Two Objections to Moderate Deontology That I Don't Think Succeed
It fails for other reasons though
In my most recent articles, I’ve presented a wide range of problems for the deontologist. Here are a few recent examples.
Given my relatively harsh treatment of deontology, I thought it was worth explaining why I didn’t make several objections. Two popular objections to deontology are not, I believe, successful.
1 ein paradoxon der deontologie
Readers of the previous spate of articles will know that I think there are a few pretty decisive paradoxes of deontology. But there’s an original paradox of deontology that’s often presented but, I believe, unsuccessful.
The basic idea is that it’s paradoxical to hold that some acts shouldn’t be done to prevent more of those acts—e.g. one murder to prevent multiple murders. The claim is that this is paradoxical. After all, if acts are so terrible you should prevent them, then it seems that you should minimize them.
This is, I believe, true. It is strange that deontology holds that you shouldn’t do wrong things to prevent other wrong things. I even think this is the start of a few good paradoxes—e.g. Richard’s. And I think that it seems wrong—it’s like claiming that some numbers are so big that when you multiply them by five they get smaller.
But there’s nothing straightforwardly paradoxical about this. There’s no contradiction entailed therein. There’s a perfectly coherent deontological account of this. The idea is that the deontologist cares about what you have the duty to do, not merely what states of affairs are bad. Thus, they think that, even though five murders are worse than your single murder, you mustn’t commit the one murder. This is a bit weird, but it’s not paradoxical.
So this first paradox of deontology doesn’t succeed.
2 ad arbitrium obiectionis
The moderate deontologist—who has the only even remotely plausible view of deontology—claims that there are moderate deontic thresholds, as their name suggests. Thus, you shouldn’t kill one to save five, but you should kill one to prevent really extremely bad things from happening, like five billion deaths or someone becoming a naturalist law theorist.
Many people object to this by claiming that it’s much too arbitrary. After all, on this account, there’s some threshold (maybe 100) where, if you kill one person to prevent that many deaths, you’re acting rightly, but if you kill to prevent 99 deaths, that’s wrong. Why is it 100? Why not 99 or 50? What even determines the threshold in the first place? This all seems strange, unprincipled, and arbitrary.
But I don’t think this is a very big problem. After all, this will apply just as much to all the moral facts. Suppose you’re an objective list theorist, and you think that friendship is intrinsically valuable. What determines how much friendship is as good as 58 cookies? Well, that will just be fixed by the moral facts.
The moral facts make various things count in favor of other things. Any comparison will feel arbitrary, but it’s hard to spell out a real problem. Even the ratio of how many people breaking their leg is as bad as one person being paralyzed feels arbitrary.
However, I think we can make this a bit of a problem. There are two problems that stem from this.
That the moral facts are roughly equally significant. It’s awfully surprising that both facts make a big difference in our lives. If they’re just arbitrarily set my the moral facts, it could be the case that deontic considerations basically always dwarfed consequentialist considerations—just like gravity crushes the strong nuclear force at large scales. Thus, the fact that this doesn’t arise is a strange coincidence.
This makes it unparsimonious. It requires that the fundamental moral facts specify how much rights violations count in a totally bizarre way. The utilitarian hedonist can say that pleasure is good, in some way proportional to the amount of pleasure, based on how good the pleasure feels. But the deontologist has to hold a much stranger relationship between the moral facts and goodness.
So while I think the arbitrariness objection fails, it gives rise to two similar objections.