Consequentialism for Idiots

(This is fifth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series of talks.)

20: Deontology for Idiots

As previously stated, ‘normative ethics’ is that sub-division of ethics that asks what is the right (and wrong) way for people to act and there are three major moral theories within normative ethics:

  • Deontology: this emphasizes the adherence to rules in determining the goodness of an action.
  • Consequentialism: this emphasizes the consequences of an action in determining the goodness of the action.
  • Virtue Ethics: this emphasizes the good character of the agent performing the action (the agent’s goodness).

The first 3 sections (‘Ethics 101’, ‘Moral Equalization’ and ‘Rules, Hierarchy and Prediction’) looked at Consequentialism. The last one of those compared Utilitarian moral thinking with a ‘hierarchical model of adaptive predictors’ theory of the brain. I now move on to look at Deontology (despite the title!) – but it is a rather partisan look, from a Consequentialist point of view.

The Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative is the dominant moral philosophy for deontologists. Rules and duties determine what one ought to do. But unlike say rule-utilitarianism, it is the motives for an action that is relevant, not ends (goals) or consequences.

In determining what we ought to do, contrast:

  • Hypothetical Imperatives: these are conditional on goals: ‘IF one wants x THEN one ought to do y’, with
  • Categorical Imperatives: these are unconditional: ‘one ought to do z’.

The method of the Categorical Imperative provides us with rules for behaviour that are absolute, irrespective of (contingent) facts in the world, which we must then follow. Firstly…

1: Determine the rules:

“Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.”

(This is the third formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.)

A legislating member of an assembly does not draft laws but merely consideres whether the law ‘accords with one’s will’ to determine whether they should be followed. Reason alone determines which rules an individual should self-legislate upon themselves. Primarily:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction ”

(This is the first formulation.)

To grossly simplify, you should be like a parent admonishing a child, asking them: “What if everybody did that?”

In directing one’s will, one should always:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

(This is the second formulation.)

Kant makes a distinction between perfect and imperfect duties:

  • Perfect duties: These are determined logically through considering contradictions. Examples are (i) ‘do not commit suicide’ (an example of a duty to oneself) and (ii) ‘do not steal’ (an example of a duty to others). In universalizing, we ask “what if everybody followed the law that one should, for example, (a) murder or (b) steal?” It would (a) leave everybody dead (in which case it would no longer be possible to murder) or (b) make the idea of property meaningless (in which case it would no longer be possible to steal). Perfect duties generally lead to rules that one must not do something.
  • Imperfect duties: These are determined through reason in accordance with the second formulation, above, and that one would desire such rules be universalized. Examples are (i) self-improvement (an example of a duty to oneself) and (ii) helping others (an example of a duty to others). Universalization is applied as in this example: one cannot expect help from others in a time of need if one does not improve oneself in order to be able to help others when they need it. Imperfect duties generally lead to rules that one should do something.


2: Follow the rules:

Having determined these laws, they should then be applied:

  • Perfect duties are inflexible – one must always adhere to them without exception. There is no choice of when and how to follow such laws. It is bad if you break one’s perfect duties.
  • Imperfect duties are meritorious – There is a choice both specifically when to follow them and specifically how to follow them (such as, when trying to help others, choosing to donate money to charity,choosing which one, when and how much). It is good when you follow one’s imperfect duties.

Where duties conflict, perfect ones trump the imperfect.

The Good

Whilst I am critical of deontology, I should first recognize that it is not all bad:

  • The principle of universalization is a good one. More colloquially, it can be phrased as “what if everyone always behaved like that?” It includes the ideas of a reversal of roles, where you are at the receiving end of your actions. Underlying this, there is therefore the principle of equality. This universalization is essentially the same as the golden rule – it is the golden rule reframed in an unconditional way (the Golden Rule, in both its positive and negative forms are ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘Do not do to others what you would not like done to yourself’ respectively).
  • By setting out the rules before they are applied, it ensures that such rules are applied irrespective of the specific person – oneself included. This is another pointer towards equality.
  • By setting out rules without exceptions, it prevents the temptation to convince oneself that you can excuse yourself from that rule if is expedient to do so.
  • By treating people as ends rather than means, it ensures that morality is not about ‘higher’ aims, such as the well-being of the Motherland (compare this with the State Utilitarianism form of Consequentialism). This also works against the sacrificing of others (compare this with the Consequentialist’s problem of the Utility Monster).
  • Deontology is about motives and intentions. Bad consequences deriving from good intentions are more acceptable than good consequences deriving from bad ones.

The Bad

However, here are just some major problems:

  • Morality applies exclusively to people. It is not extended in any way to include animals, for example.
  • The (unconditional form of) the golden rule is exclusively about what I think – without regard to others. It is difficult to know what others really want, but you could ask them in order to get a better approximation than guessing from one’s own wants! Perhaps instead we should ‘do unto others as they would have you do unto them’! This is the ‘Platinum Rule’ of the maximization not of what I might want but of what the other people Now, neither the Golden nor the Platinum Rule is perfect. But the Golden Rule is me imposing my will on others because I cannot (or will not) infer what I believe others to think (there is no second level / second person intentionality).
  • Having said that perfect duties must be followed regardless, exceptions must be made where two such duties conflict! There is precious little guidance on what to do in such circumstances. Similarly, there is no guidance where two imperfect duties conflict, or how to follow any one imperfect duty in itself. Hegel criticized Kant for not providing specific enough detail in his moral theory to affect decision-making.
  • With ‘Perfect duties’, just because the universalization of the negation of a potential law involves a logical contradiction, it does not necessarily mean that we should adopt that law. Consider stealing: if everyone stole then the concept of property would be meaningless. But this does not mean that there should be such a thing as property! After all, John Lennon sang: “Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can?” We can imagine a world without property and think that it is not bad.
  • There are other rules that we can still will to be universal as far as they can be universalized. For example, “I should tell the truth most of the time”. This leads us on to Deontology’s most notorious problem…

The Ugly

If an axe-wielding maniac turns up at your door asking if your friend is in the house, should you lie in order to protect them? Famously, Kant says no – it is one’s moral duty to never lie. Most people think this position is absurd. Before trying to defend Kant, Helga Varden


Kant’s example of lying to the murderer at the door has been a cherished source of scorn for thinkers with little sympathy for Kant’s philosophy and a source of deep puzzlement for those more favourably inclined. The problem is that Kant seems to say that it is always wrong to lie—even to a murderer asking for the whereabouts of his victim—and that if one does lie and despite one’s good intentions the lie leads to the murderer’s capture of the victim, then the liar is partially responsible for the killing of the victim.

Varden re-interprets Kant to make it more palatable. But if Kant has been misunderstood, the scornful can be forgiven for being sceptical, given what Kant wrote. For example, in his “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy”, responding to an early criticism by Benjamin Constant in 1797, Kant says (my bold):

If you have by a lie prevented someone just now bent on murder from committing the deed, then you are legally accountable for all the consequences that might arise from it. But if you have kept strictly to the truth, then public justice can hold nothing against you, whatever the unforeseen consequences might be. It is still possible that, after you have honestly answered “yes” to the murderer’s question as to whether his enemy is at home, the latter has nevertheless gone out unnoticed, so that he would not meet the murderer and the deed would not be done; but if you had lied and said that he is not at home, and he has actually gone out (though you are not aware of it), so that the murderer encounters him while going away and perpetrates his deed on him, then you can by right be prosecuted as the author of his death. For if you had told the truth to the best of your knowledge, then neighbours might have come and apprehended the murderer while he was searching the house for his enemy and the deed would have been prevented. Thus one who tells a lie, however well-disposed he may be, must be responsible for its consequences even before a civil court and must pay the penalty for them, however unforeseen they may have been; for truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties to be grounded on contract, the laws of which is made uncertain and useless if even the least exception to it is admitted.

It seems ridiculous (to me and many others) to follow the rules in the vain hope that something better might happen, even though we do not expect it to, in order to absolve ourselves of any guilt. Rather than wait for others to intervene, why shouldn’t I apprehend the murderer? If it is acceptable for others to, then it is acceptable for me to as well. And if it can be universalized, it is my duty to. But for Kant, questions around the likelihood of events do not come into it. It is better to follow a certain rule than to risk something better with an uncertain outcome; the right is more important than the good.

21: Deontology as Consequentialism

I have presented the Categorical Imperative as having two distinct phases:

  • the first defining the rules, and
  • the second one applying them.

During the first phase, we effectively ask “what if everyone did that?” We must imagine what the consequences would be and whether they entail a logical contradiction or are undesirable. In the second phase, we must act in accordance with the rules.

This distinct separation of (i) imagining consequences and (ii) action is a severe measure to ensure that people’s selfish preferences in the moment do not intrude upon the right thing to do. Actions are pre-calculated by the rules. But, just because Deontology focusses on rules, it does not mean it excludes consequences – it involves both. (Similarly the other way around – the Rule Utilitarianism form of Consequentialism obviously includes rules.) Looked at from a Consequentialist standpoint, Deontology is just a particular form of Consequentialism!!!

A Rule Utilitarian might consider Kant’s Deontology on pragmatic grounds as it could be believed that, in some environments, it would more effective in the long run than a milder Rule Utilitarianism or any attempts to deliberate ‘in the moment’. (Of course, deontologists would not see things this way and instead talk of intention, which is an important concept missing from Utilitarianism, as previously noted.)

22: The Moral Millpond

Previously, Consequentialism was presented as the maximization of well-being within a ‘moral landscape’. Individuals predict the outcome, using some approach between the extremes of (i) Rule-Utilitarian ‘proles’ using the coarsest of approximations that can be done in a very short time and (ii) highly knowledgeable ‘angels’, seeing (eventually) all the complexities of the moral landscape. A hierarchy of approximations was presented, with each added layer making improvements over the one below, like higher and higher-order functions getting closer to an arbitrary waveform.

But for Deontologists, the consequences are completely irrelevant. Graphically, it can be represented by a zero-eth order function. No point on the consequentialists’ ‘moral landscape’ is any higher than any other; it is as flat as a millpond.

‘Reflections on a Pond – Yates Millpond NC’ by

23: A Failure to Think

Another criticism of Deontology is that if intentions matter but consequences do not, then there is the danger that little thinking is needed in order to determine what to do. The naïvest of people can act confidently, happy in the knowledge that they are behaving morally and are blameless in their actions, regardless of the consequences.

Once an individual’s rules have been determined, they can just follow the rules – seemingly blindly! This may not be what Kant intended but it can be how it is interpreted.

Those rules may be deduced by pure reason as Kant decreed, or they may take a corrupted form, as with the war criminal Adolf Eichmann, blindly doing his duty in the day-to-day orchestration of the deportation of Jews to the death camps.

Eichmann in Jerusalem

Picture credit: New Republic

Hannah Arendt reported in ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ that, at his trial there in 1961:

 “… he suddenly declared with great emphasis that he had lived his whole life according to Kantian principles.”

Kant’s categorical imperative had been distorted to become what fellow Nazi war criminal Hans Frank called the ‘Categorical Imperative in the Third Reich’:

“Act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve.”

Yinka Shonibare: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Europe), after Francisco Goya

Once accepted, Arendt said:

“all that is left of Kant’s spirit is the demand that a man do more than merely obey the law, that he go beyond the call of obedience.”

This zealousness contributed to her conclusion that:

“Evil comes from a failure to think.”

From the subtitle of her book comes the expression ‘the banality of evil’.

24: The Sin of Absolutism

Kant’s is just one form of absolutist morality – one in which ‘pure reason’ has replaced God as the source of all morals. In ‘Morality for Humans’, Mark Johnson argues extensively against absolutism and contrasts it with a morality that is pragmatically developed within societies without making it relativist. He goes as far as saying that adopting any absolute morality such as Kant’s is

“… a sin because it (1) attempts to reduce the relevant complexity of human experience to simple abstractions, (2) denies the human necessity for interpretation, and (3) shuts off moral inquiry. These are three of the worst things a person can do when it comes to engaging in moral deliberation.”

Again, it is a failure to think:

“Moral absolutism is immoral, in that it shuts down precisely the kind of empirically informed inquiry we most need for our lives.”

(I will be saying much more about Johnson later on.)

25: Moral Creatures

I have previously described Daniel Dennett’s concept of the ‘Tower of Generate and Test’ which describes a hierarchy of intelligence levels of ‘creatures’ (primarily natural but conceivably artificial as well). From the lowest to the highest level, there are Darwinian, Skinnerian, Popperian and Gregorian creatures. Describing these with an emphasis on rules:

  • The behaviour of ‘Darwinian’ creatures is fixed. Their rules are fixed (for any individual).
  • The behaviour of ‘Skinnerian’ creatures is adaptive. They can modify the parameters of the rules to fit what works best.
  • And ‘Popperian’ creatures can predict what might happen if they perform an action, and determine their best action from these predictions. They can make hypotheses and imagine the consequences. From a survival point of view, if they correctly predict bad consequences and act accordingly then ‘their ideas die in their stead’.
  • (Tool-using ‘Gregorian’ creatures are not relevant here.)

A Consequentialist must try to predict consequences of their actions and, from that, determine a course of action. Part of being a better Consequentialist is to be better at determining appropriate courses of action. But another significant part is to be better at predicting consequences. Morally, they are Popperian creatures.

In contrast, once the Deontologist’s rules have been determined, their behaviour is fixed. They have limited themselves to being Darwinian creatures.

26: A Partisan Summary

Previously, I have related Consequentialism to a physicalist understanding of how the brain actually works. The graduated scale from fast-acting (‘prole’) Rule Utilitarianism to better-predicting (‘angel’) Act Utilitarianism has been compared with an account of the construction of our brains – the hierarchy of adaptive predictors in Karl Friston’s Variational Free Energy theory.

Here, I have introduced Kant’s Deontological moral philosophy – that of the Categorical Imperative. But it is hardly a sympathetic account  – from a Consequentialist viewpoint. Whilst Kant’s philosophy has some merits (most notably, the emphasis on intention), the main focus here has been on its major negative – the mindless (idiotic) rule-following, to absurd consequences.

The Categorical Imperative throws all the predictive ability of our brains away (yet it relies on an ideal concept of ‘pure reason’ within the mind). It is a wilful rejection of our intelligence.

To re-quote Mark Johnson, such an moral absolutism:

“… is immoral, in that it shuts down precisely the kind of empirically informed inquiry we most need for our lives.”

Despite claiming to ignore consequences, Deontology can still be seen through Consequentialist eyes as a form of Consequentialism. But it is an unthinking Consequentialism – a Consequentialism for ‘Idiots’!

(Deontology will appear in a more positive light later on.)

Next: Virtue Ethics

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7 Responses to Consequentialism for Idiots

  1. Pingback: A Unified Morality | Headbirths

  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I need to read this again and follow some of your links (in particular wrt Dennett). But that quote about evil reminded me of one of my favorites: “Evil never questions itself.”

    It may originate with someone else, but I ran into it in Craig Ferguson’s novel, Between the Bridge and the River — which you might find interesting as it deals with moral issues. And ya just gotta love a novel that starts off, “Cloven-hoofed creatures passed this way.”

  3. headbirths says:

    Thanks. A great quote and I’ve now added “Evil never questions itself” to my new-but-growing Quotes page.

    The book looks like an entertaining read and is Amazoning its way to me now. Even before the first line – the explanation of the title is a great start. For others, here’s some links about it:

  4. Wyrd Smythe says:

    As always, an excellent post!

    I was very askance at Kant’s Categorical Imperative when I first ran into it, but over time I found that it’s actually pretty good at parsing specific actions. As you go on to point out, it’s a lot less useful when dealing with real-world situations with conflicting duties. As you also point out, there is the problem of mindlessness (or being “Darwinian” — I like Dennett’s set of levels).

    “Perfect duties generally lead to rules that one must not do something.”

    This called to mind a rejoinder to a complaint that all ten of the Commandments are proscriptions rather than prescriptions. Some thus see them as “negative” rather than “positive.” The question is: Would you rather be in a room with a million doors, only ten of which are locked, or would you rather be in a room with a million doors, only ten of which are unlocked?

    Regarding the murderer scenario. I wondered about the option of refusing to answer, but Varden addresses that in her paper. It’s a thought experiment regarding the “authorization (the right) to be untruthful.” In particular, it’s about how public justice responds to lying to a wrongdoer.

    I did appreciate the analysis that answering could bind you legally, also that there could be unforeseen consequences. Very interesting read. At the same time, while the absolutist analysis is useful in parsing specific situations, I find I quite agree with those quotes from Mark Johnson.

    Liked the millpond picture. If only life were so tranquil. Instead it’s usually more of a millrace.

    Eichmann’s statement about living by Kantian principles is ironic in view of what Varden says Kant’s view of the Nazis is — not just despots, but barbarians.

    [sigh] I’m still back last year trying to catch up on your blog. So many distractions, and with such a substantial topic, I need time to digest. Hugely educational, though, and I’m very grateful for your hard work here!

  5. Pingback: Guilt and Shame | Headbirths

  6. Pingback: Some Good Reason | Headbirths

  7. Pingback: Precedent Utilitarianism: A Primer – Zachary Jacobi

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