Selective Moral Argumentation

There are two competing approaches to moral theory. Consequentialism posits that actions and policies should be judged by their consequences: an action (or policy) is good if its predictable consequences are good. Deontologist perspectives, on the other hand, claim that actions should be judged according to their own worth, irrespective of consequences.

Note that the differences between these approaches lies not in the specific policies advocated but in their modes of arguing. Consider the death penalty. Consequentialists are generally against killing people because it’s not a good idea, but will support the death penalty if it can be shown that it is a cost-effective way of reducing crime. The deontologist opposition against the death penalty is absolute, but a deontologist may also support the death penalty because criminals deserve it, even if that’s not an efficient way to reduce crime.

I used to believe that specific individuals are either consequentialists or deontologists, i.e. some people are very sensitive to consequentialist reasoning while others were immune to it, and vice versa. At the very least, I expected individuals to combine both approaches in a consistent way (for example, by being consequentialists only two-thirds of the time). But now I think this is putting the cart before the horses: what happens in practice is that an individual first decides which policy she wants to defend, and then employs the mode of argument that is more favorable to the policy in question.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, right-wing military dictatorships were pretty common in Latin America. These governments often committed heinous crimes. When, years or even decades after the fact, the issue of punishing those responsible came to the fore, right-wingers opposed the move from a consequentialist perspective –social peace is worth preserving, isn’t it?–, while left-wingers took the deontologist stance –surely those who committed crimes against humanity should be harshly punished. But when the discussion turned about pardoning left-wing guerrillas, as in the 2016 peace referendum in Colombia, the tables turned: now the right found intolerable that criminals would be pardoned for the sake of social peace. (It is worth noting that in Argentina, where several former military commanders, including some with atrocious human rights records, contested and won elections after the return to democracy, the right never raised deontologist objections against them.)

I see the same pattern in Mexico today. During the electoral campaign last year, then candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was harshly criticized for raising the possibility of an amnesty for members of drug cartels in order to pacify the country. To be sure, there are many ways in which such a strategy could go wrong; but the criticism focused on the moral horror of pardoning drug dealers. Predictably, now that the government of López Obrador cut fuel supplies in order to prevent gasoline theft –something against which his predecessors had done nothing–, his opponents have found the virtues of consequentialism: the policy is creating (serious) fuel shortages. As you may guess, the government highlights the importance of combating criminals, without paying much attention to the consequences.

All of this reinforces the point repeatedly made by Cowen and Hanson: politics is not about policy, but about the relative status of different social groups. That said, the fact that we (unconsciously?) pick our preferred policies/stances first and decide how to defend them afterwards only begs the question: what determines whether we end up positioning ourselves in one side of the political spectrum or another? And given that we sometimes (but rarely) switch sides, what are the motivations behind these changes?

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