Would you tell a lie to protect someone from harm? Would you sign off on torture to prevent a bomb attack? If you want to look into the ethical aspects of personal and political decisions, you need to start with the basics, and one of the most basic ideas in moral philosophy is the distinction between consequentialism and deontology. These two schools of ethics identify different aspects of decisions as morally important, and lead to very different ways of looking at ethical issues — including freedom and liberty.
Consequentialism tells us to judge decisions by the goodness of their outcomes (or consequences). If there are two (or more) options to choose from, the one with the better (or best) outcome is the morally right choice to make. This is too vague, however, because it doesn’t tell us what about outcomes makes one choice “better” than others. Once we narrow down what “good” or “better” means, we get specific versions of consequentialism based on a particular definition of goodness.
The most well-known version of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which picks out the ethical choice according to the overall “utility” (roughly, happiness or well-being) it creates. A key aspect of utilitarianism is that overall utility is the sum of each individual’s utility, which implies that each individual’s utility counts exactly as much as everyone else’s. This lends utilitarianism an intrinsic sense of moral equality that was very controversial in the 18th and 19th centuries when Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, both social reformers, popularized it.
(Not all forms of consequentialism have this property; for instance, prioritarianism recommends placing more weight on the less advantaged in society so they receive more policy attention than utilitarianism would give them.)
One problem that many people find with utilitarianism — and consequentialism in general — is that it can recommend actions that seem to violate commonsense morality. While acts like lying and cheating would normally be held by utilitarians to be immoral because they usually end up leading to bad outcomes, utilitarians may regard individual cases of both to be good if they lead to good outcomes in those specific cases — and as we all know, it’s very easy to think of situations where this seems to be the case. At the same time, though, we tend to think that lying and cheating, regardless of the outcomes they might generate in specific cases, are simply wrong.
This is the kind of judgment that a deontologist would make. Deontology finds moral value in an act itself rather than the outcome it leads to. Deontology is usually expressed in rules, principles, or duties that proclaim certain acts to be moral or not.
For example, most deontologists would regard lying and cheating to be wrong as a matter of principle, regardless of whether they led to better outcomes in select cases. (A version of utilitarianism known as rule utilitarianism also makes general judgments about actions, but based on their usual outcomes rather than the moral nature of the actions themselves.)
As with consequentialism, there are numerous varieties of deontology, but by far the most commonly cited is that of Immanuel Kant, who grounded his duty-based system of ethics in the autonomy and dignity of the person and the respect they demand from all persons (as well as the government). To Kant, lying is wrong because it uses those being lied to merely as a means to the ends of the liar, without considering those being lied to as valuable in themselves. This determination is based on Kant’s infamous categorical imperative, a formula for generating duties, while W.D. Ross, another prominent deontologist, held that duties were based on simple intuitions about right and wrong.
Of course, deontology has its share of critics too. Just as consequentialists can ignore strong moral intuitions about right and wrong, deontologists can stand too firm on rules and duties and be insensitive to actual harm, as reflected in the Latin phrase fiat justitia ruat cælum: “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Sometimes maintaining a principled stand can be too costly, at which point consequences demand to be considered.
This consideration is included in threshold deontology, which says to reconsider rules and duties when the costs reach a dangerously high level. (Think of the “ticking bomb” scenario cited in debates about torture, which is often proposed to outweigh deontological rules against the practice.)
The good versus the right
Despite their differences, consequentialists and deontologists do agree on many things, such as the immorality of lying, stealing, and killing. More important, however, they do so for different reasons that stem from their unique perspectives.
For example, a utilitarian may say theft in general is bad because it deprives people of their property and makes them anxious about their security, while a deontologist would say that theft is wrong because it violates property rights, which people have a duty to observe. This difference in perspective is often stated in terms of “the good versus the right,” because when these two ethical schools conflict, it is usually a case which a decision promises better outcomes but violates a duty or principle in the process.
Consequentialism and deontology are useful not only for looking at personal decisions but also for breaking down the ethics of government policy and societal institutions. For example, the current debate over surveillance can be cast as a conflict between safety (which is an outcome that can be increased) and privacy (which is a principle that has to be maintained).
This is a quick and easy way to frame the debate, but this is only scratching the surface of a complex issue with consequentialist and deontological elements on both sides.
Liberty and ethics
Both ethical approaches have also been used to support individual liberty, but again for different reasons. Consequentialists focus on the wealth and happiness that free markets and societies create, while deontologists emphasize the greater respect for the rights and dignity of individuals that liberty promotes.
While both positions can be used to support liberty, they sometimes split on specific policies, such as the proper scope of the state and whether taxes should be optimized or eliminated. Again, the proper extent of liberty is a complex issue that can’t be summarized so easily, but nonetheless it starts with the core issues of the good and the right, stemming from consequentialism and deontology — part of the basics of moral philosophy.
For further reading on related topics, be sure to check out the content below:
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This article was originally published in November 2016.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.