Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thoughts on a Version of Consequentialist Ethics

Ethics is the basis of social and political thought (or "philosophy") and social and political thought are rigorously expressed in testable fashion in sociology and political science. Social systems are normative since people exhibit values and disagree over values. This is a cognitive (subjective) condition that has behavioral expression.

Subjects act at least in part using values as norms and these norms functions as motivators and shapers of action. One aspect is the nature and function of norms in regulating behavior individually and socially, and another is the consequences of following different sets of norms. These two aspects engender many issues that have been debated for millennia.

In addition to consequentialist ethics there is another type of ethics called deontological ethics that asserts that certain norms are given as fundamental values, such as duty, or as God's will expressed in codes of conduct as divinely ordained instructions. This is also a consequentialist ethics of a sort also to the degree that supernatural reward and punishment are involved.

Thus virtually all norms involve the form, if you do such and such, then the consequences will be so and so. From this it follows that if you want so and so, do such and such, and if you don't want so and so, don't do such and such. Broadly speaking, this is the basis of an approach to ethics that presumes people act rationally and take consequences into account as the chief motivator of action. How this in fact works cognitively and behaviorally is a matter of scientific enquiry, and how it should work is matter of ethical (philosophic) enquiry.

Economics either presumes an approach such as utilitarianism, as does neoclassical economics with utility maximization,derived from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, or constructs an approach on philosophical grounds, as did Ludwig von Mises in Human Action.

Keynes took a more romantic in addition to rational approach in positing the important of "animal spirits," that is the role of emotion, in determining behavior, and acknowledging the role of uncertainty in decision making.

"Romantic" is a technical term here, meaning feeling as opposed to reason. Reason is the cognitive influence on volition and feeling is the affective influence.

Rationalists hold that reason is the chief factor in motivation, and romantics that feeling is the chief motivator. Most hold that some combination of the two is operative and in different proportions in different personality types. But extreme rationalists hold that reason is completely dominant, and extreme romantics hold that feeling is completely completely dominant.

Abraham Maslow launched a more rigorous psychological approach that was not as rigid as Skinner's behaviorism, bringing in a range of motivators and their ordering in a "hierarchy of needs." Cognitive and behavioral economics are now investigating motivation using the methods of their fields. Cognitive and behavioral studies suggest that Keynes was on the right track with "animal spirits," but that he did not go far enough. These endeavors seek be rigorous in the scientific sense.

On the other hand, political economy is based on the application of values and norms to policy formulation. Here, specifically ethic (philosophic) issues arise that are related to ideology instead of science, that is, to "ought" and "should" instead of "is." Then the question become one of criteria and their justification. The fundamental question is whether there are universal criteria that provide an absolute standard for moral judgment morally.

As Lord Keynes says, "Ethics is never far from the surface of discussions of economics, especially practical economic polices."

Social Democracy for the 21st Century
Thoughts on a Version of Consequentialist Ethics
Lord Keynes


Clint Ballinger said...

Interesting to see this here - I have been deeply concerned with consequentialist ethics in the social sciences more generally for some time (e.g., Determinism and the Antiquated Deontology of the Social Sciences, Clint Ballinger )
Haven't had time to read this yet but look forward to it.

Nobody said...

RE: "appeal to nature fallacy"

It is misguided to label the "natural" the "good" but nature is never wrong and when one is viscerally, intellectually, emotionally and holistically engaged with it, proper moral/ethical behavior becomes second nature.

Western man's self-inflicted wound is his separation from nature. Building edifices of philosophy, morals and ethics on detached intellectual foundations leads to bad ethics, bad morals and bad philosophy.

The piece linked below, written by Donella Meadows almost 20 years ago, sums up our situation in a nutshell, IMO. I first read it in a local alt-news/entertainment rag in 1994 and have gone back to it many times since (I still have the clipping from the rag). It felt right then and it still feels right today. We are ruled by the God of Permanent Simplicity. Gahndi's seven blunders are still with us today creating the passive violence that begets active violence. Nature seeks balance, Western man seeks imbalance. Is it any wonder...?

Gandhi's Seven Blunders -- and then Some

Matt Franko said...

"Thus virtually all norms involve the form, if you do such and such, then the consequences will be so and so."

This is probably how "Free Will" and the Hell Doctrine made it in to Christendom...


To me, Western man often seeks "Liberty", to the point where any view of "authority" is lost... which perhaps may indeed lead to your observed "imbalance"...


Matt Franko said...


This from Ghandi at your link:

Blunder: "Worship without sacrifice."

This sounds like he was advocating austerity if this account is to be believed.... didnt know Ghandi was a big austerity advocate...

Just like the new Pope has said that he "Loves the poor"...

I hate people being made poor.

Looks like plenty of the deranged austerity mindset to go around both East and West....


Matt Franko said...


Perhaps we are rather ruled by the god of permanent austerity....


Tom Hickey said...

@ Nobody

Yes, that short article sums it up. The mistake is seeking a simple solution, which involves imposing generality where there is plurality. This is the essence of the later Wittgenstein and the "mistake" of the Tractatus as a comprehensive theory of language rather than simply an articulation of the logic of description.

In a sense, all theories are both correct in some respects and incorrect in others, it only in being insufficient to account for the whole of the data. They can viewed as different instruments in tackling different types of problem.

In addition, humanity is not separate from "nature" and so ethics must have some natural foundation. As contemporary research his revealing, that natural basis lies in reciprocity as an evolutionary trait. As Roger Erickson has observed that reciprocity runs through biology from the get-go.

All religions and wisdom traditions have the Golden Rule as their ethical basis. Kant turn this into his categorical imperative of practical reason in the dictum to act as if one's action could be the basis for a universal rule. This is a formalization of reciprocity.

Tom Hickey said...

"Thus virtually all norms involve the form, if you do such and such, then the consequences will be so and so."

This is probably how "Free Will" and the Hell Doctrine made it in to Christendom...

If one reads the sages of the various wisdom traditions, they all say that good action leads to happiness and bad action leads to suffering. They explain that this includes the present life because good action lead to greater appreciation of reality, which brings increasing bliss, and bad action reduces appreciation of reality, which entails separation and alienation from reality, that is, becoming increasingly lost in illusion and alienation from reality.

They further state that happiness and suffering carry over into the "heaven" and "hell" states, which are not places but rather states of consciousness in which one experiences the quality and quantity of impressions gathered in the body during the previous lifetime.

The cause-effect relationship of action leading to impression and impression to experience of happiness or suffering also relates to the next lifetime, which sages say is formed about 90% by impressions gathered in the previous bodily life and 10% by impressions previous to the last bodily lifetime.

On one level, this is an argument from authority, and many reject it as supernaturalistic. However, it is significant that sages generally agree on major points of this narrative, and there is no reason to suspect cross-influence accounts for all of it. Since these reports arise within nature as the reports of the sages, and many sages report that their reports and teachings are based on non-ordinary experience, the reports and teaching at least suggest there is a natural explanation that is consequentialist. That is to say, there is more to reality that meets the eye, to which the sages attest.

In this view, the sages would have evolved a more comprehensive level of consciousness than what is considered normal. Indeed, the teaching of perennial wisdom is that this is an aspect of evolution of which humanity is not yet generally aware, just as it was not generally aware of evolutionary theory in biology until Darwin and others discovered it. But, the sages say, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Anonymous said...

I prefer to use teleology, deontology and Kant's categorical imperative in concert.

I'm not sure Kant holds up under the fallacy of composition though, however, I have not had the time to fully think it through.