Against Essentialism in Ethics

It has long seemed to me folly to assume that one thing can determine the right or the good in all contexts in the way that, for example, Kantian deontologists and utilitarians claim. Each time I teach global ethics, this “feeling” is heightened. Why could it not be the case that in one context consequences are more relevant and in another intentions?

For example, a person is careless while driving, looking at his iPod, and ends up killing someone, quite unintentionally. In another case, a young man intends to hurt another but bungles it, and there are no bad consequences, except, perhaps, in regard to his self-image and how he might act in the future.

I’m quite sure that the Kantian and the utilitarian could explain the wrongness in each case, and the countless others that one might invent. But I’m guessing they could cover all such cases only via various contortions of reason and mis-descriptions of the facts.

On the other hand, there might seem to be a real problem if we were to say different things account for the right/good in different contexts, for then how do we determine which is salient in each case? How do we know that here it is the intentions and there the consequences that really matter?

But is this really a problem? Most of us don’t operate consciously, purposely, or explicitly as deontologists or consequentialists in daily life. Isn’t this a good place to appeal to a kind of Aristotelian idea of learned competence that is akin to chicken sexing? Perhaps that takes it too far into the inexplicable. For we do debate in normal contexts about whether motivations are more relevant than the consequences. As we grow up and become responsible moral agents, we develop skills in sorting out what is relevant and what not. Some of us are better at this than others, but the point is that we do it quite naturally. So why assume that we need some principle to appeal to in order to say what’s relevant when? Isn’t that just making the same mistaken assumption that for all cases there is some condition or set of conditions that make something right/good?

Perhaps, however, I have oversimplified matters. Perhaps the contortions of reason and the mis-descriptions I worried about earlier would be mitigated by distinguishing, as people do, between wrong actions, blameworthy actions, and actions warranting punishment. So the bungled attempt of the young man to harm another is blameworthy from the consequentialist’s perspective even if the bungled action wasn’t wrong per se, and as such still warrants punishment. It’s not clear, however, how one accounts for the blameworthiness of the bungled action without appealing to some kind of consequences: either the bungled action really produced bad consequences after all or we need to recognize that, according to a rule consequentialism, willing harm, successfully or not, leads to worse consequences than not in the long run. But then, the action is blameworthy because it is wrong. Perhaps the kind of cases I’m thinking about where it makes sense to separate out the bad from the blameworthy are those, for example, where one causes harm unavoidably and without fault, e.g., when the brakes give out in a new car, but no one was negligent, and someone is run over and killed. The driver is not to blame, did not act wrongly, though the consequences are bad. The point here is that it’s not clear that adding the above distinctions will solve the problem at hand.

I have focused here on Kantian deontology and consequentialism for simplicity’s sake and because they seem to go wrong in similar but opposite ways. The Kantian seems to neglect the importance of consequences and the consequentialist the importance of intention. And we are left wondering in one case why the consequences aren’t relevant and in another why the intentions aren’t relevant. Clearly, Kant and Mill were subtle thinkers; Kant surely acknowledges our intuitions about consequences and Mill the importance of intentions. While nothing I’ve said here is definitive, my aim has been “merely” to push the question: But why think that there has to be some one thing that runs through all right actions that makes them right? I would greatly appreciate being helped out with this question.

One thought on “Against Essentialism in Ethics

  1. The most I can hazard is that the one thing that runs through all right actions, making them right, is rightness or goodness. For as far as that gets us. I do think that we all know the good, more or less, even if we can’t define it. That’s apparent from the way we act and speak and reason every minute.

    As far as saying there’s one condition like consequences or intention or prudence or justice for the sole sake of which all good actions are necessarily done, I agree with you in being extremely skeptical. That would make life look more rationalistic and mathematical than it is. Plus, all those are merely terms and categories, and modern English terms at that, and words can only capture so much of objective reality for us, as those concepts in the mind will differ slightly in coloring from person to person. So I’m not even sure we’d be able to achieve enough certainty of formal agreement to speak so subtly as to define these things fully.

    It seems to me that there’s some proportion, weighing, and uniqueness within each person’s every act that determines that individual act’s rightness. Too much categorization of kinds of moral situations seems a little arbitrary or artificial to me. I don’t think any amount of casuistry would prepare me for the crazy moral events — “big” or “little” — that run up on me every day. Sometimes it’s so unclear in retrospect whether I did the right thing, or the best thing, or a good thing, that I take the easy way out by facile rationalization emphasizing “consequences” or “intent” or some other one thing; but that can’t lead us to the whole truth, surely.

    If you could speak of the one thing of which love and logic are both aspects, then I’d say that would be the one thing that the degree of presence or absence of which would always determine rightness. But I’m aware that sounds very, very vague in so few words. I personally find that degree of participation in and resemblance to the nature of a transcendent God is my only way to make sense of where goodness, righteousness, love, justice, and all human attempts at naming of what is “right” in the world can possibly have an objective, absolute grounding. But without referring to one thing, I think one has to just say, as you say, that there are a bunch of “things” that make actions what they are, and sometimes one aspect is more serious than another (external consequences, for example), but sometimes these aspects might overlap and the distinctions get blurry so dialectic over it gets difficult, and so we have to remember not to worry about it so much and so delicately as to go crazy — because surely that’d be “wrong!”

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