Kilroy Was Here
May 31, 2004
Deontology vs. Utilitarianism
Kenny and Bob at The Cardinal Collective are having an interesting discussion on Deontology vs. Utilitarianism. (See the following posts
Here's some thoughts I had about the problems inherent in deontology that I originally posted in a comment there.
The deontological quest is to identify some essential absolutist moral princple or principles and to build up from there. Personally, I'm very skeptical of any sort of absolutist moral principle, for three important reasons.
- Incompleteness -- Much like Goedel in mathematics, I think that any moral system complicated enough to handle most moral situations will be incomplete. There will be at least one, if not more, important moral issues that the system cannot address adequately.
- Interpretation -- Since any moral system grounded in Reason sophisticated enough to handle most moral situations will be complex, it's hard to imagine individuals being able to interpret this system the same. Looking at Kant's project, you can understand why this is so. I mean, most people (me, included) have a difficult time understand the basics of Kant (Synthetic a priori judgements anyone?) let alone the details.
Since people will interpret this system differently, in result, you will have multiple systems where the project is trying to find only one. Since moral systems do not have a self-correcting mechanism (a la Science), you end up with multiple incompatible viewpoints.
- Human Nature and absolutism -- Human beings have a very bad record of using absolute moral systems to oppress and destroy fellow human beings. Whether the authority behind the system is God, or the State, or Reason, before you know it, some yahoo will use it to create a Them that must be Destroyed.
Utilitarianism, while certainly more fuzzy, does have the benefit of being a lot more flexible and a lot less subject to the Genocide Mental Virus.
Personally, I am coming to the conlusion that the ethical project as a whole suffers from the Grand Illusion of High Expectations. I am beginning to focus my life on a more humble enterprise.
Humans are, at our heart, social animals. Many of our social instincts are genetically bred from tens of thousands of years on the Savannah.
Societies are beneficial in that together human beings can forge against nature where separately we would fail. Agriculture, medicine, and engineering allow us to live much better than those who do not have them.
Social instincts that contribute to more efficient societies (call these Virtures) such as reciprocation, honesty, friendship, etc are to be encouraged. Those social instincts that undermine more efficient societies (call these Vices) such as rape, blood feud, selfishness, should be discouraged.
The goal of the criminal system is merely to encourge Virtue while discouraging Vice. Unfortunately, (or fortunately), this criminal system has to work inside of a complex, many times irrational, psychology of the human mind. What this means is that the most direct method (such as centrally ordered dicates) may often times be much more inefficient than less direct methods.
This doesn't necessarily have to be a utilitarian argument where all we need to do is decide which action has a greater benefit for the greater number. Rather, this has to do with which system of individual virtures can potentially create a society of human individuals where the greater number has the greater benefit.
We then can judge the system by its effects over time. And, to my mind, most importantly, have a self-correcting feature. If a system of vitures does not provide the desired benefit, we should hypothesize a new system.
So what's the point here?
Well, I would argue that deontology appeals to us in criminal justice because of an absolutist desire we have instinctually. Unfortunately, this absolutist desire does not provide the best criminal justice system, in the sense, that it leads to unfair application and does not decrease bad social instincts as much as it could.
One, it tends to play to other bad absolutist tendencies. For example, it's been well documented that minority races commiting similar crimes get harsher punishments. I could argue that this was a result of Absolutism coupled with Otherness. (THEY just don't have the moral sense that we good folk have.)
Two, it tends to be ineffective. Many studies have shown that incarceration INCREASES the likelihood of a person committing crimes in the future.
Unfortunately, this absolutist desire is with us to stay. It's in the DNA. So are challenge is to come up with a criminal justice system that can in some sense appease the absolutist desire while still being more effective in fostering a better society. A very tough nut to crack.
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