Utilitarianism and Deontology, or, the only time I'll ever argue against bacon

In my last post about impact comparisons, I made the point that "magnitude" is usually a straightforward comparison - which war is worse, which policy harms the economy more, which impact should we avoid if we want to save the most lives. Comparing the size of two impacts is easy if they are both measured in dollars or lives, but what if there is no such apples-to-apples comparison? How do you compare an economic collapse to the existence of institutional racism? How do you evaluate a policy which ends a human rights violation, but risks starting a war?

On the scale of governments, this weighing of different impacts is a normal fact of public policy, but when you ask these kinds of questions of individuals, you've begun a study of ethics. After all, individuals have to weigh costs and benefits for nearly every decision they make. There are many ways that individuals or governments could resolve these apples-to-oranges impact comparisons, but there are two particularly important tools from the world of ethics that debaters tend to find useful. Though you might not have heard the terms for these decisionmaking systems, you most likely use both of them everyday.

Consider, for a moment, the vegitarian. Most people aren't raised vegetarians (a least among people of my own cultural background), which means most vegetarians made the choice at some point in their lives to stop eating meat. Every person who makes this choice makes it for different reasons, but there are a few common justifications for vegetarianism.

1. Meat production takes more resources. To take grain, feed it to chickens or cows, and then feed people with the resulting chickens and cows takes more grain than it would take to feed the people directly. Meat production also uses up a lot of land and other resources that could be better used to grow more food for more people. If everyone stopped eating meat, world food prices would go down, and more people would be able to sustain a healthy diet. Even if eating meat is enjoyable, vegetarianism does the greatest good for the greatest number.

2. Animals have rights. The animals that we consume for food are sentient beings that make decisions and feel pain. If we can avoid it, it is wrong to inflict pain on another creature. Animals raised for human consumption are caged, forced to ingest chemicals that modify their body chemistry, and are killed in ways that are far from painless. Even if an individual's decision not to eat meat does not end animal suffering, choosing to eat meat is still wrong.

Not only are these two arguments independent (you might agree with one, or the other, or both, or neither), they are based on completely different ethical systems.

Vegetarian argument #1 is an example of utilitarianism. A utilitarian decision-making process seeks to maximize "utility," which usually means minimizing pain or loss of life. If we did not eat meat, then fewer people would starve to death or face the pain of too little nutrition. Notice that evaluating a utilitarian claim requires looking at an action's consequences (whether or not it leads to less starvation), which is why we say that it is a consequentialist framework.

Vegetarian argument #2, and its claims about "rights", is rooted in the language of Deontology. In a deontic ethical framework, there are certain actions that one should never do, regardless of consequences. Unlike utilitarianism, which presents "conditional imperatives" like "we shouldn't eat meat if meat-eating leads to more hunger," deontology is based around categorical imperatives, things we should or should not do regardless of the consequences. These categorical imperatives are tightly linked with the concept of human rights (or animal rights, as the case may be).

Not all impacts fit neatly into these two categories, but usually we can distinguish between utilitarian and deontic arguments. Any argument about preventing a war or calamity that would happen some time in the future is utilitarian. Disads are largely utilitarian, by consequence. Arguments that seek to establish a "moral obligation," "decision rule," or "you must..." are drawing heavily on deontology.

So when will these two systems come into conflict? If you've been paying attention, they already have. There are two distinct claims built into a tagline like "You must vote aff to overturn a racist government policy." These claims are (1) removing racist policy is a categorical imperative and (2) that the existence of such a categorical imperative means we ought to discard other considerations, usually other utilitarian impacts in the round.

If the negative just extends their impact within a utilitarian framework ("war kills more people than racism"), they aren't going to make it far in this debate. It doesn't matter how many lives the status quo saves if the neg drops the claim that we ought to ignore the consequences of plan. To re-gain the upper hand in this debate, the neg needs to do one or more of the following:

  • win that the government policy in question is not racist

  • win that racism is not a categorical imperative

  • win a stronger categorical imperative that the affirmative violates (support of capitalism will be a popular objection this coming year)

  • win that utilitarianism is a better framework, IE that categorical imperatives do not exist

The neg (or aff, whoever is arguing against the deontic impact) generally has a few more common-sense responses to make as well. On balance, most of the claimed categorical imperatives are over-stated, especially upon a close reading of the impact and link cards in play. The opponents' impact also might not be such pure deontology as they claim it is. There is a wide gap, for instance, between "overturning a racist policy" and "solving racism." You shouldn't let teams claim they are doing the latter when their plan merely does the former.

One last piece of advice: the "utilitarianism vs. deontology" debate tends to revolve around a few obvious arguments against both systems. You could probably think of all of these arguments if you put your mind to it. But no policymaker (or individual) accepts "utilitarianism" or "deontology" in full - we all let both of these philosophies inform our decisionmaking. As such, debaters who can focus their utilitarian/deontic on the plan in question rather than in general can usually get a leg up in these debates.

1 comment:

Kelsey said...

hi ryan! I don't know if it's just because I'm looking too hard, it means nothing, or college is crazy, but my life seems to be looping back on itself all the time. What I mean is coincidence. I got to this blog post from facebook, and read the whole thing. I just learned about all of these ethical theories in my philosophy class, so I actually knew what you were talking about. In fact, yesterday I attended a debate about categorical imperatives and Kant himself. Freaky!

anyways, good job on the post and all. very interesting, of course. just thought I'd let you know. haha.