Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has given us a new argument for consequentialism (“How strong is this obligation? An argument for consequentialism from concomitant variation,” Analysis 69 (2009): 438-442). The datum: other things kept equal, the obligation to keep a promise to take a friend to the airport is stronger than the obligation to keep a promise to meet a friend for lunch—overriding the latter obligation takes less than overriding the former. The best account of the source of this relative strength is that (in normal circumstances) the consequences of breaking the first promise are more harmful than the results of breaking the second. If we generalize, it appears that the relative strength of all obligations depends on the level of harmful consequences that would result from violating the obligation. Thus consequentialism seems to best account for strength of obligation.
Sinnott-Armstrong [WSA] recognizes that this argument
“assumes that (i) the strength of the moral obligation does not explain the degree
of harm…, (ii) no third factor can explain the strength, the harm, and their
correlation…, and (iii) the correlation is not accidental…” (440). I think that assumption (ii) is not
well-founded. More basically, we should
question WSA’s ultimate assessment, that in order to respond to his argument,
“deontologists need to explain why some moral obligations are stronger than
others without invoking the harmful consequences of violating those moral
obligations” (442). There is another
response available for deontologists, one that does invoke harm, and it
undermines assumption (ii).
Consider that it used to be considered difficult for consequentialism to account for some commonsense duties, like the duty to keep promises. WSA’s reply to this objection is to maintain that the remote non-optimal consequences of promise-breaking mean that most promises must be kept, and that one is not is obligated to keep one’s promise if breaking it would have optimal consequences. This won’t persuade people, like me, who think that there are cases in which it is wrong to break a promise even if breaking it would have optimal consequences. But consequentialists have another reply to the objection that they can’t account for the obligation to keep promises: they can ‘consequentialize.’
Start with a different illustration. It is now relatively well-established that consequentialists can, contrary to former opinion, account for rights, by working rights into their rankings of states of affairs. Consequentialism requires that agents produce the best state of affairs, but that requirement is in its bare essentials neutral with respect to what counts as the best state of affairs. So if we intuitively think that people have rights, consequentialism can remain intuitive by saying that states of affairs in which rights are preserved and respected are better than states of affairs in which this is not the case. And this is just one instance where the consequentialist can formulate a substantive theory of goodness to make consequentialism align with intuitive morality. It can also, to return to the earlier example, say that states of affairs in which promises are kept rank higher (other things equal) than those in which promises are broken. So here is how Doug Portmore (2007, 39) puts the general formula for consequentializing: “Take whatever considerations that the non-consequentialist theory holds to be relevant to determining the deontic status of an action and insist that those considerations are relevant to determining the proper ranking of outcomes.” Following Portmore, we can apply this recipe across the board and get the Deontic Equivalence Thesis: any two remotely plausible ethical principles can generate identical sets of deontic verdicts, verdicts about which actions are required, optional, or forbidden.
Of course, this thesis maintains that what’s fair for consequentialism is fair for non-consequentialism as well: if consequentialists can hijack the non-consequentialist’s deontic verdicts by manipulating rankings of outcomes, so non-consequentialists can hijack the consequentialist’s deontic verdicts by manipulating the content of deontological fundamental principles. For instance, Portmore (59-60) points out that Kantians can take whatever factors the consequentialist thinks are relevant to the ranking of states of affairs and say that those factors are also relevant to determining whether actions treat humanity as an end-in-itself. A Kantian who stays up late at night being tempted by utilitarianism could even say that the only way to treat humanity as an end-in-itself is to maximize utility.
The very presence of this recipe for hijacking other theories’ verdicts means that it is false that deontologists must not invoke considerations of harm in their accounts of why one duty is stronger than another. They can, and should, be happy to assert that the reason that your duty to keep your promise to take your friend to the airport is stronger than your duty to keep your promise to meet a friend for lunch is that failure to keep the first promise would be more harmful than failure to keep the second. After all, deontologists can say, e.g., that we have a right not to be harmed, or that harming people fails to treat them as ends-in-themselves. More than just being able to say such a thing, deontologists do say such things. This is one reason why it wouldn’t suffice to reply that real deontological theories cannot deontologize (or that real consequentialist theories cannot consequentialize). Paradigm examples of deontologists (Kant, Ross) have prioritized harm-avoidance as a key duty.
Since deontology can import considerations of harm, it is false that “deontologists need to explain why some moral obligations are stronger than others without invoking the harmful consequences of violating those moral obligations.” They can and do appeal directly to harmful consequences. And, therefore, for all that WSA has demonstrated, it might still be that some third thing does explain the correlation between harm and strength of obligation. For instance, if Kantianizers are right, then treating people as ends-in-themselves might be that third thing. That is, both a breaking a promise itself and harming a person by breaking a promise fail to treat the promisee as an end-in-herself, so when the agent must, say, cause one of two harms by breaking one of two promises, it is obligatory to avoid causing the greater harm, as that constitutes a more significant violation of the foundational principle to treat people as ends-in-themselves. In this way, the strength-of-obligation argument, in its appeal to harm, does not marshal considerations that are incompatible with deontology. Since harm is relevant to such deontological right-makers as treating persons as ends-in-themselves, deontologists can let considerations of harm determine strength of obligation, just as much as consequentialists can let the respecting of rights factor into the rankings of outcomes.
(Note that this way of answering WSA also shows that deontology can manifest the same theoretical unity that he thinks is a virtue of consequentialism: just as his consequentialism appeals to one factor (harm) to ultimately explain both the existence and the strength of obligation, so some kinds of deontology can appeal to one factor, such as treatment of persons as ends-in-themselves, to ultimately explain both the existence and strength of obligation. Sometimes, of course, these ultimate explanations will depend on intermediate links, such as harm for deontology and, in one of WSA’s examples, broken trust for consequentialism.)