What form of ethics is the least subject to rationalising what you wanted to do anyway?

“And now it frightens me, the dreams that I possess
To think I was acting like a believer, when I was just angry and depressed”

-Sufjan Stevens, Ascension

By rationalising ethics I mean finding an “ethical” argument for what you wanted to do anyway. You might think that a disadvantage of consequentialism as compared to deontology is that it’s fairly easy to rationalise consequentialism, to find some argument about extended consequences that suggests that what you wanted to do anyway is actually the right thing to do. But arguably there are plenty of ways to rationalise deontology as well- a complex scheme of duties and exceptions, complex rules around intentions like the doctrine of double effect- all of these provide many degrees of freedom and opportunities for self-interested interpretation.

Note that the space for rationalisation is different in each. In consequentialism it is the complex, fraught and subjective process of estimating the consequences of an action that gives room for rationalisation. In deontology it is the complexity of the system of rules and exceptions in itself. In other words, rationalisation threatens the integrity of consequentialism through questions of fact, and deontology through questions of ethics.

It might be possible through careful experimental design to disentangle which form of ethics is, as a matter of fact, more prone to being rationalised(1). This is fascinating because it might give us a hint about whether one form of ethics or the other is what I call practically dominant.

Ethical code E1 is practically dominant over ethical code E2 if and only if, on average, someone trying to live by ethical code E1 will produce more ethical behaviour than if they tried to live by ethical code E2 as judged by the lights of both E1 and E2. If either consequentialism or deontology were grossly more likely to be rationalised, it is possible that the other option might thereby be practically dominant.

Of course one of the many difficulties here is that there is no such thing as consequentialism or deontology generally. Both come in many forms. Still, it’s interesting to think about.

If you enjoyed this article please consider joining our mailing list: https://forms.gle/TaQA3BN5w3rgpyqeA also, a collection of my best writing between 2018 and early 2020 is available as a free e-book “Something to read in quarantine: Essays 2018-2020”. You can grab it here. 

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