Epistemological Problem 2

I think this card is a 10/10, the rest of the article is great as well- I will try not to rehash points made in the evidence or in the rest of the article as I doubt I could explain things better, but I will respond to the detractors below.

First, it seems to me that the epistemological problem he identifies isn’t an issue here. He says that it is impossible to learn every possible deontological injuction because every situation is different, requiring an infinite set of rules. However, to how an epistemologically sound deontology in the instance of the debate, you only need to learn the one(s) applicable to the debate. His beef also seems to apply to consequentialism. Every act has different consequences – to wholly know consequentialism would be just as large of a burden. To be able to apply it to a specific situation would require as much investment as for deontology.

The premise of deontology is universalism. You cannot use a universal only in a particular instance- that makes the moral theory incoherent.

It also seems a bit implausible that there are an infinite amount of deontological norms required. Some situations are different from others, sure, but save a few dilemmas or trickier situations where one principle may come in conflict with another, it seems like most principles would provide a clear-cut way to act in a certain instance. And unless those specific dilemmas arise, there is no reason they would cast doubt upon deontology’s epistemological foundation when applied in other more typical instances.

The card does a pretty good job of explaining this point I think. You have basically asserted there are only a few “trickier” situations without any explanation.

Additionally, I think that his criticism of a generic deontological principle also applies equally to consequentialism. He says that if deontology becomes too generic, it would be unable to account for the context of specific situations. Context also matters for consequentialism. Genocide, global warming, and the “kill 1 baby to save 2 dilemma” all present different contexts that should inform our decisionmaking, regardless of whether we are acting within consequentialist or deontological ethics. I don’t see why, to pick something random, the Kantian injuction to “do something only if you would endorse everybody doing it” is any more or less blind to context than consequentialism. Whether or not you would endorse everyone doing something is specific to the context of what that something is. Consequentialism and deontology are different methods of resolving contextual situations.

I honestly do not understand this point. Consequentialism requires you make an individual decision in every situation- it by definition takes context into account- nothing is prohibited. Deontology does not allow for context- lying to a nazi is the same as lying to your parents.

Consequentialism ultimately relies upon some type of normative judgement about what kinds of consequences we should prevent, and these judgements seem just as susceptible to Stelzig’s argument as any deontology. I feel like this card is silent on the issue of death (or any other value) being the most important value, and if anything that kind of value claim seems to be suspect to the same “double bind” he sets up for deontology.

Winning this argument does not rely on any other system or on death being the worst impact. The burden is on the deontologist- who posits a universal moral principle- to prove its coherence.

It’s just a generic argument. “Problems could arise within your moral system,” not “Here are some problems with your specific moral system.”

I don’t really understand this- its a specific indict of deontology…

2. It presupposes the postmodern turn. My understanding (limited to light debate reading) of deontology is that you’d have to win that there is a universal morality and it should apply to everyone in every instance regardless of how they came to know what they know.

I’m confused again- postmodern deontology? People who are arguing deontology is good have to defend universals, this card says they can’t do that.

It assumes that the epistemology problem and the conflict problem are distinct. It seems that once you’ve established whose position matters more, then the issue of a conflict tends to work itself out naturally.

The conflict problem arises due to a specific response of deontologists to the epistemological problem, whether they are distinct or not is irrelevant.

The reason it’s a bad card is that the argument seems wrong. The side of the double-bind that says “too many rules = epistemological crisis” is unexplained, and in my reading the author of this card is not proposing rule utilitarianism or classical cost benefit analysis as an actual alternative to deontology. The language is also unnecessarily complicated and too much of the card has to be read in a round to make the double bind argument.

Eh, 3/10. It’s nothing new. It doesn’t even mention Kant, who solved this “riddle” a long time ago when he argued that categorical imperatives don’t arise from practice, but from . . . wait for it . . . pure reaseon.

I think the point is that since we make decisions from reason and duty, we are left with an infinite amount of potential situations where we must reason our own universals.

One can certainly raise various epistemological challenges to the possibility of logic, but I read this card as saying “well, the problem with deontology is that multiple rules would be super confusing and could potentially conflict.” No, they couldn’t. That’s the point. If you’ve gotten to the point whereby you worry about potential conflicts at the end, you have, by definition, entered the realm of teleology. Seems to me that the author is using the straw man of rule utilitarianism, rather than arguing about deontology in the first place.

The conflict problem arises not inherently, but when people try to shortcut the epistemological problem by using generalities- yes that move may be teleological, but that is a fault of the side arguing for deontology, not the critic.

6 thoughts on “Epistemological Problem 2

  1. Jake N

    This is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, but I think it deserves some attention:

    "Deontology does not allow for context- lying to a nazi is the same as lying to your parents."

    Not really.

    1) Deontology ≠ absolutism, and not all deontologists are the same on this point (some are Rossian, some are Kantian, some are Rawlsian, some have thresholds, and even many neo-Kantians differ on the lying-to-a-Nazi case). David McNaughton and Piers Rawling, for instance, do not follow Kant in his absolute prohibition on lying. They do not believe in moral constraints at all; they are deontologists because they believe there are options (I have the option to work at Mean Green instead of Oxfam, even though I could help more people through the latter) and special relationships (my parents can spend 40K on my education even though they could save hundreds of lives by spending it on malaria nets, because I am their son) that make it morally permissible to do things other than what promotes the best consequences.

    2) For almost any deontologist except Kant, it makes a difference who is lying to whom. This is because deontologists believe in agent-relative value (it matters if it's your mother on the trolley tracks, even though the five women on the other track are other people's mothers), whereas consequentialists hold that all value is agent-neutral (you and I and everyone else have the same moral obligation to promote the good of motherhood, so I am morally obligated to kill my mother to save five other mothers).

    That's not to say that deontology > consequentialism. I just want to say that it's not nearly as simple as much of this debate makes it out to be.

    One final note: the Stelzig card (or any "consequentialism good" argument) does not prove that death outweighs other values, obligations, or concerns. (In your original post, you phrased it as "death vs some other value.") Consequentialism just means that the only morally permissible act is the one that promotes maximally good ends. It does not define the good; utilitarianism does that. Deontologists and consequentialists can think that killing is wrong with the same moral conviction and that people should not needlessly suffer, but they approach these values in different ways. Philip Pettit has done a good job distinguishing between honoring values (deontology) and promoting them (consequentialism).

    A better response to deontology from a policy perspective would be Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule's argument on the death penalty and life-life tradeoffs. They argue that whether one is a deontologist or a consequentialist, and regardless of whether one believes in the act-omission distinction, that distinction is irrelevant for government policymakers.


  2. Scott Phillips


    I think you are definitely right in reality, however I think most of the debates I judge are not really "consequentialism vs deontology" but more of a caricature of each of those positions such as "body count vs human rights" etc. In this essentialized debate nuanced arguments like sunstein have less utility.

  3. Ellis

    That was actually my question–what's the utility of this card. Maybe it's because I'm not thoroughly familiar with this debate (no idea what the word teleology means) but I don't understand how this ev would help me in a debate

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