Consequentialism has been criticized from a variety of directions. It is argued that it ignores some basic human values or reduces them to an equation. Recently, there have been criticisms of consequentialism as applied in the Effective Altruism movement. One point, for example, if that the focus of a consequentialist morality on a particular value X means that what is X is deemphasized.

The criticisms of consequentialism may be misplaced. One way of addressing them is to step back and completely rethink the discipline of ethics as a whole. Seen in the larger context, consequentialism can be seen not as a style or variety of ethics - instead, it is a mode of doing ethical study.

Consider an intellectual pursuit such as physics. Most sciences can be split into theoretical and experimental parts. Physics begins and ends with experiment and observation. In between, there is theory. Initially, we observe the world and see regularities. These observations are conceptually abstracted and generalized to come up with a theory. The theory is then put to the test by experiment.

There is also the distinction between science and its applications. Physics is the study of the laws of nature in and of themselves. Engineering is the application of this science. Experimental physics is not at all like engineering. Physics experiments are done to validate or invalidate a theoretical hypothesis. Once these principles are validated, they can be turned into engineering practice.

This division could be useful in ethics also. Typically, ethics is considered to have three equal approaches: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. I am going to argue instead that the study of ethics is composed of a theoretical discipline and an experimental/observational discipline.

Using physics as an analogy, consequentialism, starting from Bentham's Utilitarianism on to the present, can be considered a form of experimental ethics. The claim is as follows: even if consequentialism is considered as a theory, the analysis of the consequences of human actions are so complicated that it is unlikely that a workable consequestialist theory can be made without looking at real-world examples. It is possible to approximate a consequentialist theory with gendankenexperiments, but to get a real reading on the worth of a consequentialist ethics requires the analysis of real events and experiences.

Consequentialism requires a theoretical underpinning starting from the simple hedonistic act consequentialism to even more examples of sophisticated ethical structures. Simply put, a general theory of consequentialism requires some theoretical statement of preconditions, possible ways to act and possible consequences. Although it is possible to consider these definitions as part of a consequentialist approach, they can just as well be separated out as a theoretical prerequisite to consequentialism.

For example, for a system of ethics to be based on the consequences of actions in terms of their pleasure or pain, there needs to be a definition of the criterion of what pleasure and pain are. The specification of such a definition is in the realm of theory. This viewpoint splits the attempt to define the nature of the desired consequences from the practice of studying the effects of applying these definitions.

In this viewpoint, Rawl's Theory of Justice is not truly an alternative to consequentialism. Instead, it is consequentialism with a different metric.

Other branches of ethics are often considered to be virtue ethics and deontology. Generally speaking, virtue ethics considers ethics in terms of goals, and deontology considers ethics in terms of actions. Using a simple functional notation for human actions, all human actions can be considered in terms of this dichotomy. To continue the analogy of physics, there are some basic elements that make up physics as a study of the real world: the objects in the world and the way that these objects interact.

In this approach, we will use the general notion of "eudaimonia" to refer to the desired goal of consequentialism. This is an overarching concept in ethics that is implicit in almost all theories of ethics in one form or another.

These branches of ethics tend to be theoretical in nature. They help define concepts, but the usefulness ("utility"?) of these concepts can only be tested in practice. So virtue ethics defines the goals and deontology defines the way to achieve them. Given these definitions, a consequentialist model is constructed and put to the test in a controlled environment or statistical observations in the real world. This leads back to a correction in the theory.

Some of the criticisms of different ethical systems are due a lack of differentiation between theory and experiment. Consequentialism is criticized because it has incorrect or incomplete definitions of the components that make up a consequentialist ethics. On the other hand, virtue ethics and deontology are often criticized in term of their efficacy and their correspondence to reality. Many of these criticisms can be resolved by restating the relationship between the branches of ethics as a separation between theory and experiment and a further separation of the theory into different epistemological components of ethics.

A final distinction should be made between experimental ethics and the practice of ethics. To continue the analogy to physics, this is the difference between experimental physics and engineering. Ethics contains this same distinction in that there is a whole field of applied ethics that takes the knowledge from the theoretical and experimental approaches and translates these results into regular living. Effective altruism is not consequentialism itself, taken as a series of experiments. Instead, it should properly be established to put into practice only the consequentialist system that has proven itself under controlled conditions.

So now we have the following structure to the study and practice of ethics:
Virtue Ethics defines the desired outcomes - it is part of the theory of ethics
Deontology defines the acceptable processes - it is part of the theory of ethics
Eudaimonia defines the acceptance criteria - it is part of the theory of ethics
Consequentialism is experimental ethics - it depends on the theory
Applied Ethics is engineering - it depends on the previous fields

So it is irrelevant whether you claim to practice virtue ethics, deontology or consequentialism. You do all three. What matters are your virtues, how you put them into practice and what the consequences are.





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Thanks for the thoughtful post. I think you are onto something interesting here!

I like the move of trying to frame ethics in pragmatic terms (i.e., focused on what we actually are and could/should be doing rather then on a-priori assumptions) and would argue that your argument hits onto something really important in this regard. Imo, there is much to learn from pragmatic philosophy to further elaborate on your insight.

Having said that, I am not sure that assigning new meanings to already heavily used terms like "virtue ethics" or "consequentialism" is the right way to go here. Imo, people are bound to be confused by this. Maybe it would make sense to frame it slightly differently by creating a "new model" for ethics that consists of the components you identify and then simply state that "component Y could be informed by prior work on X" where Y is a useful term for the component, and X is one of the already used terms like virtue ethics.

Hope this helps you flesh out this idea further! Feel free to reach out to me if you want to discuss.

Great post - and I agree that it's too narrow to ever claim that one is simply doing ethics through a singular lens. 

Another interesting facet of this: as we make moral theories more complex by "Band-Aiding" their flaws, we end up incorporating aspects of different moral theories. Take rule consequentialism which states that "an act is morally wrong if and only if it is forbidden by rules justified by their consequences" (SEP). In a way, this is a combination of the universal maxim idea from deontology and utilitarianism.

Derek Parfit has been working on this stuff for decades. His three part series On What Matters attempts to combine consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics into a single moral theory he calls "Triple Theory". Parfit's Triple Theory is summarized as:

An act is wrong if and only if, or just when, such acts are disallowed by some principle that is:

(1) one of the principles whose being universal laws would make things go best,

(2) one of the only principles whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will....

(3) a principle that no one could reasonably reject. (Clickable link)

In essence, Parfit argues that all moral theorists are "climbing the same mountain on different sides" in their search for objective moral truth.