The deontologic vs consequentialist ethics debate

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    • #6787

      In a recent presentation about karma on your website you said that when two duties are in conflict we have to be careful to prioritize the right one, since there is also a hierarchy of duties with some relatively more important than others. Since this prioritization has big consequences in terms of karma, how do we know how to do it?

      Also, how does this tie into the deontologic vs consequentalist ethics debate? To illustrate the difference between the two positions, I would give an example from the Mahabharata where Krishna tells the story of a sage who had sworn to tell the truth no matter what. One day, a group of people running away from murderous thieves hide in the vicinity of the sage’s ashram. When the pursuers reach the ashram they ask the sage if he had seen the fugitives. And the sage, abiding by his vow, gives them up and they are killed. In the Mahabharata Krishna says that because of this the sage went to hell.

      The sage is using deontologic ethics which is based on principles alone, while Krishna is hinting at consequentalist ethics where the rightness and wrongness of an action is based on its consequences. So, if there is a choice between telling the truth and saving someone’s life, consequentialist ethics would say that it is better to lie and save someone’s life than to tell a truth that could kill them.

      But the problem is that, in our day to day encounters, we don’t always have such a clear view of what the consequences would be for an action and thus maybe it’s better to stick with our principles.

      What do you think about all this?

      • This topic was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by Ciprian Begu.
    • #6806

      Deontological ethics is good, however, there are multiple principles which can sometimes be mutually conflicting. In Vedic philosophy, we speak about four cardinal moral principles–truthfulness, kindness, austerity, and cleanliness–and the perfect action is that which satisfies each of the four principles. However, in many cases, some of these principles may be mutually conflicting. In the example you have quoted above, truthfulness and kindness are conflicting. We cannot show kindness to criminals even though kindness is a virtue, because that will lead to corruption of society. Similarly, we cannot show truthfulness in cases where it will lead to the incrimination of an honest person, because that will constitute injustice.

      When we take multiple principles into account, we automatically become consequentialist, as the examples above illustrate (e.g. corruption of society or the injustice against a person).

      So, there isn’t a deep contradiction between deontological and consequentialist ethics. The issue, however, is that there are multiple ethical principles to be followed and they can be mutually conflicting. So, the conflict with consequentialist ethics can be resovled within deontological ethics by saying that there are multiple (sometimes conflicting) principles and we have to prioritize between these principles rather than look at the consequences.

      However, there is also another approach in which we can meet all the principles without prioritizing between them. This requires finding that action which satisfies all. An example from Mahabharata can be quoted here. Ashwatthama, the son of Dronacharya, committed the heinous crime of killing the 5 sons of Pandavas while they were sleeping. To avenge the death of his children, Arjuna had vowed to kill Ashwatthama, but Lord Krishna advised Arjuna that according ot the Vedic scriptures, a Brahmana should never be killed by a Kshatriya. Lord Krishna found a middle path–shaving off the shikha of a Brahmana is considered a humiliation equivalent to the Brahmana’s death, and that’s what Arjuna did after defeating Ashwatthama.

      The main point is that when ethical principles seem conflicting through the normal course of action, there is a possibility of finding an action that doesn’t violate any of the principles. However, this means that the action is not universal but depends on deshkala, and patra, or place, time, and the role of the person involved in the action. In short, following the principles is not enough, as the application of the principles varies in different situations.

      • #6809

        If principles should be prioritized so that one doesn’t do something like give kindness to criminals, which would simply promote corruption in society, then it seems Krishna’s admonishing the sage for revealing the hidden criminals was indeed showing such kindness to criminals. Perhaps there was a higher consequence than not corrupting society behind Krishna’s not approving of the killing of those criminals? Or maybe He was aware that the sage wasn’t at all considering consequences & was merely stuck on principles, so Krishna wanted to teach him a lesson, although the consequence of the sage’s action (not corrupting society) was a desirable outcome. (?)

      • #6812

        To be frank, I don’t know the story completely. It is not clear from what Ciprian describes above whether the people given up by the sage were indeed criminals. However, the general drift of the story suggests that they were innocent. If that is the case, then giving them up is immoral.

      • #6816

        Sorry, it was my mistake. The original story as given in this post was that it was indeed innocent persons taking shelter in the sage’s ashram, & it was murderous thieves that came inquiring about them. So Krishna sent the honest sage to hell for allowing the murder of innocents.

    • #6811

      Perhaps that Mahabharata story is apocryphal. Lots of these stories are told from the point of view of mundane morals – the sage was cast to hell and it’s a bad thing, “obviously”, but we don’t know what really happened or if it happened at all. Mahabharata has been hopelessly corrupted in this regard. Are there any legitimate examples from say, Srimad Bhagavatam, of deontologic vs conseuquentialist contradictions? It just doesn’t seem to happen in our literature.

      • #6813

        Yes, the general advice is to give up ethical considerations (dharma) and surrender to Krishna. That means, don’t evaluate things from the standpoint of mundane morals but whether Krishna will be pleased or not. Since multiple morals are replaced by one person, knowing the person and His preferences become the resolution of real or apparent conflicts. For example, if Krishna says do X, then it doesn’t matter whether it is moral or immoral from a mundane standpoint.

        The reason we arrive at such a conclusion, however, can be explained by the above types of ethical dilemmas. When we show that moral decisions are very tricky because there is a clash of values, you prove that even if you did what was morally right, it is still not perfect because you compromised on some moral value and that compromise in other contexts could be erroneously taken to imply encouraging immorality. So following dharma is tricky, and even if you do the right thing sometimes you end up giving the wrong impression in other contexts.

        Once we understand that morality is a slippery slope you come up with the alternative that you have to be either immoral or surrender to God. That may be the value in this discussion.

      • #6814

        Yes, in the end it seems the only moral person is the one who fully & whole-heartedly embraces & practices the instruction of Krishna’s given in BG 18.66. All other atempts at morality will be incomplete &/or inconsistent.

      • #6815

        Wouldn’t Arjuna’s dilemma at Kuruksetra be an ex. of deontological vs. consequential ethics? From the former perspective Krishna argued that it is a moral principle for a ksatriya to fight according to dharmic rules, although it is normally sinful to destroy a dynasty or to kill teachers & elders. But from the latter perspective the outcome would be emotionally unbearable for Arjuna to kill family & teachers. And the destruction of dynasty would lead to unwanted children & a degraded society consequentially. So Krishna gave the actual solution of “just surrender unto Me. Don’t base your decision on mundane dharma or consequences.”

    • #6827

      How about the story of Ambarisha Maharaja who did everything right when visited by Durvasa Muni. He had to break fast and he couldn’t eat before his guest, who was taking a bath, so he consulted the brahmanas and they told him he could take a sip of water, which would break fast but wouldn’t consider eating (before feeding guests). Still Durvasa Muni got angry and created a demon to kill Ambarisha.

      Here’s the clinch – because Abarisha was deontologically correct to the absolute degree as a spotless devotee Durvasa Muni couldn’t harm him in the least even though it appeared to be easy. Durvasa Muni even went to see Lord Vishnu in the process, and still he couldn’t do anything to Ambarisha.

      Perhaps consequentialist arguments present themselves only when one is deontologically deficient, which is like “always” in the experience of western philosophers. If they have stories of Christian saints who were saved by the Lord they probably don’t take them seriously. In Christianity they had many more martyrs who were tortured and killed without apparent protection.

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The deontologic vs consequentialist ethics debate

by Ciprian Begu Time to read: 1 min