Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

June 9, 2005

Consequentialist Ethics

by @ 2:20 PM. Filed under

Why “Situation-Ethics” is Morally Appealing and Morally Right
Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, often rail against “situation ethics” or non-deontological ethics (i.e., moral reasoning that does not adhere to specific, fixed moral rules). They seem to see such thinking as emblematic of an unprincipled, inconsistent, “if-it-feels-good-do-it” moral outlook, or as a form of moral relativism, contrary to the firmness and consistency of the “moral absolutism” that they value. This seems to be very much what was on the mind of then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his widely-quoted sermon before the recent papal election:

[R]elativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

This explains the seemingly-increased salience of the word “absolutism” in moral discussion by conservatives – something I think is today much more in evidence than a few years ago. Given a certain stereotype of “relativistic ethics” which treats that term as a catch-all for any non-rigidly prescriptivist ethics, it can seem absurd that anyone would adopt a moral stance that gives different answers to moral questions in different situations. It can seem as if situation-responsive ethics could not be ethics at all, or that it would be the ethics of people who simply don’t care to draw clear moral distinctions or to take strong moral stands. And, given also that that form of moral reasoning is most associated with the liberal side of the policital sphere, a superficial understanding of what consequentialist ethics is can reinforce a superficial understanding of what leftist or liberal politics stands for.

It occurrs to me I might be able to at least slightly narrow the gap of understanding and discursive common ground between liberals and conservatives, offer some insight into characteristically liberal values and ways of thinking, and perhaps put discussions of fundamental political standpoints on a firmer footing, if I could explain what the link is between consequentialist ethics and political liberalism, and what consequentialist, or “situation” ethics, is about. What, actually, does this way of thinking entail? Why would anyone think that way? Why do so many do so today? What makes it attractive as a way of understanding moral problems, and what are its drawbacks? Those questions are too big to answer here, but I hope to sketch out some ideas and offer resources for those interested in broadening their grounding in an influential and still popular approach to moral reasoning.

Consequentialism: Its Attractions and Advantages

The word “consequentialism” identifies a general approach to moral reasoning, within which there are several somewhat similar moral theories (each with numerous variations). As the name implies, it revolves around a general belief that the morality of anything – any act, any decision, any situation, any way of living or behaving – lies in its consequences for the person directly involved and anyone else who is affected. The most moral act is the one with the best moral consequences. What could be simpler, or more obvious? By definition, any other moral theory endorses (at least sometimes) acts which have outcomes that are morally worse than the available alternative – which can’t possibly be right.

A classic comparison is made between the answers given by consequentialist reasoning and the theory of Immanual Kant (a highly influential “deontological,” or rule-driven, moral theory; among other things Kant argued, specifically, that you can never tell lies for any reason, and more generally that you can never “use a person as a means [to an end]” but must always value that person as “an end in themselves”). It is easy to imagine situations in which following Kantian rules rigidly requires, for instance, telling Nazi police that, yes, there is indeed a family of Jews hiding in your attic, or where, in a case of limited resources, it is impermissible to choose who will live and who will die, and thus you must condemn all to exhaust their resources and die together. Consequentialist thinking would in both cases accept the obvious solution of doing some bad in order to prevent much greater harm – telling a lie to save a life, or letting some die so that many can live. Similar comparisons can be made against other relatively inflexible moral systems (explaining, for instance, why many conservative religious thinkers insist on restricting access to birth control or clean drug needles, where consequence-minded liberals are more willing to adopt a “whatever-works” stance and endorse any program that effectively reduces severely bad consequences – unwanted pregnancy, infectious disease – even at the cost of lesser bad consequences – risky sex, drug use). Where the predictable outcome of an action is clearly better in one case than another, and especially when the objection to it is not that it actually entails bad consequences but merely that it breaks some rule (e.g., is a “sin”), the attraction of consequentialism is again clear: deliberately choosing bad consequences out of concern for a rule and not for the actual lives of the people affected seems absurd and, worse, morally indifferent to the good or harm people experience.

Consequentialism: Theoretical Considerations

Every moral theory incorporates some notion of the “moral good” – that is, of what counts as morally good or morally worthy in the first place. Moral theories can be distinguished on the basis of what they take to be the moral good: for religious moralists, it is some notion of what is good in the eyes of (a/the) god(s); for strict deontologists such as Kant, it is some specified thing taken to be inherently good in and of itself (for Kant, this was “the good will”); for “virtue” ethicists it is some notion of “the good life” or morally right character traits; and so on. In each case, we need some argument as to why this thing, whatever it is, is taken to define moral good or moral right; those arguments are notoriously difficult and often suspect – we will skip most of them here. But once a definition of moral right or moral good (we will also skip distinctions between “right” and “good,” though they are important) is in hand, the thing to do, of course, is to seek it and promote it as we live our lives. Thus, each candidate definition of good or right naturally lends itself to a certain theory of how to go about promoting that sense of morality in daily life.

For consequentialists, the theory, obviously, is “maximize the good.” But what is “the good”? That’s where the rubber meets the road – and where the various flavors of consequentialism diverge.

Utilitarian consequentialists (“utilitarians”) define the good in individualistic terms – what is good for a person is morally good for them, on the grounds that there can be nothing good or bad for a person in any sense other than that which furthers or harms their interests. As to those interests, the person themselves determines what they are. (Most utilitarians have been atheists, hence see no imposed good from un-earthly sources. As to an earthly good, what else could it be but what helps or harms the person in question, and who could judge what “help” or “harm” means in this context other than the person themselves? John Stuart Mill offered a somewhat weak “proof” of the theory of utilitarianism by observing that everyone has interests and values, but they are unique for each person – thus we cannot promote any particular value as best among all human values, but must allow each person to seek their own good.) Since good and bad are defined in terms of personal interest, and no other definition of good or bad seems possible, the task of morality is to promote the good – personal benefit or interest – as much as possible. Further, there is nothing about any one person that makes them better or more worthy than another – if “the good” is defined in terms of personal interest, and everybody has such an interest, and those individual interests are all different, there is no way to say that some people are more important than others, or that some people’s interests carry greater weight than others. So the utilitarian theory becomes: in every act or instance, promote the maximal good for all parties concerned, treating each affected person’s interests as equally valuable.

How can we narrow down this notion of “interest” or “the good” more explicitly? For Jeremy Bentham, leading promulgator of utilitarianism in the late 19th century, the good was simply pleasure or pain in the literal, physical sense. (Emotional states such as happiness or sadness were taken to be forms of pleasure or pain – thus anything that pleases or harms one in whatever way can be cashed out in terms of pleasure or pain.) He proposed a “hedonic calculus” – an actual, mathematical model for ranking pleasures and pains by various weighting factors and then calculating outcome totals for any act under consideration. (Bentham’s most important statement of these ideas is found in his Principles of Morals and Legislation.) His follower John Stuart Mill refined this into a broader notion of “preference satisfaction,” whereby “the good” was to have one’s desires fulfilled and “the bad” was to be frustrated in one’s desires. This gave credence to a moral sense that wasn’t so narrowly focused on one’s own bodily state (one may care strongly about, say, helping starving children, but not actually feel physical pleasure over doing so; Mill attempted to account for that). Mill also believed that some pleasures were of greater value than others (which we could know by the fact that most people who had tried, say, classical music and rap would value classical music more highly). In these ways he diverged from Bentham. (Mill’s version of utilitarianism is found in his classic essay Utilitarianism.)

In both cases, the intention was to identify the available alternative act in any situation that would produce the greatest overall outcome; one’s moral obligation was then to perform that act. Utilitarianism is thus a “maximizing” theory (one is maximizing the good derived from one’s actions), and one that responds to each new situation distinctly, in light of the specific circumstances that can affect various persons’ interests. Utilitarians tend not to talk in terms of blanket rules for broad categories of situations, but instead to treat each case separately – hence the moniker “situation ethics.” Utilitarians also tend not to talk in terms of inflexible moral values such as rights (Bentham famously called the notion of moral rights “nonsense on stilts”), duties, obligations, and the like.

Questions arose over practicalities such as the difficulty of calculating predicted goods for every possible act, and the inconvenience of not knowing what to expect in any given situation (sometimes lying is OK, sometimes it’s not; sometimes stealing is OK, sometimes it’s not; . . .). One solution was to adopt “rules of thumb” for common situations (yes, lying could be utility-maximizing, but it usually isn’t, so you need to have an obviously good justification for it in any given case). Another was, instead of attempting to maximize utility in each individual act, to attempt to formulate rules governing general categories of behavior whereby following the rules would maximize utility over the long run, even if not in every case, and would also provide the benefits of stability, predictability, and ease of use. Thus was born a distinction between “Act Utilitarianism” and “Rule Utilitarianism” (Bentham is clearly an Act Utilitarian; J.S. Mill is often called a Rule Utilitarian, but this is somewhat controversial.) Rule Utilitarianism is obviously much easier to implement in a statutory legal scheme, and so is more practical as a way of applying moral rules at the social level; Act Utilitarianism can still be used for small-scale situations at the individual level.

Non-Utilitarian consequentialism largely arose in response to perceived problems with utilitarianism. It can obviously be awkward to try to shoe-horn everything that is good or bad in life into a single measurable value, to rank, say, music, food eaten to avoid starvation, food eaten for pleasure, the love of family, and the feeling of a good backrub all on a single scale and compare them to some equally-mixed-up hodgepodge of goods for someone else, then say which is “more morally worthy.” If the problem of “commensurability” (ranking unalike things on the same scale) could be solved, it still remains that each person’s ranking of each of these things is entirely idiosyncratic. Some, then, proposed multi-value consequentialist systems in which a variety of moral goods could be recognized and weighed – including, for instance, social values such as justice or fairness. This would allow for taking broader moral principles into account while still conforming to the moral goal of maximizing overall good (by treating such things as justice and fairness as goods to be maximized, along with individual interests). This does not abandon the consequentialist notion of maximizing the good, but it avoids necessity of making suspicious claims about the nature of moral goods (i.e., that there is really only one type of them).

Moral evaluations such as “virtuous,” “praiseworthy,” “righteous” and so forth take on meanings other than their common ones, under any consequentialist theory, and the moral value of such traits as honesty, moral integrity (i.e., consistency), or family loyalty is likewise questionable or counter-intuitive. For the consequentialist, remember, the only moral prinicple is to maximize the moral good; whether one does so with a cheerful heart, with an expectation of reward, grudgingly, or in whatever other way is irrelevant – only the actual, practical outcome matters. Similarly, having certain traits of character is of no moral importance in itself – only the tendency of certain traits to lead people to maximize the good consistently is of moral worth, and even there, such a trait is not necessarily “virtuous” as much as simply useful. (That is, if being generous or self-effacing makes it more likely that one will contribute to others’ welfare, then that is a useful trait in the utilitarian scheme, but it is not morally good in itself – only the good outcomes it contributes to are good.) Similarly, the only purpose to moral praise or punishment is to influence the likelihood of appropriate behavior in the future; purely retributive justice is literally worse than useless, because it explicitly comprehends harming (punishing) someone without an expectation of compensatory good to be obtained by it – which is as anti-utilitarian as anything that can be imagined. It makes no sense to say the transgressor “deserves” punishment, because that is a moral evaluation that, to the consequentialist, merely means that punishing will maximize future utility – which cannot be the case if we are punishing merely to punish.

This is not to say that consequentialists have no moral principles or make no moral evaluations or distinctions. Of course they have, and do. But in every case those moral discriminations turn on producing good outcomes in particular (personal or social) circumstances – not on some independent moral categories that hold some things good or bad come what may. The idea that morality could be so rigid as to be indifferent to outcome is literally absurd, and morally bankrupt, in a consequentialist perspective – but, when the appropriate evaluations of acts or rules has been performed, and certain choices analyzed as producing relatively good or bad outcomes, it then becomes of the greatest moral significance that the “good” one be implemented. To knowingly take a course that fails to maximize the good – when an alternative exists – is as shocking to a consequentialist as to knowingly punish the wrong person is to a deontologist, or to knowingly sin would be to a religious ethicist.

Consequentialism and Liberalism

For reasons that should be obvious, consequentialism – specifically, Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism – was the foundation of the political movement now known as “classical liberalism.” Though what today we call “liberalism” is rather different from that, and does not directly emphasize utilitarianism for the most part, it retains many features of classical liberalism and its consequentialist reasoning.

Defining elements of classical liberalism include the political and moral equality of all persons; personal autonomy or liberty in pursuit of one’s own plans and interests; a so-called “public/private distinction” (meaning that only some things fall under the public sway and may be regulated or legislated, while all others, and especially choices about personal lifestyle, are strictly private – not in the sense of being hidden, but in the sense of being immune to public interference) – which encompasses most areas of personal choice or conscience including marriage and sexual behavior, religion, child-rearing, education, employment, lifestyle, tastes or preferences, and other matters; and in general a broad sense of liberty to pursue one’s own interests. (Classical liberals were not what we would call libertarians, because they typically saw a robust role for the government in social reform and creation of opportunity for the disadvantaged. Some fiscal conservatives call themselves “classical liberals” in distinction to the so-called “nanny state liberals” of today, but again Bentham, especially, and Mill were not in any way “small-government” proponents in the modern sense.)

The grounding of these precepts in utilitarianism rested on the latter’s emphasis on individual equality, and on the notion that all personal tastes or preferences were equally worthy (entirely so, for Bentham; mostly so, for Mill). Since “all are to count for one, and none for more than one” (Bentham), there could be no privileged classes or individuals – including religious or gender classes. Though J.S. Mill’s father was a religious conservative, he merely disapproved of certain lifestyle choices; as a staunch utilitarian he did not pretend to forbid them. J.S. Mill himself went further, proclaiming famously that:

the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . .

Mill advocated “experiments in life,” meaning allowing different lifestyles to flourish with the idea that some people might create new forms of family or community that were beneficial – and could only do so if left alone by society. This was a broad theme for Mill: both freedom of speech and conscience, and broad liberty in behavior, were justified because we can only discover right opinions, new truths, or most-advantageous practices by trying various possibilities and testing them – which cannot be done in a constrained or oppressive atmosphere. Thus, the pursuit of best outcomes in all things necessitates the classical liberal social freedoms – of speech and advocacy, assembly, personal interest and lifestyle, and all other outward manners of life. Religious coercion, state religions, or imposed religious services were obviously out of the question as well.

Both Bentham and Mill were great social reformers: Bentham worked extensively in prison reform, and Mill took a job with the East India Company and attempted to use his influence to ameliorate conditions for Indians under British rule. Mill was also a staunch advocate of women’s equality and voting and political rights; late in life he married Harriet Taylor, a leading feminist, and both claimed that they collaborated on each other’s writings on politics and philosophy for the rest of their lives. J.S. Mill published On the Subjection of Women – a strong argument for women’s rights – under his own name, and also introduced the first woman’s-suffrage bill into Parliament almost 50 years before such a bill was finally passed. J.S. and Harriet Taylor also had an unusal marriage relationship: they had been in love for 20 years during her marriage to another man, and agreed to wait – while openly acknowledging their relationship – until he died before becoming lovers or marrying, yet both advocated freedom in sexual relationships and the right of divorce; when they married, J.S. Mill explicitly renounced his legal rights to control of Harriet’s property or political liberty as the law assumed the man would have. So, at the personal level, the early utilitarians were strongly committed to social reform, political equality, extensive personal liberty, and non-interference in private lives or privileges – all for reasons that grew directly from the basic assumptions of their moral theory.

(The best statement of classical liberalism on a utilitarian grounding is Mill’s On Liberty. One of the best contemporary illustrations of the application of utilitarian thought to personal and social issues, from a modern utilitarian, is Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life.)

Problems With Consequentialism

This approach to ethics has attracted many critics, also for obvious reasons. It’s simply hard to be a consequentialist, and harder to be a committed or consistent one. The objections that have been made take many forms.

One is that it is simply impossible to accurately calculate relative utilities of possible actions, let alone predict which outcome will occur; there is too much hidden information, too many complexities, too many ways to go wrong, and it’s too complicated to do it in time, every time, so the theory is just unworkable. Another is that consequentialism, as a moral theory, ignores well-recognized moral concepts such as guilt, justice, rights, and so forth, and that defining them out of existence does not mean they don’t have real meaning. Another, from philosopher Bernard Williams, is that utilitarianism does not “take seriously the distinction between persons” – that it requires that whoever can best benefit from a resource should get that resource in all cases, whether or not they have a right to it, or are a family member of the resource-owner, or even have done something bad to get access to it, and thus that it ignores the moral significance of the actual situations and relationships people live in, treating them merely as “receptacles for utility.” Another is that it gives each person a carte blanche demand on others’ energy and resources; as John Rawls says, if everyone’s preferences are of equal moral worth, then the person who is “desperate” without fancy foods like “plovers’ eggs and pre-phylloxera claret” has a moral claim to being indulged like a gourmet, simply because they want it, which is clearly economically inefficient and somewhat offensive as well.

Furthermore, the insistence on strict neutrality between persons means that one is not entitled to show preferences for favored individuals like friends or relatives – not merely in positions of trust such as public office, but even in private life. If one prefers to leave an inheritance to one’s children, but can produce greater utility by donating it to a charity, one is not merely selfish or short-sighted to do so, but morally prohibited from doing so at all – because the mere fact of some people’s need creates the moral obligation to satisfy it if one can. (Note that Peter Singer, who has expressed many very controversial opinions on animal rights, euthanasia, and other subjects on utilitarian grounds, is also known to donate much less of his large income to charity than he himself says is morally required, while also spending considerable sums on supporting his elderly mother in comfort even though the same money could do much more good for others who are much worse off. He is often criticized for these behaviors, which he acknowledges are hypocritical in the face of his expressed moral commitments – yet they would be seen as perfectly ordinary or morally praiseworthy if Singer had not declared himself a utilitarian.) Similarly, one is almost inevitably required by consequentialist reasoning to donate almost all of one’s time and resources to the betterment of others – since the incremental harm, to someone who is reasonably well-off, of constantly being asked to do charity work or donate money is much less than the marginal benefit to someone who is very badly off of having assistance or resources donated to them. This makes utilitarianism – a seemingly indulgent and easy-going moral theory – unbelievably demanding, to a degree that apparently cannot be practiced by anyone in real life – which is probably a drawback.

(The best resources for modern criticisms of utilitarianism, and for intelligent discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of consequentialist ethics, are: Consequentialism and Its Critics, by Samuel Scheffler (a multi-sided debate between highly-respected philosophers); Utilitarianism For and Against, by J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams (a classic pro/con analysis by philosophers committed to each side); Utilitarianism and Beyond, by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (a series of essays by leading philosophers on many of the aspects of utilitarianism discussed above – somewhat technical).

Consequentialism, Modern Liberalism, and Absolutism

The many practical problems with consequentialism, particularly utilitarianism, notwithstanding, it remains a robust moral theory (though rather in the minority). It has certain important strengths, and is particularly applicable to certain kinds of problems. The insights embodied by the theory continue to inform “liberalism,” even as liberalism has drifted in some ways away from “classical liberalism.”

For one thing, utilitarianism, as a quantity-maximizing theory, is particularly apt in settings in which single-value quantities are intended to be maximized. That is, if “the good” really can be reduced to a single value, then the practical problems with utilitarianism – and many of its intuitive ones as well – disappear. Is there such a setting – a context in which we measure our desires or satisfactions on numerical scale and trade one against the other to maximize the overall benefit? As a matter of fact, there is: the free market, in which we quantize everything, including our own preferences, in a numerical medium and regard increasing monetary benefits for all as the sign of righteous behavior. For this reason, economists tend to be utilitarians, sometimes without even realizing it. (The complaint that “economists see everything in terms of money” is the sameas the complaint that utilitarians try to reduce everything to happiness or preference satisfaction – and in both cases is not regarded as a valid objection by the theorists inside the system.) So too do doctors, social planners, politicians, and others who must in any way quantize their preferred and expected outcomes and adopt a maximizing principle as their guide for action – essentially, in any case in which maximum production of some desired good, and maximally efficient use of resources, are seen as having moral significance. That actually comes out to be a significant part of modern life. This makes utilitarian reasoning – with its moral implications intact (it is a moral issue whether workers get maximum wages, or an epidemic disease treatment saves a maximum number of people) – very common across many aspects of society.

(An important, but somewhat technical, book on utilitarian ethics and economics is On Ethics and Economics, by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.)

In addition, by refusing to rank preferences by intrinsic worth, utilitarianism inherently advances social inclusiveness and tolerance. This is especially significant in a heterogenous, pluralistic society, but also in more homogenous societies where there are still, inevitably, dissenting or non-mainstream groups and individuals. Utilitarian moral reasoning does not countenance oppression of any person’s interests or behavior simply because of what it is – only, if necessary, because of its consequences. (Note that utilitarianism does not adopt “pluralism” as a distinct principle – but this social value arises inevitably from the more fundamental principle that we may not give preference to any certain person’s ideas, beliefs, desires, or values.) This not only produces a better life for all, through the freedom they enjoy to live by their own values, but it contributes to social stability also.

And, in regard of the link between utilitarianism and modern liberalism, they share common values of tolerance, respect for diversity of opinion, preference, and lifestyle, equal standing for all before the law, a rejection of tradition not grounded on directly beneficial consequences, retention of a strong public/private distinction, and a rejection of coerced behavior, creed, or convention. Most modern liberals seem to adopt moral language – especially the language of moral rights – that is anathema to strict consequentialists. But the core values that liberals inherited from their classical-liberal forebears are adaptable to the modern context of moral discourse.

And, finally, what of “absolutism” or “relativism”? First of all, these terms are misnomers. There are in fact virtually no true ethical relativists, and never have been. Ethical relativism in the strong sense is a moral theory that holds that the moral good itself is a matter of personal preference, and therefore that everyone can have different moral rules – that is, that there is no such thing as morality at all, at least that holds true for any two different people. True relativism then really would grant us the moral right to do anything we ourselves thought was good – though of course nobody would choose to live that way (and nobody has) because it grants the same right to everyone else, who would be sure to take advantage of us. It is a logically possible, but in fact irrelevant, theory that plays no role in serious ethics. On the other hand, we are all relativistic in a minor way, in the sense of believing that some things are of no moral consequence and thus purely matters of personal preference – the only difficulty being that we are all relativistic about different things!

In fact, almost every serious moral theory is “absolutist” in the sense of holding that there are moral facts – absolutely true moral statements whose truth does not depend on any person’s opinion or preference. Every such theory grounds its moral principles on such absolute truths, and every theory holds up its own rationalization of what constitutes such truths and how we know which ones they are. (We won’t get deeply into that here.) Again, for Kant the fundamental moral fact was that the moral good was defined by “the good will”; for “virtue ethicists” it is that human nature or human lives admit of roles that express a certain way of being, which can be good or bad; for consequentialists it is that the only moral constant is that all persons have basic values that define the worth of things in their world; for religious ethicists it is something arising from the teachings of their religion. Each of these moral values is “absolute” in the sense that it is understood to express a true moral fact, not just an opinion (even the consequentialist “fact” – that values are a matter of opinion – is itself a universal claim); each gives rise to moral principles that guide actions or life choices. And so each approach to morality is “absolute” – it claims that its principles capture what is really true in the moral sense, and identify actions or choices that are really good or really bad in the moral sense, and thus they deserve to be heeded. There is widespread disagreement over which of these moral truth-claims is actually correct, and the different moral systems may be more or less rigid, more or less permissive – but each is “absolute” in its own way. (I have seen arguments from Christians to the effect that only revealed religious precepts can be “absolutely true,” because only they come from God, or some transcendent realm, while all other claims are grounded on contingent reality on earth. This is far off base. Whether something is universally true has nothing to do with how one knows it is true, and at any rate the meaning of “absolute” has nothing to do with being “trascendent” or “from God.”) Utilitarian ethics is just as absolutist as religious ethics or any other kind – which is not to say that it arrives at the same conclusions, but merely that it, just like the others, takes its conclusions to be true.

Why, then, are liberals so much cooler than conservatives? If both hold absolutist moral positions, and both regard it as morally obligatory to adopt and follow the principles of the right moral theory, and both hold it as equally morally significant when correct moral actions are or are not taken, why are liberals so much more welcoming, and make fewer oppressive rules and fewer personal judgments of others? The answer, again, is the emphasis in liberalism – largely inherited from consequentialist moral thinkers – on room for personal expressions of value and self-interest. They do not hold a weak sense of moral obligation; they simply regard fewer things as falling within the span of moral obligation, because the consequentialist emphasis leads to a position of moral tolerance for any kind of behavior until it results in tangible good or harm to a person, at which point moral evaluation is required. (Rule-bound moralists, on the other hand, have to spend their entire time checking every act and circumstance to see whether someone, somewhere, is having a good time – so they can put a stop to it.)

For good consequentialist reasons, liberals tend to oppose moral conclusions, or acts, arrived at by some rigid rule, and are accepting of behavioral choices that don’t overtly cause any harm. I will note in passing that this also explains much of the standard liberal position on abortion and end-of-life care. If what matters morally is that an individual suffers good or harm, then who matters morally is those individuals who are capable of suffering goods and harms – that is, those who are conscious and alert and have something tangible to lose. And because “goods” and “harms” are defined as matters of personal experience or personal preference, “moral persons” are those who are capable of having experiences and preferences. Embryos or brain-dead individuals are not in that category – they cannot experience good or harm in the sense of pleasure, pain, or preference satisfaction. They do not have a moral claim to be helped or not harmed, because they cannot be helped or not harmed. This is not a question of “not caring” about embryos or vegetative patients – the significant point is that they themselves cannot care about themselves, and hence do not participate in the balance of goods and harms that drives moral decisionmaking.

Thus, “relativism” has no role in moral discourse. Complaints by conservatives about “relativism” are invariably complaints about tolerance. The only “relativist” aspect of consequentialism, or modern liberalism, is that it regards matters of personal preference as matters of complete personal authority. But in respect of its action-guiding moral principles, liberalism is as absolutist as any other moral perspective (i.e., the morally right thing absolutely must be done).

(An analysis of consequentialism specifically in the context of contemporary liberalism is: Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought; a direct contrast between absolutist moral thinking and consequentialism (coming down on the side of absolutism) is: Absolutism and Its Consequentialist Critics.)

Concluding Remarks

It should be clear that “relativism” is not only not the moral boogey-man it is made out to be, it hardly exists in a non-theoretical sense. All or almost all moral theories are “absolutist,” including theories favored by “liberals,” and especially including the consequentialist theories that give rise to “classical liberalism” and which partly underly modern liberalism still. What they are all absolutist about is whatever it is they each take as the defining moral good – the moral value or vision that each promotes. Liberalism derives its core values from a (absolutist) moral theory that emphasizes the best outcome for each situation rather than the indifferent application of rigid rules or moral categories. This theory, which took individual preferences to define “the moral good” for each person, promulgated an ideal of tolerance for variations in beliefs, behaviors, appearances, lifestyles, and all other personal matters – not from a morally relativist position of indifference between moral goods, but from an absolutist position that there was only one moral good and it manifested differently in each person. The strength of that absolutist belief gave rise to equally strong beliefs in personal liberty, personal privacy, political equality, and the need to benefit the worst-off; it also drove social reform movements on mulitiple continents, for a hundred years or more.

If liberal and conservative moral thinking is equally “absolutist,” why are they so different? Because they are absolutist about different things: about specific moral precepts, numerous and often irrational, intrusive into any and every aspect of life, in the conservative approach, but about a broad moral brief for individual liberty and personally-arrived-at answers to life’s problems in the liberal case. They embody, probably, an equal moral fervor, but to enforce conformity with particular rules, on the one hand, and to prohibit enforced conformity on the other.


This essay originally appeared, in a slightly modified form, at evangelical outpost as an entry in the “Expert Witness” series on that blog – an interesting series of summary essays on various topics by experts in the relevant fields. Thanks to Joe Carter of EO for permission to reproduce this piece here.

Comments are closed.


Sufficient Scruples:



February 2017
« May    

Links & Feeds:

RSS 2.0

Comments RSS 2.0


Follow KTKeith on Twitter


Powered by WordPress

Get Firefox!

Theme copyright © 2002–2017Mike Little.

CommentLuv badge

Ask the Ethicist!


White Papers:

Bioethics Links: