Consequentialist arguments for deontological positions

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.

50 thoughts on “Consequentialist arguments for deontological positions

  1. @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.

  2. @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. 🙂

  3. 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.

  4. @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.

  5. 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.

  6. @Ikonoclast
    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.

  7. @jungney

    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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. @Ikonoclast
    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.

  11. @Ikonoclast
    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 🙂

  12. @rog

    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.

  13. @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.

  14. @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.

  15. 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.

  16. @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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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]

  19. …..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.

  20. 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” .

  21. 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?

  22. @ZM

    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.

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