A Distinction without a Difference

Midwest Studies in Philosophy 7 (1):403-435 (1982)
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I wish to defend the claim that given the content and structure of any moral theory we are likely to find palatable, there is no way of uniquely breaking down that theory into either consequentialist or deontological elements. Indeed, once we examine the actual structure of any such theory more closely, we see that it can be classified in either way arbitrarily. Hence if we ignore the metaethical pronouncements often made by adherents of the consequentialist-deontological distinction, we are quickly led to the conclusion that this distinction contributes nothing of consequence to an understanding of moral theory. I will try to show that there are basically two reasons for this. First, what we mean by the terms endemic to the consequentialist-deontological distinction have no unique references to particular states of affairs in actual cases of moral decision making. Hence we may justify any such concrete moral decision by reference to typically consequentialist or deontological reasoning indifferently. Second, scrutiny of actual and viable moral theories reveals a much finer-grained structure than the consequentialist-deontological taxonomy can capture. And it is this structure, rather than simple attention to consequences or principles, that determines practical moral decision making. We would thus do better to develop the richer vocabulary of causes and constituents, goals and effects, states and events (mental, social, or physical). So in the end, the consequentialist-deontological distinction is irrelevant at the normative level of actual moral reasoning, whereas at the metaethical level it crudely schematizes two opposing types of dummy theory, neither of which is convincing, upon reflection, to any practicing moral philosopher.

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Adrian M. S. Piper
APRA Foundation, Berlin


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