Saturday, January 31, 2015

Consequentialism vs. Non-Consequentialism vs. Moral Particularism

Update 2015-10-15: This was written prior to my discovery of Dual Consequentialism which is something of a game-changer. I've since grown confident that panoramic attentiveness (to outcomes) needn't faze out particularistic evaluations of aggregation schemes. A principled devotion to aggregation entails a one-size-fits-all aggregative calculus, and I find this ethically monstrous. Despite this, there is no immutable antagonism between particularism and consequentialism, at least not when one's particularism is sensibly forward-looking. I suppose backward-looking particularism is a possibility, but I am yet to see a deontologist, for instance, shun Principlism in its favor. It's not hard to see why. To ascribe 'shouldness' in backward-looking ways entails a deference to principles, which runs contrary to particularism simpliciter. Thus the spat between the consequentialist and the particularist isn't exactly an unfailing one. The forward-looking particularist and the (dual) consequentialist may perceive each other as moral chums when all is said and done. Still yet, most applications of consequentialism do not encourage dual-ranking verdicts, at least not in the way I imagine them. The below points remain worthy of attention, in light of this.


The  majority  of  consequentialist  and  non-consequentialist  catalogues  continue  to  be  presented  through  'all-things-considered'  principlist-minded  ––  that  is  to  say,  commitment  grounded  ––  underpinnings.  The  stouter  an  argument  for  or  against  consequentialism manages to be,  the  more  incautious  and  perhaps  intellectually  fruitless  it  will  be. The  picture-perfect  consequentialist  will  not  incorporate  a  shred  of  inconsequential  moral  influence  into  evaluative  foundations. And  so  it  is  with  the  masterly  non-consequentialist  absolutist  primed  to  blacklist  telic  ingredients  whenever  a  conflict  with  aretaic or  deontic  ingredients  arises.  The  bifurcation  seems  misguided, discouraging  what  seems  a  commonsensical  indulgence  of  spectrum-based  (context-rich)   assessments,  due  to  an  overindulgence  of  prima  facie  moral  principles.

Other  purely  conceptual  ––  that is to say, non-empirical  ––  disciplines  suffer  less  of  this. Similarly  emboldened  quests  for  rigidity  or  universalizability  are  increasingly  understood  as  being  inattentive  to  detail.  With  ethics,  not  so  much.  What  exactly  sets  normative  ethics  apart  from  the  remaining  conceptual  non-STEM  fields  containing  equally  scrutinous  methodologies  wherein  'all-things-considered'   first principles  aren't  mistaken  for  invariable  cruxes  of  insight?

You  might  now think;  is  this  truly  worth  the  dwell?  Well,  if  some  road  to  hell  had  been  paved  with  non-conceited  good  intentions,  absolutist  forms  of  non-consequentialism  would  have  us  thinking  so  much  the  worse  for  the  aversion of  ensuing  hellishness.  On  the  flipside,  if  the  proverbial  path  to  paradise  had  been  paved  with  nothing  but  bad  intentions,  and  whose  agents  assuredly  lacked  any  semblance  of  a  decent  quality,  all  forms  of  maximizing  consequentialism  would  have  us  thinking  so  be  it.  Seems  some  misgivings  are  in  order,  on  both  fronts.

Have  I  overstated the  regimental  edifices  of  the  opposing  camps?  Perhaps.  There  are  always  new works  for  me  to  navigate.  By  my  count,  all  variants  of  consequentialism  are  by  definition  beholden  to  an  overriding  (overbearing)  principle  safeguarding  impact-over-motives  or  impact-over-character,  whereas  all  variants  of  non-consequentialism  must  by  definition  stand  opposed  to  the  inverse  at  all  times.  It  is  of  no  shock,  after  all,  that  binary-focused  "Natural Law"  theorists  or  rights-theorists  are  particularly  hostile  to  the faintest  trace  of  consequentialism.  There  is  no  coherent  compromise  to  be  had,  in  the  case  of  one  camp's  respect  for  "Natural Law",  "Divine Law"  or  "Inalienable  Rights".  The  theorist  is  left  with  moral structure  that  runs  on  a  dull  house-of-cards,  and  in  so  doing  pays  no  mind  to lexical  thresholds  or  vicissitude.

I suspect that some of the more noteworthy moral theorists’ readiness to embrace structured framings stems from a self-congratulatory mindset, which may well be subconscious as self-affirmation usually is. I'm not immune, for the record, but the more time I spend on the sidelines –– observing polemic encounters as dispassionately as possible from a sober distance –– the more perversely scintillated this trend becomes. People fancy themselves as principled, be they aspiring iconoclasts or acclaimed scholars or mouth-breathing conspiratards. Add to this their having developed a tendency to fuzzy the line between beliefs and identities, and the remainder of the cognitive malware writes itself. What else could such mindsets do but envision the ideal moral theory as one whose accompanying memo is internal stringency? Consider the buzz charge “moral hypocrisy” and how it attests to this, as if loyalty to a non-contradictory concept trumps the rest in vastly different settings. The resultant system will be quick to pat itself on the back for its impressive internal consistency, even though it’s bound to leave its devotees in moral inertia. Utilizing superstructure-acclimated baselines is fine and dandy until perilous complexity comes knocking, at which point it's Rigor Be Dammed.

An unprincipled yet contextually-sensitive approach has on the rarest of occasions been given due consideration. This, despite a tremendous advantage in its ability to reinvest its moral stock into configurationally minded analyses of incoming catch-22s. Why downplay the conceptual importance of this? It’s hardly reducible to the identity-laden chest-pumping common with principled outlooks on ethics. Are we that desperate to keep consistency (intrapersonal uniformity) on a pedestal?

Some scant attempts have been made to forego holistic staunchness and reconcile consequentialist theories with non-consequentialist ones. Particularism transcends these reconciliation endeavours. Something to that effect can be found in this post, though I'd be lying if I said that my aspirations were, at that point in time, fully unhindered by telic/deontic hybridization missions. Back then, I didn't adequately stress curveball-specific obstacles that roadblock conceptual schemes striving to absolutize any set of first principles, be they pluralistically integrated or non-pluralistically disintegrated.

Oddly, those who support the reconciliation of consequentialist and non-consequentialist theories still consider themselves advocates of Moral Principlism, or to a lesser extent, of Moral Generalism. My task here is not to advance the arguments for any such telic/deontic amalgams, but rather to explain their irreconcilability with Principlism itself.

As usual, I come bearing disclaimers: Nothing in this post is meant to give off the impression that non-consequentialism plays a role in the cultivation of animal ethics. The only credible moral dilemmas targeting non-human animals exist within mutually conflicting levels of consequentialism (levels maximizing goodness vs. levels satisficing goodness) or within its variegated descendants (utilitarianism, prioritarianism, egalitarianism, sufficientarianism). [Edit: The term consequentialism arrived on the scene in 1958, much later than utilitarianism did, so think of utilitarianism as consequentialism's subcategory instead of as its descendent.]

it sticks out like a sore thumb, desertitarianism is technically another descendant of consequentialism. I’m purposely excluding desertitarianism from the above spectrum because its proponents have been known to presuppose the correctness of indeterminism (at worst) or compatibilism (at best). Desertitarians tend toward this impulse because it marks the clearest path to a meritocratic-themed outlook where “deserve has something to do with it” after all, for pointedly non-instrumental reasons. This denial of determinism (or deterministic incompatibilism when you get right down to it) damages desertitarianism’s credibility relative to the remaining corollaries of consequentialism in the parenthesis. What sets desertitarianism apart from the norm –– most notably in animal ethics –– is its being driven entirely by the view that nature-endowed deservedness should shape outcomes. Neither utilitarianism nor prioritarianism nor egalitarianism nor sufficientarianism happen upon this concern. Unlike desertitarianism, these four consequentialisms recognize the inanity behind any pseudo-ethical mandate endeavouring to shield the natural flow of things.

In addition to this, the four systems are vindicated by the mounting evidence for determinism vis-à-vis incompatibilism. As such, they remain undamaged by misplaced "just deserts" worries. The systems' respective advocates cater to such worries purely as a means. In the context of human civilization, this catering makes for a sound moral strategy as civilized humans are capable of competing in a multiplicity of nonviolent ways, to the betterment of society. In the context of the animal kingdom, where physicality is the name of the game, catering to said worries merely reinforces the belief that Might Makes Right. This would prove counterproductive, instrumentally or intrinsically. Since the purpose of this disclaimer section is to explain why consequentialism is tailor-made for animal ethics, desertitarianism can be understood as the illegitimate bastard child of consequentialist ethics, and shall rightly be dislodged from the equation.

Focusing on where exactly the four (credible) upshots of consequentialism stand to diverge is something I’ll explore in excruciating detail with a separate post down the line. The focal point here is to showcase how even after we counter in differences between the utility view vs. the priority view vs. the equality view vs. the sufficiency view, the respective views’ shared ancestor will always be consequentialism. Hence whatever internal disagreements arise will, if nothing else, at least be restricted to duels over pure outcomes without embodying any other (inconsequential) disputative layer.

With this, one can't help but start to see the Moral Bulls-Eye as having been considerably narrowed. An eager sense of moral conclusiveness lingers in the wake. It is a flawed sense. Irritably, even once the prescriptive scope is limited to these variants of consequentialism, legitimate questions can be posed in an effort to establish a rank order among them. This leaves us considering Moral Generalism (for animals) within the purview of general consequentialism. So even after you do away with all non-consequentialist theories in settings where animals are concerned, Moral Principlism comes up short, given variance among suitable competing consequentialisms.

I used to be of the clumsy opinion that allotting consequentialist ethics to non-human sentient beings is all one needs to do in order to brandish a final verdict insofar as the above four telic calculi are concerned. The game-plan was basically this:

Utilitarianism – 100% moral weight in all cases
Prioritarianism – 0% moral weight in all cases
Egalitarianism – 0% moral weight in all cases
Sufficientarianism – 0% moral weight in all cases

Easy does it, apparently. For those who still champion Principlism, consider how your verdict might differ from the one I hastily subscribed to at one point. According to the ferociousness of Principlism, one’s evaluative faculties go awry the moment any dissimilarity in thinking arises. Chalking up dissimilarities to idiosyncratic factors is frowned upon, as it undermines the sacredness of exclusionary principles. If all ethics are reduced to a singular imperative, the resulting principle cannot be anything other than exclusionary. If said principle is to be exclusionary, it must crisply favour utility or priority or equality or sufficiency without any crossover permitting gradation. Yet it is Generalism (not Principlism) that implores the use of non-exclusionary principles.

The jury is still out on which one of these four systems is best suited to safeguard animal sentience at all times. Or, to put it more modestly; the jury is still out on which one functions best as a plausible skeleton layout in more scenarios over the remaining three. The four calculi are vying for supremacy, no doubt, but a top-spot doesn’t mean that one calculus must reign supreme over the other three calculi in all conceivable cases, but rather in more cases compared to any alternative rank order. Ergo Generalism over Principlism.

While general consequentialism doesn’t make for a unifying feature of, say, utilitarianism and prioritarianism, its sentiocentric tendencies allow for camaraderie between the two distinct formulas. This commonality proffers a case for multi-dimensional consequentialism wherein a utility formula can be apportioned in 51% of cases and a priority formula in 49% of cases, should a fitting set of circumstances call for distributions along such lines. We now technically have a rank order in effect with utilitarianism at the helm and prioritarianism trailing right behind, to the Generalist’s delight and the Principlist’s chagrin.

We’re operating under the heedfulness of multi-dimensional consequentialism, so any hierarchy of welfare formulas is subject to change depending on varying states of organismal interactions, replete with permutations. In some cases, like a remote island where only a handful of animals reside, the chain-of-events will come to a dead-end sooner or later, without impacting any other event-chain in the world. In a metropolis, it's highly unlikely that an event-chain will ever see a dead-end. A multi-dimensional consequentialist is free to prescribe utilitarianism to the animals located on the remote island, and prioritarianism to everyone located in the metropolis. A one-dimensional consequentialist, on the other hand, must ascribe utility or priority to everything under the sun at all times. Clashes between the utility view and the priority view may strike outsiders as half-hearted when compared to the virulent disagreements visible elsewhere (like with non-consequentialist evaluations, tailored to human affairs).

The only way to shoehorn non-consequentialism into animal ethics is by (erroneously) treating animals as moral agents, in addition to (understandably) viewing them as moral patients. On the consequentialist front, we needn’t mistake animals for moral agents to begin with, since consequentialism –– with its aforementioned upshots, the most popular of which being utilitarianism –– doesn’t rest on the presence of agency in order to proceed without further ado. Sentiocentric consequentialism grants any organism 'moral patient' status on the sole basis of that organism’s (wait for it) sentience. Agency is inconspicuous by its absence.

Contrarily, all flavours of non-consequentialism have historically (and senselessly) denied non-human creatures 'moral patient' status, per antiquated “agent/patient” equivocations. In that sense, non-consequentialism denies itself a seat at the ethics table, seeing as our evaluative starting point predates the emergence of homo-sapiens.

Anyone who believes a case to the contrary can be made, using some modified version of deontology or virtue ethics, is invited to do so. Insisting upon the significance of motives or character when analyzing sentient organisms in the wilderness (running on instinct) should make for a fascinating read, to say the least. I await any input.

In our analyses of human interactions, non-consequentialisms cannot be written off as easily, for humans are not just moral patients. With a capacity for reason and reflectiveness comes the prickly ‘agent’ status, and with this trait an ordinary human finds herself in the company of the only species whose motives and character carry a degree of moral currency. To what extent is this currency traceable or rankable? If the answer is to be conscientious, it will hinge on a vast array of factors that are necessarily situational, and thus variable.

I should also add that specifically religious non-consequentialism (Divine Command Theory) can freely be dismissed with humans just as all non-consequentialisms can be with animals. I probably should've made mention of this in the disclaimer section, but it’s so bloody obvious to my mind that it hardly warrants any mention at all. Irreligious non-consequentialisms can't be jettisoned with humans, but religious ones can.

This ties back to the general thrust of the post; invariable principles’ inadequacy to serve as the backbones of canny moral undertakings. Numerous incautious moralities have been explicated via overarching first principles, but when probed for prolonged periods of time, the followers' collective devotions to those principles inevitably collapse into moral fetishism.

This is made noticeable in part by the prodigious scope of moral stalemates across human-centered conflicts. Our adversarial ambit is markedly far-reaching compared to the stalemates observed among animalistic conflicts (once we grant my disclaimer regarding non-human stalemates being confined to the abovementioned upshots of consequentialism). This is not to imply that non-human moral dilemmas are few and far between, mind you. They’re just comparatively fewer (and perhaps less interesting) relative to the assemblage of dilemmas stemming from human-centred conflicts. I must once again stress that all non-human conflicts are grounded in sentiocentric concerns, whereas human-centered ones go beyond the sensorial/experiential because they encompass domains of reason. It is because of this that the remainder of this post will focus exclusively on human affairs.

My proposed discarding of moral axioms entails that an authentically (read: invariably) principled venture can be wrongheaded from the outset even if its devotee strives for pluralism as a foundational guidepost. If there’s no such thing as an exceptionless moral decree, this remains true irrespective of whether the given decree is monistic or pluralistic. Even so, the conventional narrative (usually drilled into pupils attending moral philosophy seminars) assures us that a proper theory of value will hold that a singular imperative is to be intrinsic, followed by select contributory precepts set to serve as moral crutches. The standard superstructure view follows from this, as values knighted with the intrinsic status are deemed worthy of being upheld across the indispensable litany of moral predicaments fathomable by the human mind. And so it is that all conceivable impediments to first-order principles are narrowed to agent-specific markers of moral fog, with copouts like “incomplete information” identified as the source of one’s moral confusion or moral failing.

Such formulations should be challenged at every turn, because no theorist has provided a concrete example of what an exceptionless non-instrumental precept might be without a counterexample vivisecting it to pieces. Any intrinsic moral concern, triaged to the exclusion of others in all cases, can only paint itself into a corner once it is left to withstand the open-ended tribulations Particularists have in store for it.

Over the last five years Sam Harris has ruffled some deontological feathers by promulgating a consequence-themed take on ethics while referring to it as an empirical exercise. He embarked on the oft-discussed mission in The Moral Landscape without so much as flinching at Kant's offerings (rightly so, in my view). That said, even Harris –– the serene Kant-ignorer –– is seemingly on board with certain concessions being made to the moral weight of intent-for-intent's-sake, as his recent AMA podcast suggests. At the 33:15 mark, Harris is asked about an alleged spat he's had with Chomsky. After noting that no such spat ever took place, Harris still went on to lambast Chomsky's alleged oversimplifications and false-equivalences as it relates to the American War On Terror. Make no mistake, I'm quick to back most of what Chomsky has to contribute in the way of geopolitics, but Harris' point about there being a jejune naïveté in reducing everything to body count metrics (while ignoring motives) is not without its credit. It's also not the sort of thing one expects to hear from a supposed inflexible consequentialist such as Harris. Give his comments a listen and try telling me that you’ve not been left scratching your head as to the potential elasticity of Harris' value template. After some musings, I'm leaning toward Harris being more of a Particularist. Perhaps I'm wrong, but how else does one make sense of his point here? Clearly Harris didn't object to the body count view for fear that not doing so may impact consequences down the road. He objected to it under the handle of intent-for-intent's-sake, much like he did when citing Hamas' charter as his reason for siding with the Israelis; collateral damage be dammed. Once intentions enter the fold, the odious charter of Hamas becomes the elephant in the room. After all, who elected Hamas? It pains me to say that the answer should be irrelevant to a dyed-in-the-wool, plain consequentialist. Hamas may as well have just poofed into power without an iota of populist assistance. That much is evident, and the newfound caveat packs some punch considering Harris’ previous remarks on intrinsic vs. instrumental value.

A similar point can be made by looking at the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo fiasco. Suppose that never again will a terrorist act come to fruition as a result of mettlesome satirists depicting Muhammad like so. By this I mean; the only negative consequences slated to surface on account of infelicitous caricatures will be the straight-up hurt feelings of untold devout Muslims, none of whom will retaliate in violent or nonviolent ways. Granted, the prognosis is pure fantasy where I just pretend that the irascibly devout suddenly learn to take satire on the chin. But you can play along.

Now envisage these hurt feelings outweighing, by leaps and bounds, the total duress our celebrated satirists, cartoonists, humorists and assorted entertainers would have gone on to endure in another dimension where their artistic leeway has been revoked in order to safeguard the sensibilities of those devout Muslims. I’ll further stipulate that sacrificing dauntless free expression in the interest of Muslim sensitivity would not set precedent for any other freedoms being revoked. The stated exemption would start and end with Muslim-specific considerations. No other laws or cultural attitudes would be altered in the slightest. Having established this, would taking such measures to stifle sacrilegious expression be morally right overall, given the alternative prognosis above, ceteris paribus? Before answering, remember that a forward-looking perspective assures us that one set of outcomes can be said to be more experientially toilsome than the other. Despite this, I submit that the morally wise answer is a resounding “no”. The right to offend trumps the guard-railing of hurt feelings, regardless of who’s doing the offending and who’s being offended. This proposed no can only resonate with self-identified consequentialists if they do away with the fallaciousness of Principlism.

With obstinate Principlism entrenched, I’d be cornered into misapplying this exact same “right to offend” stance during my evaluations of animal ethics. But the stance misses the mark wholeheartedly the moment it’s tailored to animals, as reason itself packs no punch in non-human domains of value. Animals cannot be expected to reason, thus sentience is the only plausible value benchmark for them, unlike with humans where the imbalance of scales in outcomes takes a backseat to the recognition that a set of hurt feelings is not a mortgage on our collective right to offend. If the catalyst behind one’s anguish is one’s own commitment to unreason, one has no moral foothold in relation those who might penetrate that anguish via their refusal to capitulate to said unreason. Therein lies the distinction between the inflexible consequentialist and the guarded Particularist often inclined towards consequentialism.

And people have the gall to say I never get topical anymore…

Ironclad non-consequentialists are known to decline entertaining all concerns over outcomes in their moral discourse. Correspondingly, ironclad consequentialists are quick to disparage aretaic or deontic elements as worthwhile components of ethics. Denying them as the yardsticks of ethics is perfectly understandable, but this is not where the bifurcation goes into high gear. Since components and yardsticks are separate beasts, we can see it as a hasty move to conclude that aretaic or deontic features are incongruent with consequentialist ones. As the Hamas and Charlie Hebdo examples indicate, all three schools of ethics deliver valuable sets of moral features in their own right, and mustn't be relegated to secondary, contributory, derivative and instrumental status. That is, if one cares to construct a truly comprehensive, multi-dimensional account of prescriptive ethics. In the disclaimer section, I briefly sketched out how such a theory might work in a pre homo-sapiens environment by applying a rather straightforward multi-dimensional consequentialism (ala utilitarianism plus prioritarianism, for example) for illustrative simplicity.

It is likely true that aretaic or deontic features can be inharmonious with staunch forms of maximizing consequentialism, but this is why satisficing consequentialism exists in the first place. If a theorist disavows the maximizing view (i.e. striving for optimal outcomes) in favour of the satisficing view (i.e. striving for good enough outcomes), the follow-up questions will harp on what exactly is entailed by the vagueness of “good enough”. This is usually where the superstructure model disassembles, leaving the defender of Principlism with no choice but to abandon ship and move (at least slightly) in the direction of some moderate, compromised version of it.

Careful ethicists, in their assessments of rights and wrongs in totality, will find themselves pushing for a “bottom-up” game plan, sustainable through a “case-by-case” evaluative mindset. For this attitude to flourish, one must remain dispassionate when confronted by prideful moral superstructures, the charming take on oneself as being invariably principled, and the accompanying self-idolatry (“I’m principled, and you're not. Aren’t I wonderful!”). Highly alluring, if inferentially naïve, for it can only work by coddling first principles into the quicksand of exceptionlessness. Such pampering will not work on ethicists who’ve sidestepped the fetishistic approach which strives for purity at the expense of moral caution. I for one count myself among the sidesteppers.

But what is meant by a “context-sensitive” approach, other than its willingness to run afoul of unabashed rigidness?

Brief illustration:

Case 1: Nay Consequentialism

Planets A and B exist independently of one another and harbour sentient life in the form of human beings only. The two environments foment identical levels of harm between them. Both the aggregative and the per capita distributions manage to, rather miraculously, be conducive to utilitarian, prioritatian, egalitarian, sufficientarian and meritocratic concerns simultaneously, as harms/benefits befall all persons proportionally to their individual thresholds and merits. To reiterate; a mirror-like event-chain goes into effect on both planets, agitating all welfarist concerns identically. Whatever harms arose did so as a result of consequentialist theories having been negated by the inhabitants of both planets, to an equal degree. Thus the two planets are comparatively indistinguishable from the standpoint of pure outcomes.

Despite this, when looking into the inhabitants’ violations of non-consequentialist injuctions, we unravel a substantial mismatch between Planets A and B. Countless inhabitants of Planet A routinely succumbed to the following shortcomings: Inconsequential promise-breaking, inconsequential narcissism, inconsequential schadenfreude, inconsequential hubris, inconsequential cowardice, inconsequential gossip, inconsequential propaganda, inconsequential vanity, inconsequential bigotry, inconsequential delusions of grandeur, inconsequential anti-intellectualism, etc…

Meanwhile, no such preponderance of vices swung into effect at the hands of a single inhabitant of Planet B. This is partly due to a specific type of non-consequentialism being the most ubiquitous moral theory on Planet B, while all forms of non-consequentialism are borderline unheard of on Planet A.

The strict, principle-oriented, plain consequentialist is presented with the prospect of the two planets and concludes that they are equal in value per their mutually indistinguishable consequence-effect. The strict, principle-oriented non-consequentialist is presented with the same two planets as prospects and concludes that Planet B is morally superior to Planet A per the mutually distinguishable motive-effect (or character-effect).

Pretty straightforward so far; on one hand we have identical outcomes on both planets, but on the other hand we have profuse differential in persons’ motives/character, favouring Planet B.

Case 2: Yay Consequentialism

Planets A and B exist independently once again, and this time all heretofore developed non-consequentialist injunctions are violated by tiny segments of the inhabitants on both planets. The violations are, once again, entirely inconsequential. Comparatively speaking, the initial violations, coupled with their domino-effects, unfold to an identical degree, as those small fractions of inhabitants are equally vile and ill-intentioned. On this side of the parallel however, there is much discrepancy in terms of harms-by-outcomes due to genuine misunderstandings among Planet A’s virtuous and well-intentioned inhabitants (the majority). Ergo Planet A reaches dire levels of hardship in tandem with dispreference infringements, whereas Planet B is free of all genuine misunderstandings and remains utopian by comparison.

In this version of events, the strict, principle-oriented, plain consequentialist concludes that Planet B is morally preferable to Planet A per the mutually distinguishable consequence-effect. Predictably, when presented with Case 2, the strict, principle-oriented non-consequentialist concludes that the two planets are equal in value per their mutually indistinguishable motive-effect (or character effect).

About Those Verdicts

If you consider yourself a principle-minded consequentialist or a principle-minded non-consequentialist, yet you took issue with the verdicts I just ascribed to your axioms of choice, you did so because you’re tacitly (and perhaps unwittingly) more partial to Moral Particularism than you are to Moral Principlism. The unyielding structure of Principlism explicitly discourages us from betraying established first principles, irrespective of how context-sensitive a particular moral conundrum might be. Particularism openly calls for evaluations of dilemmas on a situation-attentive basis; straying from one-track-minded zealotry.

The verdicts for Case 1 and Case 2 encapsulate the intellectual shallowness of principle-worship, so pronounced in the history of (academic) moral philosophy. With the yay verdict, once the premises of non-consequentialist doctrines are set in stone, its devotees are encouraged to brush aside the sets of indistinguishable criteria on account of the readily available sets of distinguishable criteria, and vice-versa with consequentialist doctrines in the nay verdict. Such is the feat of any intransigent moral doctrine, be it purely consequentialist or purely non-consequentialist. Neither approach is capable of withstanding panoramic scrutiny.

It’s unfortunate that I have to construct byzantine convolutions in order to be confident that my reservations about Principlism will strike a nerve with readers. Just goes to show the extent of the damage done by traditional framings.

For those readers who are ready to concede the needless pretzel-logic of the two verdicts: If you’re willing to admit as much, in what way are you an inflexible consequentialist or an inflexible non-consequentialist? The (principled) verdicts struck you as reductionist for a reason; they’re premised on static formulations of value so as to equip the theorist to attribute moral weight to the distinguishable criteria or the indistinguishable criteria, without a pinch of overlap. The moment legitimate-overlap is brought into the fray, the ethicist can deviate from slavish one-track-mindedness and embrace the circumspection of Particularism.

The Takeaway

Moral Particularism: Workable amid human interactions.
Moral Generalism: Workable amid animal interactions.
Moral Principlism: Unworkable.

When in doubt, recall how "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is a serviceable truism to evoke when dealing with overzealous non-consequentialists. By the same token, the possibility of an incremental road to paradise being paved with abundantly sordid intentions shouldn't be handwaved either.

Continually envisioning a spectrum viewpoint in place of a dedication viewpoint was helpful to me in the months I spent as a Particularist-in-the-making (was already a Generalist, having shunned Principlism in 2011). This enabled me to drop some shabby cognitive habits and recognize the need to partition contrasting priorities; especially with deeply situational endorsements of “Outcomes > Motives” or “Motives > Outcomes”. I think the Charlie Hebdo example flatters the motive-friendly view. Moreover, an approach allowing for gradation should strike a chord with non-traditionalists who appreciate the dauntingly vast range of suffering that can be generated by the unintended consequences of limitless well-intentioned acts, while also conceding that deliberating over motives needn’t be sidelined 100% of the time.

The challenge facing Moral Principlism goes beyond proclamations of monistic versus pluralistic first principles, because the cognitive misstep lies in the very notion of a systemic “top-down” adherence as a desideratum. This is not to imply that monistic principles are on par with pluralistic ones, as noted previously (and tirelessly). Value monism still lags behind value pluralism, but the issue under scrutiny in this post must treat the monism vs. pluralism area of dispute as an aside.

I offered up an example of multi-dimensional consequentialism suited to animal ethics, going with a 51/49 amalgam-formula consisting of utilitarianism and prioritarianism. I opted for these two systems in the interest of simplicity, but also because I find their aims more credible than the aims of egalitarianism and sufficientarianism (to say nothing of desertitarianism). It’s important to remain mindful of the common ground that prioritarianism and utilitarianism share, leaving the priority view open to the same range of internal formulas available to utilitarian ethics. One can discern this by revisiting last year's post that looked at the three keystones of disputation within utilitarianism and substituting the utility view for the priority view. Just as utilitarianism is not a monolith, neither is prioritarianism. That the former is much more bastardized than the latter has to do with its maligners being far less likely to ever stumble upon prioritarianism in the first place. So it’s hardly surprising that it is precisely those who are uninformed about the vastness of consequentialist theories who'll be the quickest to offer pedestrian criticisms by going after the low-hanging fruit of utilitarian orthodoxy (Total Utilitarianism and Positive Utilitarianism) rather than learning about its unorthodox alternatives (Average Utilitarianism and Negative Utilitarianism). The same can be said for any other upshot of consequentialism, sans desertitarianism, which fixates on deservingness and is therefore unsuitable for animal ethics.


In 2013 I coined Freelance Ethics to signal my frustration with institutional partiality to principles in what, at that point, seemed to encompass all developed moral systems. As it turns out, there was never a need to coin Freelance Ethics. Last year I randomly keyword searched “Moral Particularism” –– not expecting any formal results –– and came upon this doozy over at SEP. The article echoes some of what I’ve been conveying here, but does so in a more polished way.

I do have a bone to pick with SEP’s use of Moral Generalism as the suggested antipode to Moral Particularism, since ethical generality should be understood as the midway position; a set of non-exclusionary principles applied as a rule of thumb. A far cry from absolutist yearnings for exceptionlessness which then calls for imperativeness. Unlike Moral Principlism, a title like “Moral Generalism” fails to capture the essence of the problem facing non-particularists.

Moral Absolutism and Moral Principlism are the better suited antagonisms of Moral Particularism. Both are offshoots of fetishistic outlooks on morality. Colloquially, Generalism can be understood as a quasi-particularism; a willingness to entertain so-called principles after they've been heavily complicated to the point where they mirror the very context-attentive identifiers of the morally relevant features Particularists urge us to analyze from the inception. So I dub them "wink-wink" principles, and despite rejecting Principlism in favour of Particularism, a quasi-utilitarian and quasi-prioritatian can still be thought of as a Moral Generalist –– proposing a utility/priority formula suited to buffer non-human sentience, perhaps not on a universalistic trajectory, but certainly not one so truncated to the point of near-uselessness. In this sense, Generalism and Particularism are not the antipodes they're made out to be by the SEP.