that is relevant to which is the right one. We judge an act by the value of its consequences, using the term ‘consequence’ in a sufficiently broad sense to include the performance of the act itself, as well as what flows causally from it. Consequentialism is not, in itself, a complete moral theory – a theory, that is, which tells us which actions are in fact right and why. We need to add to it an account of what things are valuable and what things are bad.

Consequentialism itself provides a formal structure within which a family of substantive moral theories can be found.

Deontological theories lack this structure. At the fundamental * We have benefited greatly from the comments of Jonathan Dancy and Brad Hooker, and from correspondence with John Skorupski. Piers Rawling would like to acknowledge financial support from the NEH and the University of Missouri Research Board.

As we discuss below, this is not true on all forms of consequentialism.


level, we claim, deontology, in opposition to consequentialism, acknowledges moral reasons that do not rest on considerations of value. There is an intriguing argument abroad, however, that attempts to defend deontology by arguing that worlds in which there are deontological reasons are better (i.e., more ‘valuable’) than worlds in which there are not (see, e.g., Quinn (1993), Kamm (1989, 1992), and Nagel (1995)). We begin by giving what has become, following such authors asNagel (1986), Parfit (1984), and Scheffler (1982), the generally accepted contrast between (direct-act) consequentialism and deontology. We then outline our favoured defence of the latter, and urge that the standard way of distinguishing it from consequentialism must be modified in order to accommodate indirect consequentialism.

Finally, we explore, and reject, the initially appealing value-based defence of deontology.

I It is central to consequentialism that value is determined impersonally:2 the real value of any state of affairs does not depend on the point of view of the agent. Features of the particular agent may be morally relevant, but only in so far as they bear either on which state of affairs will be impersonally best, or on what range of actions is open to the agent. Direct-act consequentialism provides an agent-neutral account of the right: the right act is that which maximizes the impersonal good. Thus, on this account, all agents share a common aim: that the world go as well as possible.

The notion of agent neutrality is somewhat tricky to spell out in terms of reasons; but, roughly speaking, an agent-neutral reason is one that ultimately rests on considerations that make no reference to the agent for whom it is a reason. (In, e.g., McNaughton and Rawling, 1991, we discuss the difficulties of distinguishing between agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons; and we there provide a precise account of the agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction in terms of rules – we omit this account here for reasons of brevity.) A reason is agent-relative, by contrast, if there is an ineliminable reference to the agent in the ultimate statement of the reason.

Thus, to take a simple example, Lee’s reason for insuring 73 Some authors (e.g., Dreier, 1993) use the term ‘consequentialism’ in a wider sense to include theories in which this is not so. We shall steer clear of such usage here.

–  –  –

Hatfield Street is agent-relative if she does so simply because it is her house, and she wants to protect her property. If her reason for doing so were agent-neutral, on the other hand, it would have ultimately to rest on the thought that everyone should insure their own houses (so that in the unlikely circumstance that by not insuring her own house herself she could thereby increase the number of people insuring their own houses, then she should not, ceteris paribus, insure her house).

Reasons that stem from considerations of self-interest would appear to be agent-relative.3 Roughly speaking, if an agent performs a certain action, A, because Aing is (at least in part) in her self-interest, then that factor, with its ineliminable reference to her, will be noted in the ultimate statement of her reason for Aing. Lee, when pressed as to why she insures her house, might declare: ‘Because it is in my long-term self-interest’.

But there seem also to be moral reasons which are agent-relative in form. And an agent-neutral theory, such as consequentialism, apparently (see section II) cannot accommodate them.

There are at least three areas of moral thought in which agentrelative reasons figure.

First, there are duties which stem from special relationships:

duties which I owe to some specified individuals because of the relationship in which I stand to them. Instances of such relationships include those of parent to child, spouse to spouse, friend to friend, as well as purely contractual relationships, such as those of promiser to promisee, of debtor to lender. Why do these relationships generate agent-relative reasons? Because in each case the agent’s reason for acting, her obligation to act, stems from the fact that she stands in this particular relation to another. The fact that Alex is Lee’s child gives her a reason to look after him which is not shared by anyone who is not also Alex’s parent. This is not to say that we have no duty whatever to be concerned about the welfare of other people’s children, only that each of us has a distinct and special reason to be concerned about our own.

Second, there are constraints, which proscribe certain types of action, even if their performance, in a particular circumstance, would make the world somewhat ‘better’. Thus, it is generally thought that it is wrong to kill the innocent, torture people, lie or cheat, even in pursuit of an otherwise good goal. To have this Not everyone agrees with this – Jonathan Dancy (in correspondence), for example, demurs.

–  –  –

thought is to reject direct-act consequentialism. We need not go so far as to claim that we should never do these things, no matter how dire the emergency; to think that we should not do these things just to make the world slightly better overall is already to reject direct-act consequentialism. How do constraints generate agent-relative reasons? To hold, for example, that it is wrong to kill the innocent, is to be committed to the view that I should not do or sanction such killings, even if by killing an innocent myself I might thereby reduce the total number of such killings. This thought is enshrined in the common moral intuition that one should not oneself sink to the level of the terrorist or criminal in pursuit of stamping out terrorism or crime.

The third area of ethical thought in which agent-relativity has a place is in the availability of options. Direct-act consequentialism is a very demanding theory. It tells us that we should always act so as to maximize the good. As the world is currently organised, this would require us to make huge and continuous sacrifices. We might have to abandon important personal projects if that were the only way to maximize the good. Clearly, my projects, my family life etc. have an importance for me which they have for no-one else – an importance out of proportion to their agent-neutral value. We do not generally think morality requires the continual sacrifice that direct-act consequentialism demands. Someone can be doing the right thing, even if she gives considerably more weight to her own projects than they strictly deserve in the consequentialist calculations.

If a satisfactory moral theory must be consequentialist in structure then we shall have to abandon the thought that there is any place for underivative (see section II) agent-relative reasons in morality. It may be, of course, that there are good consequentialist reasons why each of us should care for our own children, or why we should be governed by constraints, but those consequentialist reasons will ultimately be agent-neutral in form. Lee should care for her child, for example, only because the world is a better place on account of such relationships. And she might be required to desert him if the total amount of such caring would be increased thereby.

Deontology embraces agent-relative reasons of some or all varieties. Thus deontological theories fail to fit the consequentialist structural templet. (It is definitive of deontology that it includes constraints and duties of special relationship; not all deontologists accept options, however – some think that we have a duty to © Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


maximize the good, whenever we would not be in breach of one of our other duties in doing so.) So long as we hold that the right action is determined by the amount of agent-neutral value our actions will produce, then consequentialism will be the only coherent picture. Many philosophers have failed to see the power of this argument. They have supposed that deontology can be defended within the basic consequentialist structure, by pointing to some value which consequentialism has ignored. Scheffler (1982, chapter four) is a notable exception: he clearly articulates the point that any value a would-be deontologist might put forward can be accommodated by consequentialism. Scheffler shows, in essence, that, as long as we play the game by consequentialist rules, the consequentialist will win. Any value can be sucked up into what we have elsewhere dubbed ‘the consequentialist vacuum cleaner’ (or CVC – see McNaughton and Rawling (1991)). To give an example: one might think that, in rejecting constraints – in allowing that there may be occasions when we may do really nasty things to innocent people – consequentialism fails to pay proper respect to persons. The consequentialist can respond by agreeing that failing to respect persons has great disvalue. So we must, all else equal, maximize respect for persons. But now what, the consequentialist asks, of the case where I can prevent two people being treated disrespectfully by so treating one myself? I should surely prefer the less bad state of affairs where only one person is treated disrespectfully. So, the consequentialist triumphantly concludes, no matter how great the value of respect, there is no constraint against violating respect oneself.

Deontology can only be defended if there is a defensible alternative structure to moral theory. The best prospect for such a defence is classically found, we claim, in the pre-war British Intuitionists, particularly W.D. Ross (e.g., 1965). Ross, in criticising Moore’s theory of ideal utilitarianism (which is essentially a pluralist consequentialism), identifies a structural difference between consequentialism and intuitionism which enables the latter to accommodate the agent-relative. Whereas the consequentialist thinks of the right as determined by the good, the intuitionist conceives of the right as being, at least in part, independent of the good. Which action is right is not solely determined by the relative values of states of affairs. Other considerations also play a role.

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