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.