Is moderate deontology problematically explosive?
Short answer: yes.
I already mentioned this argument in a previous article but it was worth reiterating for a few reasons.
I think this argument is actually really good and worth informing lots of people of.
It enabled this lovely title
Most of you probably don’t read in detail and remember every single argument in complex technical articles.
Let’s begin by explaining what moderate deontology is. Moderate deontology holds that rights are valuable, but not infinitely so. While a radical deontologist would be against killing one person to save the world, a moderate deontologist would favor killing one to save the world. Extreme deontology is extremely crazy. An extreme deontologist friend of mine has even held that one shouldn’t steal a penny from Jeff Bezos to prevent infinite Auschwitz’s. This is deeply counterintuitive.
However, moderate deontology collapses to full fledged, foaming at the mouth, radical deontology. It is, as the title suggests, problematically explosive.
We can imagine a case with a very large series of rings of moral people. The innermost circle has one person, the second innermost has five, third innermost has twenty-five, etc. There are a total of 100 circles. Each person is given two options.
1 Kill one person
2 Give the five people in the circle outside of you the same options you were just given.
The 100th circle is comprised of psycho murderers who will take option one if the buck doesn’t stop reaching them.
The deontologist would have two options. First, they could stipulate that a moral person would choose option 2. However, if this is the case then a cluster of perfectly moral people would bring about 1.5777218 x 10^69 murders, when then alternative actions could have resulted in only one murder. This seems like an extreme implication. If they accept this option then their view is problematically explosive, and lapses into extreme deontology. It holds that one shouldn’t kill one person in a way that would prevent oodles of deaths.
Secondly, they could stipulate that you should kill one person. However, the deontologist holds that you shouldn’t kill one to save five. Thus, in order for them to hold that you should kill one to prevent five perfectly moral people from having two options, one of which is killing one, they’d have to reject the extra choice principle. This principle states that the fact that an action would give an all-knowing perfectly moral being more options can’t make the option less choice worthy. This is deeply intuitive. If the extra option is worse than the existing options then they won’t take it. If it is better, then it’s good for them to take it. Thus, this principle seems very hard to reject.
Well, the deontologist has to reject it. They hold that you shouldn’t kill one to prevent five perfectly moral person from having only option 1—the option of killing one person. However, they’d also have to hold that you should kill one person to prevent them from having options one and 2. Thus, giving them extra options is bad and makes buck passing less choiceworthy. This is deeply counterintuitive.
So deontology has to either reject an almost self-evident principle or be problematically explosive.
If you’re currently thinking that “moderate deontology says you shouldn’t kill one to save five but should kill one to save 1.5777218 x 10^69,” read the argument more carefully. The argument shows that moderate deontology is internally inconsistent. If you think the argument is just question begging or that the deontologist should obviously accept option 1, as some deontologists have who have heard the argument before I explained it to them more carefully, read the argument again.
Either way, this seems to be a pretty decisive objection.