Home > Metablogging, Philosophy > Consequentialist arguments for deontological positions

Consequentialist arguments for deontological positions

December 31st, 2014

Thinking about various interchanges on the Internetz, a great many have the frustrating property that, while they appear to be couched in consequentialist terms, some or all of the participants are defending claims that they actually hold for deontological reasons[^1]. For example, a follower of Pythagoras (who, apocryphally, forbade the eating of beans) might appear in a discussion about beans and claim that we shouldn’t eat beans because
* they cause flatulence
* bean production is environmentally destructive
* the bean industry is dominated by exploitative multinationals
The problem for someone seeking to counter these arguments is that, even if they are all refuted, the Pythagorean will not agree that it is OK to eat beans.

I don’t think the position of the deontologist in a debate of this kind is necessarily dishonest. It seems perfectly OK to say “I believe rule p because Pythagoras said it, but I also believe that the consequences of acting on the basis of p are good, and therefore you should do so even if you disregard Pythagoras. Conversely, you may be able to convince me that acting on the basis of rule p, while morally obligatory for me, has bad consequences.”

But, in my experience, such clarity is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, the deontologist will keep on coming up with new consequentialist arguments as the old ones are knocked down. Worse still is the case when the deontological commitment is not acknowledged at all. So, the entire argument is undertaken on shifting ground.

Admittedly, the problem is not confined to deontological beliefs. I support social democracy because I think social democratic policies in general produce the best and most socially just outcomes. But in any particular case, that may or may not be correct. Nevertheless, I will naturally be inclined to favor the social democratic side of the debate.

Any thoughts appreciated.

[^1]: Apologies for the (mis)use of fancy philosophical terminology. I originally had “faith-based”, but that seems unfairly dismissive.

Categories: Metablogging, Philosophy Tags:
  1. nawagadj
    December 31st, 2014 at 11:19 | #1

    I think that more often what we see is disconfirmation bias at work – AGW springs to mind. Every argument that supports the opposed position is wrong – observational record is flawed, models are wrong, IPCC is corrupt, plaeoreconstructions are unreliable, blah blah blah… – for whatever reason that can be constructed.

    As John points out, it’s a frustrating exercise, as you encounter a wide and varied array of opposing arguments with little or any coherent underlying position.

  2. Paul Norton
    December 31st, 2014 at 11:26 | #2

    Arguments about private versus public ownership (closely related to JQ’s point in relation to social democracy) often see consequentialist arguments put for positions that are, at bottom, held for deontological reasons.

    I happen to prefer public ownership of metropolitan public transport systems and control of the system by a single transit authority, and private, individual and cooperative ownership and a free-ish market in restaurants and licensed venues. I believe both positions can be strongly supported on consequentialist grounds. However I would be less than honest if I didn’t also admit to a deontological bias in favour of public ownership and control in the former case, as well as due regulation for workers’ and consumer protection in the latter.

  3. Michael S.
    December 31st, 2014 at 11:43 | #3

    The best example that springs to mind for me is animal rights.

    Obviously the deontological belief, killing/keeping animals for food/human use is wrong – often gets dressed in consequentialist arguments.

    When I studied/worked in life sciences you’d come across ratbags who insisted that there was no research benefit from working on animals, and that animals suffered because of cruel/unnecessary research. You can find examples of unnecessary animal testing but the point is on the whole, pretty silly.

    I’ve also noted since getting involved in the climate activism space that the animal liberation types have taken to arguing that emissions from agriculture are the ‘Elephant in the Room’ that the movement is failing to acknowledge.

    In both cases there is (or in the case of animal research was) certainly a kernel of truth to these claims -animals were being used cruelly and often unnecessarily, but much tighter ethical (and experimental) protocols have gotten rid of this. Similarly Agricultural emissions are a problem, but hardly one being ignored.

  4. Tim Niven
    December 31st, 2014 at 11:57 | #4

    I’d be tempted to call it a worldview thing rather than “deontological”.

    Philosophically, and following a metaphor proposed by Hilary Putnam, I think deontology and consequentialism aren’t an either/or as though our moral theory must be a totem pole built up from the ground of one or the other, but rather they are both legs on the table of our moral sensibility, both important aspects of moral reality. In that sense I think it is perfectly reasonable to say something like: you shouldn’t eat meat because causing harm to animals is in principal a bad thing etc etc, and also say eating meat is bad because of the environmental impact.

    But the psychological phenomenon you are pointing to is definitely frustrating: for some people, and to different degrees, some propositions are not subject to revision in light of evidence and logic. The reasons they give in support of position X can be roundly defeated intellectually, but position X is still not up for review. It’s somehow basic or fundamental in their worldview. In fact I’d call it fundamentalist.

  5. sunshine
    December 31st, 2014 at 12:57 | #5

    @Michael S.

    Mick – The fact that some benefit may be there doesnt necessarily justify anything .There has been a revolution in science over the last 20 years in recognition of non-human consciousness -previously ,and strangely, ignored by science. Also as methane is 23 times worse than carbon dioxide farting cows contribute as much to warming as do the worlds cars .

    I think people who eat meat , dairy (like me), or factory farmed anything either dont think about it or are acting deontologically . But I think there must be a 3rd option as I continue to consume dairy products even tho I know that in Aust each year hundreds of thousands (8 I think) of dairy calves are killed before they are even a week old (they dont even get one drink from their mother) .That makes me embarrassed to be human but I still dont stop. I could look at the world today ,and history leading up to this point, and think that not only animals but much of humanity has/is paid/paying for my easy life -but I dont do much about that either. I do believe that in most (possibly all) of the important ways we are essentially the same as other animals, science supports that . Lab grown meat will solve alot of problems.

  6. December 31st, 2014 at 13:01 | #6

    Putting the case sightly differently. Is this a distinction without a difference in their own terms? To simplify, consequentialism deals with ends whereas deontology (“the theory or study of moral obligation”) with means. Mohandas Gandhi proposed that “means are ends in the making”, which would correctly place him in the deontological camp, while also a consequentialist. Far be it for me to suggest it, but this is not too far from the position adopted by Kant.

    Difficult moral choices remain. The Pythagorean would have for example a problem in the army, and so for that matter might the army. Ecological destruction, often mindless, without a comprehension of consequences. I think it is moral to act and accept the accumulated observations and scientific evidence on the balance of probability. As usual, I and others, probably do not always, if ever, recognize the logical flaws in their arguments.

  7. Donald Oats
    December 31st, 2014 at 13:07 | #7

    We are all susceptible to this, for we all hold some things inviolate: they just differ from person to person. A pervasive example is that of morality: many people, including some atheists, believe that there exists an absolute morality, a set of protocols for deciding what is right and what is wrong. For any given moral rule—thou shall not kill—it seems clear enough, until it is put to the test. And yet many people cling to the notion of an absolute morality, fearing that if there isn’t one, it must mean that anything goes. This is a false dichotomy. Life is replete with such examples.

  8. Paul Norton
    December 31st, 2014 at 13:17 | #8

    The thing about farting cows is that Australia’s national cattle herd of 28.5 million beasts will, ceteris parabus, emit the same volume of methane whether they are being kept for food production or whether they are enjoying an Arcadian life safe from the food production chain. If methane from cattle is really the elephant in the room for climate change, the most rational response is a drastic and immediate cull, which I doubt is a popular prescription among animal rights activists.

  9. Paul Norton
    December 31st, 2014 at 13:33 | #9

    At the risk of inflaming passions, Bertrand Russell was once asked what he thought about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and replied that he thought the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was a mistake but that the destruction of that state would be a greater mistake. In this instance (and without second-guessing Russell’s reasons for this statement) it is quite conceivable that one could regard Israel’s establishment as a mistake on deontological grounds, yet oppose its disestablishment on consequentialist grounds – although such an argument would perhaps be a political one rather than a moral one.

  10. Lesley de Voil
    December 31st, 2014 at 13:56 | #10

    Paul, more than half of Australia’s production of butterfat is exported, most of it to countries such as India, whose recent rise in national health levels is attributed to the subsidization of food staples. It’s all very well asking for an Australian cull, but this would impact negatively on nations only recently brought out of regular episodes of famine. What happened to the CSIRO project to change the composition of bovine intestinal flora to ones emitting much less methane?

  11. Paul Norton
    December 31st, 2014 at 14:11 | #11

    Lesley, to be clear I wasn’t advocating a cull, just pointing out that it arguably followed from certain premises.

  12. December 31st, 2014 at 14:12 | #12


    I think such arguments are not cast in useful frames, because the difference between Imitative(virtue) ethics, rule(deontological) ethics, and outcome(consequentialist) ethics, is merely the information one has at one’s disposal in making judgements. Just as deduction, induction and abduction are different levels of guesswork depending upon the information we have at our disposal. In that light, I am not sure that the assumption that one combines rule ad consequent justifications is any more than an artifact of the normal process of debating moral rules because of the outcomes they produce. There isnt anything illogical about it.

    But, rather than frame the question as one of rationalism, I’d suggest framing it scientifically: Humans demonstrably justify our moral intuitions through a fog of cognitive biases that are unequally distributed in intensity across all of us – not the least of which are by gender, kin, class, family structure, and pressures from geographic competition. It is as painfully obvious that you are an Australian as it is to you that I am an American, or someone else is a Canadian, Brit or German. Yet each of us in the final analysis relies upon an intuitionistic judgment. And appeals to scientific judgement are rare. In your post you make this same argument: that in the end we result to intuition.

    So, the very idea of a common good achievable by moral argument among well intentioned equals is probably illogical – which is why we cannot achieve it. We were relatively equal in interests under craftsman-agrarianism and the absolute nuclear family. But outside of those conditions, our inequality of interests is increasingly visible and dominant. And particularly with the dissolution of the family and the de-nationalism of liberalism, our inequality of interests is increasingly expressed in political preferences.

    Instead of equals under majority rule, if we treat one another as possessed of different sensory biases (roles) in a division of inter-temporal reproductive labor, and that we use voluntary exchange as our information system, then under those conditions, majority rule is only slightly less terrible a means of cooperating than tyranny, and a failure to construct exchanges lost opportunity for cooperation.

    And so our purpose, if better served, in economic science (the study of human cooperation), is to provide institutional means for facilitating superior communication (exchanges) between individuals and groups, rather than attempting to construct unknowable optimums under majority rule.

    At that point fallacious arguments predicated upon false premises will no longer be necessary and we can simply argue about what we are each willing to do, instead of what we justify to be good albeit if in our own illusory and biased interests.

    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute
    Kiev, Ukraine

  13. Ikonoclast
    December 31st, 2014 at 14:27 | #13

    I had to look up “consequentialist” and “deontological”. The latter I thought must mean the opposite of ontology. Oh, the shame of it! I will have to relinquish my claims to even being amateur philosopher and call myself a “shamateur”.

    Actually, I think there is a good reason to be concerned about epistemology and ontology before getting lost in the swamps of ethics. “Deontology” is even a nice pun on “ontology”. If ontology is the study of being or existence then deontology is the study of non-being, non-existence, nothing. In other words, the punned deontology nicely points to that fact that it is made-up fluff.

    But yes, I would seriously place epistemology and ontology (not to mention empiricism) before deontology. How in the blithering hellcat tarnations can people figure out right from wrong if they can’t even figure out what’s real or not? And there is an enormous amount of evidence that humans can’t even figure out what is real.

    I guess being a consequentialist is a bit more like being an empiricist so I suppose I am at the consequentialist end of the spectrum. But then I might even be further on in the spectrum with some leaning to non-normative ethics for behaviours outside those doing clear, unecessary harm to self, others or the environment.

    Everyone killing in an offensive operation from the tactical to the strategic (and there are plenty of contemporary examples) believes they are in the right. Or at least they believe this when they start. Most on both sides, all sides, believe this. They can’t all be right but I strongly suspect they can all be wrong.

  14. Lesley de Voil
    December 31st, 2014 at 15:25 | #14

    Yes, but, Paul, yours is not the only consequence to follow from your premises, or, rather, I should say, your premises are inadequate since their consequences are not laid out fully beforehand. I’ m with ikonoclast here, having decided that deontology didn’t mean what I thought it meant`, would put myself with the empirical consequentialists!
    John, I thought that democratic outcomes were the least worst, rather than the best. This avoids the disappointment of seeing one’s beliefs rudely clobbered, like Linus and the Great Pumpkin.
    ` As a really nice pun, I have now found out the appositeness of the name of a lawyer friend of mine – Deon.

  15. john goss
    December 31st, 2014 at 16:42 | #15

    What a fascinating discussion for the last day of the western calendar year. I agree with John’s description of the problem. I think it derives from the way humans do decision making. Lots of psychological experiments indicate we make our decisions basically on non-rational grounds ie according to what our parents think, our feelings at the time, the weather etc and then after the decision is made we look around for rationalisations, and in our society those rationalisations often take the form of rational arguments. So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that hidden deontological positions are often the main reason why people hold particular views. What does surprise me is the reverse ie societies and groups in many cases do make decisions which are in accord with rational arguments built on fairly evaluated evidence. Reason ultimately has much more influence on our decisions than I would expect, given how our brain works. Of course we could do better, but I am pleased reason is having some influence. (At least thats how I see it. Heaven knows if I’m right!).

  16. Ikonoclast
    December 31st, 2014 at 17:29 | #16

    Actually, I don’t think it is all that difficult to derive human ethics empirically. If we reject outright solipsism, then we accept that like beings (other humans) feel the same pains we do. Without getting prolix, the Golden Rule applies and all human ethics follow.

    Of course, this isn’t J.Q.’s question. He asks (I think) how does one argue with a person with a deontological position who is using consequentialist defences? The short answer is you can’t argue against any strong deontological (faith) position anyway as it is never amenable to reason. This applies individually so simply give up on people with strong deontological positions. More broadly, work with empiricism and reason on the undecided and in educating young minds. Cultural changes can follow in time.

  17. Jordan
    December 31st, 2014 at 19:55 | #17

    The same problem goes with arguments against MMT. MMT clearly explains accounting practices within the banking system and then developes description of logical outcome comming out of such description. Logical conclusions also come from historical begginings and logic of monetary evolutions.
    Comming from such position and arguing against those that do not have ANY description of accounting practice of banking system but argue with their own logical outcome which acctually was the monetary system from before a century.
    MMT clearly describes monetary practice with detailed knowledge from owning and runing a bank by Warren Mosler against those deontologists that do not have nor provide any description of a banking system.
    Therefore, consequentialist MMT is arguing with deontologists, not about banking praxis but about logical outcomes that derive from it. Deontologists do not provide any descriptions of practice, only about beliefs which used to be true 100 years ago.

    Slavoj Žižek gives excellent theory about it. It is about trust that deontologists have in their leaders. Deontologists do not have the description or precise knowledge about a system but give trust to their leaders that they know. Deontologists do not have to study their whole life or not even a year about very complex systems, because we all have our own lives and subjects of study and we deflect such responsibility to leaders who supposedly know all about that.

    So, if we succesfully take down falsities one after nother, it does not help becouse it is the trust in their leaders that is crucial to their beliefs not things that they do not know. Like what happens within banking/monetary accounting system. Only MMT study intricacies of banking accounting, yet all argue about what they believe the logical outcome is.

  18. December 31st, 2014 at 20:34 | #18

    Paul, what on earth makes you think that animal rights activists would advocate keeping cows in Arcadian happiness, rather than, say, slowly reducing the herd size? This is an example of exactly the kind of obstinate argument that gives deontologists a bad name.

    Michael S, are you wiling to state for the record how those strict ethical and experimental rules came about?

  19. December 31st, 2014 at 20:45 | #19

    I see a lot of this deontologicalism (or in plainer terms, “ignoring evidence”) from various elements of the left, including on this blog. Examples that spring immediately to mind are:

    1) The anti-nuclear crowd, who refuse to ever present any scientific evidence and carefully and studiously avoid the growing body of scientific evidence that nuclear accidents cause almost no harm

    2) The pro-GMO crowd, who studiously avoid debates on the politics of agribusiness and prefer to do what Paul Norton did above to the animal rights movement, attacking largely irrelevant arguments about human health that they know they can win. This group also avoid any evidence of the practical benefit of the GMOs they advocate for, avoid talking about cheaper and simpler alternatives (see e.g. golden rice as a good example of this) and refuse to get drawn on issues of cost-effectiveness or cost benefit. In this debate we often find scientific leftists who are willing to consider the precautionary principle for nuclear power and global warming suddenly becoming very adventurous about the effects of new scientific and industrial developments on the environment.

    3) What I would describe as the AGW minimalists, who think that the problem can be fixed with minor economic tweaks (e.g. a carbon tax) and refuse to engage with any evidence to the contrary, or even a nuanced acceptance of the need to talk about what to do next if the tax doesn’t do its job.

    I think though that there is a difference between this kind of thing and the AGW denialists, or the strange evidence-free drive-by trolling of libertarians like TerjeP. I think in these “deontological” instances there is just a lack of willingness to change, and entrenched biasses built around e.g. objection to the types of people engaged in the debate, rather than any deep-seated unscientific or anti-rational commitment to a position. This makes people unfair and unreasonable in their arguments, but it doesn’t mean they won’t change or that the debate is useless. And many of the people on what I would consider to be hte “right” side of many of these debates are equally likely to be there out of pre-existing biases than a strong rational assessment of the evidence.

    But all three of the examples I give above are about policy, not basic science or morality. I guess this is why I continue to comment here, instead of avoiding the site completely. Debate with people who have pre-existing biases about policy that make them reluctant to change can be fun when it doesn’t get personal. Debate with people who deny basic chemistry, not so much.

  20. rog
    January 1st, 2015 at 07:01 | #20


    Perhaps, if you would be so kind, could you provide evidence that

    1) exposure to nuclear radiation causes “almost no harm”

    2) ?

    3) using a price signal (which corresponds with how business does business) did not reduce emissions and did incur an economic loss.

  21. Ikonoclast
    January 1st, 2015 at 08:31 | #21

    J.Q.’s blog strapline is now;

    “Commentary on Australian & world events from a social-democratic perspective”

    Last time I looked closely at the strapline, IIRC it read;

    “Commentary on economics from a social-democratic perspective”

    Is my memory deceiving me?

    I mention this because this blog has become distinctly less interesting (to me at least) since it dropped most of its focus on economics. Now, it has become “any topic under the sun touched on in a dilettantist manner” and lost focus accordingly. I would expect an economist running a blog would address mainly economics, would lead discussion (in the better sense of “lead”) and reply to the more interesting or contentious reply posts. Obviously, my expectations are out of whack with the reality.

  22. rog
    January 1st, 2015 at 10:01 | #22

    @Ikonoclast Well, economics is a social science and subject to a wide range of factors, both subjective and objective.

  23. January 1st, 2015 at 19:22 | #23

    I call these “you’ll go blind” arguments

  24. BilB
    January 1st, 2015 at 21:56 | #24

    Well, JQ, it is time you took up fishing, as Economics is a deontological mine field to the extent that there isn’t actually a word for what economics aspires to be. For the sake of making a point I will assign the term eE to mean the perfect quantification of human activity.

    Economics is eE, as Astrology is to Astronomy.

    To explain that, Economics is an attempt to quantify human interaction which if successful could be termed eE. To that end there have been, over time, many luminaries each of whom have achieved a following of believers. Malthus, Marx, Say, Smith, Keynes, Hayek, Mises, Friedman, Stiglitz, …..a Zodiac of Economics constellations the light from which arguments tend to deontologically cluster, like moths after dark.

    Some dare to call it Science.

  25. Donald Oats
    January 1st, 2015 at 22:39 | #25

    Why should the Golden Rule prevail? What makes it good? Certainly, there is a convenience if people follow the GR, the convenience of not having to treat each human you meet as if they are about to harm you; this doesn’t make the GR good in a moral sense though. For a moral system to be empirical, there still needs to be some metric by which moral good is determined…

    Personally, I think the arguments for proving a specific moral code get things precisely backwards: we have evolved into a social animal, a species which by dint of evolutionary processes, has certain emotions and reactions to particular social cues. We label the way we generally behave, following the GR for example, as “good”, ignoring the fact that if we had suffered a different set of evolutionary circumstances, our general behaviour might be radically different to what it is: perhaps we could have evolved into animals that routinely kill the firstborn of other families, heck, routinely kill all neighbours—does that mean the radically different behaviour is “good” too, or not?

    As an experiment in thinking about what constitutes an ethical system, I like to look at how chimpanzees behave in the wild, or in captivity. Monarto Zoo is an eye-opener. From the chimpanzee perspective, do chimps have an ethical system, and if so, what is their moral code, their sense of right and wrong? And no, I’m not anthropomorphising, for nowhere is it writ that ethical systems are a purely human construct.

    If you do watch chimps in action, be sure to have a barrier between you and them: they have an irritating tendency to hurl their faeces around 🙂

  26. Jordan
    January 1st, 2015 at 23:16 | #26

    @Donald Oats
    Isn’t that about evolution, not only physical evolution but also the thought evolution that we experience forced by ever shrinking living space. Evolving from first experiences we as members of a familly expand onto naighbours then onto city people, then onto state, then onto a country. Recently that thought of solidarity and collective is expanding onto continents such as EU unity, African, Latin America.
    Basically, we project our first experiences onto wider and wider level depending on our ability for perceveiving it as cooperative. That is where ethics come from.
    How to organize larger and larger groups of people is going through evolution by trial and error. What works is deciding what is ‘good’.

    Poetry and religion and corporations and money is what drives us to cooperation and our succes is providing a feedback to demand more of it. But, projecting the relationships we learn from famillies onto larger communities is what defines ‘good’. And makes us feel good and more active.

    Sure, you always have an option to look at different variations of succes, you can choose to look at bad things or good things to form your own worldview. We as humans can choose at what to pay attention to.
    If we look at hoarding money as something that will make us happy then that is our choice and that will be ‘good’. Let’s not forget that every action has its own reaction, therefore such choice will create resistance and then change, given enough time.

  27. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 08:57 | #27

    @Donald Oats

    If I put a plate of fresh, edible, appetising food before you and a plate of putrid, maggot riddled food before you then you would have no touble discerning which was good and which was bad.
    Granted, good is relative to the species. To the maggots, the putrid food is good or at least still good enough.

    So, in the first instance what is good for a species (a group of closely biologically related animals able to breed at adulthood) is what is life promoting and health promoting for that species. Our individual preferences as humans tend to be similarly directed from a biological base. We tend to prefer what is life promoting and health promoting (though we can also note breakdowns in that dynamic). We tend to prefer good treatment as that promotes our life, health and happiness.

    Having been on the recipient end of good treatment hopefully (good parenting, good nutrition, good (though not indulgent) allowance for our individual preferences, we come to understand how we wish to be treated. We form our ideas from our experience. We form a notion of good which develops out of our biological base and our species-specific characteristics. Being generally social beings rather than solipsistic beings (or loners like bears) we can apply the rules that work for ourselves (what is good for us) to others, the ethic of reciprocity or the so-called Golden Rule.

    At this level, I do not think ethics is complex. In fact, it is quite simple. Good, for a species, is what is health-giving, life-giving for that species. A social species with ideational capacity will naturally develop the Golden Rule. Social evolution shows a form of the Golden Rule (basically the ethic of reciprocity) has independently developed in all societies, religions and ethics systems. Indeed, for a social species some level of reciprocity is mandatory though it might be limited to insiders and withheld from outsiders. Then, the problem of the outsider is where primitive ethics meets its first great challenge.

    So, clearly I am saying ethics are relative. Just as all motion is relative (must be judged against another object) so all ethics are relative. The ethic must be formed relative to what is good for the being deriving the ethic. By extension, or the rule of reciprocity, it applies in general to all like beings. Saying “all motion is relative” does not mean there are no laws of motion. Indeed, the insight “all motion is relative” is precisely what allows an accurate derivation of the laws of motion. In like manner, the insight “all ethics are relative” (to what is good for the being affected by the ethic) is precisely what allows an accurate practical derivation of the laws of ethics. The Golden Rule is such a “Law”.

    Virtually all formal problems of ethics would stem, IMO, from taking the false deontological or absolutist position in an a priori fashion. That is, from forming absolute rules before investigating the situation empirically.

    Once again, we find as always, that anti-empiricism is the fount of all fallacies. 🙂

  28. Tony Lynch
    January 2nd, 2015 at 09:14 | #28

    Ikonoclast, why not try reading a really good book on ethics. I suggest Bernard Williams’ little book “Morality” to begin with. I think you will enjoy the book, and you will then be a more informed, if less self-assured, commentator on such matters.

  29. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 09:48 | #29

    @Tony Lynch

    Certainly, I will read that book. What you take for naive self-assurance, the confidence of the ignorant, is that for sure. It is also my willingness to attempt to think “philsophically” first before going to “received” authorities in a field. I have for some time adopted this process of deliberately attempting my own crude and naive solutions in some fields (not all fields by any means) before going to the literature. Bloggers on this site have the unfortunate experience of reading my “notes towards attempting a theory of X” when perhaps I should be scribbling in a notebook or going back to get some more education.

    It is always open to other bloggers to demonstrate the fallacies in my (provisional) thinking. I do think it valid to attempt to develop ethics out of lived experience. The notion that what is biologically good, for mammals at least, (being well nourished, being cared for as young) could then be developed up into ethical principles seems sound to me. The arising of the ethic of reciprocity in a social species seems an almost axiomatic certainty (where individual and group survival is further enhanced by group cooperation). The analogy of relativity between motion and ethics also seems to me a fruitful indicator or pointer. I mean in the sense that the insight of relativity is the very precursor to the discovery of laws or rules of relation. In other words the insight about relativity is anything but the precursor of lawlessness or anarchy which arch-conservatives might attempt to portray it as.

    Please feel free to demolish these ideas on this blog. I will learn something sooner.

  30. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 10:47 | #30

    Footnote to my above post.

    Given the trajectory of human history, the free-thinking individual is well advised to be wary of both fundamentalism and expertism. In everyday speak, this amounts to be being wary of claims by priests and professors.

  31. jungney
    January 2nd, 2015 at 11:01 | #31

    Notwithstanding circumspection around priests I’ve noted with some relief that da Pope is to issue an encyclical on climate change and the environment in general. The timing, with Abbott in office, couldn’t be better in order to allow us to wedge him by citing from the highest authority on the planet, in his terms. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pope took heart from Obama’s high profile attack on Abbott while at the G20 and decided that the time was right to have a go.

  32. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 12:10 | #32


    Yes, the current Pope has made some very sensible and ethical pronouncements in my judgement. I am not averse to agreeing with Priests and Professors when their sense coincides with mine. 😉

    But as I have mentioned before, I am a militant agnostic. That definition can cause a double-take but the motto of militant agnosticism makes matters clear.

    “I don’t know and neither do you!”

    When knowledge or truth claims are being made there is a large general arena (with fuzzy boundaries to be sure) where it is clear (to a very high degree of certainty but not absolute certainty) that no human can know the definitive truth. It is imperative in my book to tell priests and other “experts” in the field of “knowing the unknowable” where to go (in quite colloquial language if need be) when they exhibit such pretentions. One also notes with much cynicism that claims to know the unknowable are almost always bound up with directions to the credulous to organise matters at the behest of and for the prestige and material comfort of the “high and wise”. (I speak as a worker who has done a part of the real work that keeps society running.)

    Footnote (or anecdote)

    My favourite tale in this general arena comes from Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson (which I have not read by the way);

    “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’

    Now, I have read George Berkeley’s ingenious philosophy and Boswell is technically correct. It is impossible to refute it. Johnson’s “refutation” is a simple demonstration intended to short-circuit debate and appeal to “common sense”. It has a valid empirical point without being an actual refuation. One would not be inclined to debate idealism if one had just stubbed and broken one’s toe (for example). My bias is completely on the side of materialism but I much admire Berkeley’s work, style and method.

    I would and do answer Berkeley’s idealism in this manner. If it is all true (beginning with the a priori assumption of God’s existence and nature right through to the assertion of the non-existence of matter and of our immaterial spirits being sent impressions by God) then this is fine but this truth has no operational meaning in this world (the world of human experience and mortality). Man is clearly in the position of being unable to determine real materiality (whatever that actually) from the sense of omnipotently spiritually imparted materiality (if that exists). However, he still discerns dependable universal laws of relation in either the material or the ideal universe. Thus it is these dependable universal laws of relation which matter operationally not the manner in which they arise.

    This is a sidetrack to be sure, but a free-thinking, largely self-educating individual (beyond a certain point) has no need to revere priests and professors or their views (though still a need to learn from them where he can). Everything these authorities claim must be critically examined with much suspicion.

  33. alfred venison
    January 2nd, 2015 at 12:32 | #33

    so long as nobody makes the baby jesus cry and wakes the neighbourhood up. but, seriously, well done, ikonoclast! nicely put: admirably succinct & clearly presented. seriously good. -cheers, venison.

  34. rog
    January 2nd, 2015 at 13:14 | #34

    a free-thinking, largely self-educating individual (beyond a certain point) has no need to revere priests and professors or their views (though still a need to learn from them where he can). Everything these authorities claim must be critically examined with much suspicion.

    That sounds like the denialists position; non experts are denying peer review and judging experts bybusing their own methods.

    Let’s go back to the Turnbull style of argument, if you want a second opinion on a medical diagnosis would you consult with the local butcher or the bloke in the pub?

  35. jungney
    January 2nd, 2015 at 13:26 | #35

    Hi av! Season’s greetings.

    Ikonoklast, through the miracle of kids and seasonal gifts my reading in the last week or so has been Peter Watson’s ‘The Age of Atheists’ and and Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. They complement each other.

    Apparently it was more geology and the discovery of ‘deep time’ who dethroned God before s/he was finished off in the 20c. The problem for priests and other religious intellectuals is that they haven’t yet found, nor ever will, any criteria for testing the existence of god (or prvoing god’s existence an impossibility) that conform to the requirements of either logic, the scientific method, or everyday human understanding.

    However, when it comes to building a common front against our global overlords, I get very ecumenical 🙂

    One of the key things that drew me to Buddhism is its atheism. This is not universal; where hobgoblins have been attached to Buddhism, as in Tibet and Japan, then this can be understood as an accretion from local, pre-existing cultures or as a political sleight of hand by Buddhists so as not to upset powerful local religions.

  36. Donald Oats
    January 2nd, 2015 at 13:29 | #36

    Ikonoclast, in your first sentence you have used conflated two meanings of the word “good”, i.e. you start with a circumstance in which my decision is based on eating something I prefer over something I don’t (mmm, gee this food is good—delicious!), and then conclude with a comparison of moral good and moral bad. I can certainly choose to eat the good food without making a moral decision, for there is no moral choice to be made in the first place.

    Mind you, my point was merely that at some stage, we have to define what we will accept as morally good, as opposed to morally bad. You have given a broad prescription as to how to map from what we observe humans doing, or for that matter any social species, and defining moral good in terms of the behaviours which are most beneficial to the species. Of course, it is never as easy as this, once we get to the finer details…

    If I may, consider once again the alternate universe version of the evolved human species, the one in which humans have evolved to seek out and to kill their neighbours—unless they are family. For sake of argument, let’s say they only do this to near neighbours; every full moon, instead of killing each other, different families seek each other out and those that are able to, engage in their preferred means of reproduction. Conceivably such a species could flourish, so long as individual families have many children, and the children reach reproductive age quick enough to compensate for the neighbourly killing parties. Without the neighbourly squirmishes, the species quickly over-breeds and then starves out, so the policy of killing near neighbours protects the long-term prospects of each (surviving) family unit. [Note, this is just a thought experiment, not meant to be complete in every detail.]

    Here we have a flourishing species which is social within the family, and which is a violent killer of near-neighbours who are outside the family, except on special occasions, so my question is this: what behavioural patterns can we reasonably call morally good? Given the logic you have presented, Ikonoclast, we would be compelled to say that the killing of near neighbours is a moral good. Fair enough. But why is a behavioural pattern which is beneficial to the species a moral good? The short answer is US: we are making the assignation of moral good, we are defining it, from our own context. How do these alternate humans see it? Perhaps they feel killing is morally wrong, and yet they have an innate compulsion to purge their territory of any near neighbours not of their family. On the other hand, perhaps they see the best killer among them as a saint, and the laziest non-killer as an abject object of derision and evil malevolence. Perhaps they don’t even have a notion of good and evil at all, not seeing anything in those terms; in this case, does it make any sense to speak of ethics in relation to this alternate human species?

    Morally neutral situations occur too, which means that moral goodness is not always a valid variable for decision making, which isn’t really that surprising.

    Always fun to prove my ignorance in public. Given the several thousand years of philosophical arguments given to ethics, I assign no great value to my recent contributions 🙂

  37. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 15:10 | #37


    Rog, you have misinterpreted me. As always in blogging there is both context and the summarising of one’s argument due to blogging limitations.

    My context (which I should have made more explicit) was talking about priests and professors in such arenas as theology and speculative philosophy. I did refer to “When knowledge or truth claims are being made there is a large general arena (with fuzzy boundaries to be sure) where it is clear (to a very high degree of certainty but not absolute certainty) that no human can know the definitive truth.” This is the arena where assertions are emprically untestable. I did refer to priests and other “experts” being in the field or business of claiming to “know the unknowable”.

    I was perhaps not explicit enough that the practitioners of the hard sciences are not operating in this arena (the instrinsically unknowable). They are operating in the arena where it is known that we can know things often to high degree of certainty. In other words, not with absolute certainty but highly dependable knowledge with replicable outcomes and able to make successful predictions a high proportion of the time.

    There is an intrinsic difference between the empirical field of hard science on the one hand and theology and the more speculative fields of philosophy on the other. If a climate scientist says “we” (he and his peers) can predict such and such about climate from the known qualities of CO2 as a greenhouse case and many other factors in the climate system, which he then overviews to me, then I can say, if I possess some basic scientific literacy, “Yes, I can see in theory that you could do this if (a) you have enough data, (b) you analyse the data correctly and (c) all your other relevant assumptions are correct. Yes, the assertion that climate could be analysed and predicted in such a manner is conistent with the entire reliable edifice of the physical sciences so far as I understand them.” I am not justified in rejecting his assertion or his peer reveiwed conclusions out of hand.

    But if a theologist or speculative philosopher asserts something about something that is fundamentally unknowable empirically (i.e. not knowable from verifiable and shareable experience without revelation or gnosis) than I am quite justified in asserting as per my agnostic motto.

    “I don’t know and you don’t know either.”

    There is a fundamental difference between empirically testable assertions and empirically untestable assertions.

  38. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 15:56 | #38

    @Donald Oats

    I understand what you are driving at. I don’t think my thumbnail sketch attempt to develop a theory of ethics is complete or even ultimately provably valid. On the other hand, I don’t think it can be rejected out of hand either or even adjudged uninformed and over-assured as Tony Lynch clearly implied in his slight dig at me, combined with useful information I might add. I think it is valid to conflate notions of good (good food) (good ethics) when the definition of good contains in both cases a life promoting, life-affirming ethos for the (ideationally capable) species involved.

    Of course, there is an unprovable baseline, even a deontological baseline in this. That unprovable baseline is that “life is good”. I can and do hold concurrently in myself a feeling that life is good, hopeful and meaningful and a feeling that life is bad, hopeless and meaningless. These very opposed feeling can alternately be in ascendancy or decline. This gets back to my point (which I wonder if orthodox or conservative thinkers on ethics could understand) that everything in ethics must be relative just as motion must be relative. Motion is meaningless with a reference or basline. An ethic is meaningless without a reference or baseline.

    If I come down with mesothelioma (a distinct possibility for me given my work history but I am hoping to not get it or to get asbestosis as a less worse alternative) then my baseline will change without a doubt. Life promoting or life affirming things are good while “life is good”. So far as I am concerned, a life-taking measure (presuming I have the courage to take it) will become good if my life becomes indisputably bad by reason of hopeless-prognosis mesothelioma, for example.

    Getting back to the rubric “life is good”. One could use the “animal spirits” argument. There is really none better. Life is good while it feels good and where socially and economically one’s life is good for others also. The latter half conforms to the ethic of reciprocity and naturally develops out from the former unless one is entirely solipsistic or sociopathic. It can even be seen to develop from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest.

    It is via the recognition of the relativity of motion (even Newtonian motion is relative) that the Laws of Motion became in essence deducible. I argue that it is only by recognition of the “relativity of ethics” that laws or rules of ethics become correctly or validly deducible. William Blake clearly realised this.

    “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.” — William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

  39. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 15:57 | #39

    Correction, I meant : “Motion is meaningless without a reference or basline.”

  40. Jordan
    January 2nd, 2015 at 18:02 | #40

    @Donald Oats

    If I may, consider once again the alternate universe version of the evolved human species, the one in which humans have evolved to seek out and to kill their neighbours—unless they are family.

    I would not say that your description is alternative to history. It points to how evolution changed perception of size of familly members.
    That family that was killing neighbours is growing and kept growing. Why did you stop it growing in your hypothetical (real) version. Why did time stop in your analysis?

    Families grew and became vilages, then towns then city states. Evolution, remember it!
    Then city states concered other city states making them slaves which is such family’s property which eventualy became members of such family.
    We are still thinking of neighbouring countries as such neighbour that needs to be killed, or at least conquered for their resources.
    It is the time and evolution that you are missing from your ‘alternative’ history.

    Past century is replete with cooperation of earlier enemies/ neighbours(neighbouring countries) in order to defend against larger and stronger neighbour that is intent on killing them.
    Evolution that was brought by ever shrinking living space is still visible in contrast between cities and villages. Cities are dominated by leftist thinking (collective) while scarecly populated in country is dominated by individualist, right, conservative thinking. Thight living spaces are forcing the change of ethics thrughout history. Evolution.

  41. Jordan
    January 2nd, 2015 at 18:04 | #41

    correction; “Then city states conquered other city states making slaves out of them…”

  42. Avi
    January 2nd, 2015 at 21:56 | #42

    John, further, this pattern of this behaviour seems to be how people are wired. Simply recognizing the issue only gets us a little way towards addressing it.

  43. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 22:23 | #43

    @Donald Oats

    I didn’t specifically reply to your thought experiment. In your key analysis passage after outlining the hypothetical case you say (and I must quote in full);

    “Given the logic you have presented, Ikonoclast, we would be compelled to say that the killing of near neighbours is a moral good. Fair enough. But why is a behavioural pattern which is beneficial to the species a moral good? The short answer is US: we are making the assignation of moral good, we are defining it, from our own context. How do these alternate humans see it? Perhaps they feel killing is morally wrong, and yet they have an innate compulsion to purge their territory of any near neighbours not of their family. On the other hand, perhaps they see the best killer among them as a saint, and the laziest non-killer as an abject object of derision and evil malevolence. Perhaps they don’t even have a notion of good and evil at all, not seeing anything in those terms; in this case, does it make any sense to speak of ethics in relation to this alternate human species?”

    Generally, I agree with all your tentative conclusions and follow-up questions here. I think they are all sound. Your final question is interesting and can actually be seriously applied to the standard human species (us).

    This blog has caused me to go ferreting a little about the philosophy of ethics. First, let me say I have given little conscious philosophical thought to ethics all my life. Yet, operationally I have survived 60 years, albeit with some luck and/or “moral luck”, without a single criminal conviction. On the other hand, just about anyone, even a very virtuous person by most extant and common “high ethical” stystems, could get at least one criminal conviction in their life purely by bad luck or bad “moral luck”. Of course, criminal convictions are used here as a proxy for very bad ethical mistakes by current societal standards.

    So, point 1, one does not have to be a specialist moral philsopher to have a very reasonable operational understanding of morals and major laws in our society so as to stay out of major trouble with a little luck. (We all need a little luck at times.) I think this is not a trivial point (about one not having to be a specialist moral philosopher). It sometimes seems the case that certain experts in essentially subjective fields want to assert a kind of knowledge elitism and denigrate the average person to enforce their own hierarchies of “expertism” and technocracy and buttress their “guild position” or “moral monopoly”.

    I asked my wife (who is not a vain, pedantic, consciously self-appointed amateur philsopher like myself) a few broad questions to elicit her general philosophic position on ethics without being explicit that it was the philsophical position per se that I was looking for. My first question was “How would you determine if a person’s actions were morally good or morally bad? My wife’s answer was almost word for word “From whether they hurt other people or not.” I think this is an excellent practical answer. I don’t think the best philosopher in history could do any better but then I am biased of course. Of course, my question elicited the fact that my wife has a consequentialist approach to ethics (if we want or need to put a fancy term to it).

    In my ferreting I came across something which I largely agreed with. From this agreement I could see that I am basically a person who holds a position of Normative ethical relativism albeit very possibly with a significant reservation. First let us get the quote done.

    “Normative ethical relativism is a theory, which claims that there are no universally valid moral principles. Normative ethical relativism theory says that the moral rightness and wrongness of actions varies from society to society and that there are no absolute universal moral standards binding on all men at all times. The theory claims that all thinking about the basic principles of morality (Ethics) is always relative. Each culture establishes the basic values and principles that serve as the foundation for morality. The theory claims that this is the case now, has always been the case and will always be the case. The theory claims not only that different cultures have different views but that it is impossible for there ever to be a single set of ethical principles for the entire world because there are no universal principles that could apply to all peoples of the earth. The theory holds that all such thinking about ethical principles is just a reflection of the power holders of a particular culture. So, each culture does and always will make its own ethical principles. Any attempt of those from one culture to apply their principles to other peoples of other cultures is only a political move and an assertion of power.”

    My one claim for a possible universal (for humans) ethical rule is the ethic of reciprocity. Of course, attempts to follow this ethic in practice between cultures can lead to all sorts of bad misunderstandings. This is not to say that each culture does not have its own culturally determined ethic of reciprocity. The ethic mechanism (reciprocity) is fundamentally the same. The specific reciprocally appropriate things or actions might be well very different culture to culture. In the case of very basic needs (food and water), the offering of food and water to a famished, thirsty “approved” person (not a banished or shunned person) would cross-culturally and more or less universally (I think) be seen as an ethically good action provided that things like food taboos, role taboos or procurement taboos were not seen as badly broken in the process. So I have hedged my argument about but still sought to show the central univeral validity of the ethic of reciprocity.

    In philosophy, be it moral philosophy, ethical philosophy or some other philosophy I think one important thing that philsophy cannot ignore is the gain in knowledge from empiricism and science. I think this can be asserted without resort to crude scientism. (Scientism is belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.)

    George Santayana (whose books were too dense for me or I, unguided, was too dense for his books) wrote at least one thing I could understand. He said basically, IIRC, that the Greeks had finished the philosophical project and everything written since was a coda. I tend to think I agree (without really a wide enough reading basis to justify that) except with one important rider. The empirical and scientific revolution radically changes matters and re-opened many but perhaps not all fields of philsophy (in my untutored opinion).

    For a start, the empirical and scientific revolution essentially destroyed the basis for any claim of special authority from religion, be it revealed (the Religions of the Book), philosophic-syncretist-speculative (Hinduism) or gnostic (gnostic sects and Buddhism which is technically gnostic in my opinion).

    Thus the interposed reign of theology or the imported exoticism of eastern religion all lose some considerable authority and lustre one might say and thus, along with the expansion very arguably of real knowledge (even taking a pretty tough epistemological stance) philosophy gets a real brief and a real chance in at least some fields to examine things anew.

    To take some examples. What is the effect on philosophy of mechanistic, deterministic science (Newton to somewhere in the 19th C maybe)? How is free will to be examined and made sense of under the weight of or in the straight jacket of apparent determinism? Then we have the advent of quantum mechanics and “probabilistic indeterminism”. Now, how is philosophy to respond when considering the issue of free will, what it is, whether it exists, how it operatively occurs and so on? The problem might be completely turned on its head so to speak but still just as difficult of a solution.

    As a second example, we cannot ignore scientific advances in attempting to deal with the philosophy of ethics or moral philosophy. Knowing new things does transmogrify the problems. We cannot ignore discoveries from anthropology. We cannot ignore insights (some speculative admittedly) which must be admitted from the theory of evolution, from the insights of the interconnectedness of life gained from ecology.

    We cannot even ignore insights from the Laws of Thermodynamics (arguably the most or some of the most fundamental discovered Laws of Physics). After all, chaos and death (broadly and materially understood) are states of low order / high entropy and living organisms and eco-systems are states of higher order and lower entropy: local states “purchased” at the cost of higher entropy elsewhere. So very speculatively, the cost of higher entropy elsewhere for increased human civilization may be “morally acceptable” if borne by inanimate matter but not if borne by complex living ecosystems. It comes into focus if an inanimate “toy” namely a rich man’s boat is preferred over living complexity, a reef.

    But, I written more than enough for a blog.

  44. Megan
    January 2nd, 2015 at 23:21 | #44

    I’m atheistic – i.e. I am personally convinced that there is no ‘god’ (or ‘higher power’ etc…).

    But I’m certainly not militant about it, and I have no interest in arguing about it with anyone.

    If I thought I could formulate some kind of “proof”, and if I thought that might benefit the world somehow, then I’d probably publish it. But, as Ikon correctly says, ultimately it is – by definition – unknowable.

    I’m a very big fan of the concept of separation of church and state.

  45. Megan
    January 3rd, 2015 at 00:04 | #45

    There’s the making of a joke somewhere in there…..

    An atheist is sitting in a bar with an agnostic.

    In walks a catholic, a protestant, an anglican, a pentecostal, a shiite, a sunni, a buddhist, a taoist, a hindu, a judaist, a pagan, a wikan, a satanist and a zoroastrian.

    ……………….. [<—— punchline goes here]

  46. BilB
    January 3rd, 2015 at 06:07 | #46

    …..and the barman says, “oh, you lot again, where is the other one, is he off…… Sikh,… again, hah haa” to a chorus of pained groans from the patronage.

  47. Megan
    January 3rd, 2015 at 20:27 | #47


    Very droll. I like it.

  48. ZM
    January 4th, 2015 at 14:11 | #48

    I thought I would copy some of my comment from CT on deontology , epistemology, metaphysics, and pacific history here, since no one there was interested in pacific history

    The most prominent history and anthropology arguments about this issue that I know of are the ones about Captain Cook’s death in Hawaii – the three main notable interpretations I think are by Sahlins who is Marxist and materialist and theoretical but focuses on differences generated by culture ; by Dening who was an Australian ethno-historian and Catholic ; and Obeysekere who was pacific and found Sahlins’ interpretation offensive to islanders (Dening says Sahlins’ was more true to the existing sources).

    This event is interesting both in terms of metaphysics and knowledge/epistemology

    Pacific history happens to be a good area for looking at deontology because Pacific Islanders kept many deontological beliefs and obligations such as cosmologies, spirits, seasons, rituals, taboos etc – but European societies discarded many for a long time now.

    I find the support for consequentialism over deontology here surprising since it is quite obvious the consequences we can see in play in the world now do not bear up this idea that giving up deontological obligations is an improvement and leads to good outcomes – therefore logically a consequential appraisal of the consequences of giving up deontological obligations could only find deontological obligations worked better than the assortment of ethics they’ve been replaced by.

    It is unfortunately too lengthy to summarise the essay with proper respect for detail – but Greg Dening’s interpretation is not so famous but very interesting since he was a Jesuit priest for some time and continued to be Catholic – so he would have believed the transformation in the Eucharist rites as well the as other sacraments, and also late in his career wrote a history I haven’t got around to reading about some Catholic Churches in Australia in the second half of the 20th C described as “an ethnographic history of the prophetic imagination among ordinary believers in times of great religious change” With the prologue starting with the Holy Spirit among the disciples at the first Pentecost and then the Holy Spirit in the works of Vatican II and the Australian parishioners.

    What I would like to draw to attention in Dening’s interpretation are the episodes he recounts where two worlds coincide in the one event – worldly for the English and other worldly for the islanders – and the allusions Dening draws to parallels between the events of the death of Cook/Lono and Christianity.

    On the island there were once two seasons – the season of the Chiefs (this is archy as it means Chiefs, I thought I would say since the term was brought up earlier) and the strangers which went for 8 months and the other season, not of Chiefs but of Lono and the natives and the land and fruitfulness which went for 4 months.

    The Chiefs were considered strangers because their ancestors had come from over the sea to rule the people of the land who believed in Lono.

    Lono’s season – makahiki – began before the winter solstice and seems to have been a bit like Saturnalia – the Chiefs were sent to withdraw to their private residences while the commoners and the priests had the run of things and there was much festivity.

    These seasons and the obligations to fulfil their rituals would be deontological.

    The islanders’ sign for makahiki was the cross. One year Captain Cook’s ship arrived in the season of makahiki and it came in bearing flags with crosses.

    Once upon the land Cook was called Lono by the islanders until his men also came to call him Lono and Cook himself participated as Lono in the rituals.

    That year the high chief took his time and didn’t arrive until the 25th of December and came with great ceremony and majesty beyond the normal amount and gave Cook a feathered cloak and sailed a great canoe around the Resolution.

    Cook asked to set up a tent by Lono’s temple from where he could watch the stars – the priests were agreeable and unsurprised for they too were watching the stars to find when the season would end at the setting of the Pleiades.

    The day of the end of the season of makahiki and Lono’s rule ended that year on the 4th of February – and it just so happened that this was the very day Cook and his men would leave the island.

    Before going they asked for some wood from Lono’s temple for firewood and the priests agreed (except for one statue of Ku) as it just so happened that on the last day of the season Lono’s temple was always ritually destroyed – and so it came to be that the Englishmen fulfilled the ritual of the destruction of the temple.

    Makahiki always concluded with a ritual sacrifice – and it just so happened that one of the Englishmen died – and thus he was to become at once the year’s ritual sacrifice and also the first to have a Christian burial on the island.

    They said their farewells and promised to return in a year after searching for the North West Passage.

    But something went wrong with their ship and instead they returned after 7 days. This was out of season for Lono’s return – and the islanders were not hospitable so the English then began to use force on them. It so came that Cook fired at an islander but their matted vest protected them and then the islanders fell upon Cook/Lono and killed him – thereby carrying out the ritual death of Lono in the season of the Chiefs.

    Cook/Lono’s body was taken up a hill to a temple of Ku – and the flesh of his body was shared out and was eaten.

    The Englishmen savagely retaliated by not only killing many island men but capturing others and then stringing the dead island men’s heads around the captives necks.

    The islanders asked the Englishmen when Lono would return again , and every year for forty or so years Lono returned in the season of makahiki.

    Dening says it is Sahlins’ conclusion that this makes god an Englishman.

    A couple of the sailors noted in their reflections about the events that the islanders seemingly saw things incomprehensible to themselves – and Dening himself , former Jesuit, happens to make some curious digressions :

    One being – “There were two strange scenes in those confused days after the killings. One, in the side of the mountain on the temple of Ku, Cook lying there dismembered but resurrected in those who possessed him. The other, in the great cabin of the Resolution, the gentleman of the two ships observing the proprieties of the navy in dividing up the clothes and possessions of their late commodore and buying them in a small auction”

    Another being about the strangeness of others’ gods and sacraments – of course the islanders did not call Cook a god but akua – and Dening says “The islanders I know about, the kanaka, maohi, and enata, had no difficulty in calling beings akua or atua in ways that offends my Euro-centric rationality.” But this would seem an odd comment from a former Jesuit priest who poor and lonely presided over intimate Eucharists with friends at Harvard, thus in every day rooms ritually transforming the everyday objects of bread and wine into forms of akua himself.

    And the other is in his views about the Christian missionaries who came to the island, who, says Dening (to the likely amusement of Marshall Sahlins), adopted proto-Marxist strategies to convert the natives – “The natives would not be converted they argued until they were first civilised. They would not be civilised until they wanted the material goods of civilization so desperately that they would change their means and relations of production to create the surplus to buy them” .

  49. ZM
    January 5th, 2015 at 09:40 | #49

    I have a comment stuck in auto-moderation here – it was very lengthy so I can’t try to guess which words were wrong. Could you take it out of moderation John Quiggin if you have time?

  50. Ikonoclast
    January 5th, 2015 at 12:23 | #50


    You say;

    “I find the support for consequentialism over deontology here surprising since it is quite obvious the consequences we can see in play in the world now do not bear up this idea that giving up deontological obligations is an improvement and leads to good outcomes – therefore logically a consequential appraisal of the consequences of giving up deontological obligations could only find deontological obligations worked better than the assortment of ethics they’ve been replaced by.”

    This ignores the reality of modern capitalism and also your description of events from the two sides has no bearing on the claim. We should not accept religious and ritual actions as being the only deontoglical forms. We cannot equate a reduction in formal religion, tribal religion, folklore and older traditions to a lessening of deontological-ism and a swing to consequentialism. Well we can in the arena of pure science but not necessarily in applied science and certainly not in the arena of the capitalist form of political economy.

    “… it is quite obvious the consequences we can see in play in the world now do not bear up this idea that giving up deontological obligations is an improvement and leads to good outcomes.”

    This is not obvious at all and indeed a complete misreading of what modern capitalism is. Have we really given up the general deontogical position? I think not. Instead of looking at the real system and real outcomes (empiricism and consequentialism) we remain wedded to a formal, normative, deontological system of ownership and obligations that concentrates wealth and destroys the environment and impoverishes exploited people. We have not moved away from the deontological position at all. Capitalism is highly deontological. It is the monopoly and monoculture deontological position that inherently and systematically sweeps away all other consequentialist and deonotlogical positions: a new absolutism coming after and mimicking religious absolutism.

Comments are closed.