Consequentialism vs. Deontology

Consequentialism and Deontology are clashing moral philosophies in the field of Ethics. They clash because each offers a different approach to determining “right” from “wrong.”

What is Consequentialism?

Consequentialism holds that the consequences of one’s actions are the basis for moral judgment. This promotes the rationale that “the ends justify the means.” Extreme consequentialists may believe any method used to achieve a moral goal is acceptable.

ExampleRobin Hood steals from the rich to help the poor.

What is Deontology?

Deontology holds that the intent and motivation of one’s actions are the basis for moral judgment. A central concept in deontological ethics is the categorical imperative, which suggests morality is subject to certain unconditional and absolute duties.

ExampleRobin Hood hangs up his tights because stealing is wrong.

Consequentialism, Deontology, and the Ethics of Voting

The debate of consequentialism vs. deontology often resurfaces during election season.

This is no surprise, given there is almost never an “ideal candidate” who satisfies all of a given voter’s criteria: political, economic, religious, and so on. The average voter thus finds him/herself in a conundrum – what to do in the absence of an ideal solution?

Imagine you are this voter. You can attempt to resolve this conflict a few ways:

1. Vote for the “lesser of two evils.”

In this situation, you vote for the political candidate who most closely aligns with your beliefs and interests under the circumstances, and who’s in a likely position win based on available information (e.g. polls, primaries, media) – even when this candidate wouldn’t be your first choice.

*This leans more towards consequentialism or utilitarianism.

Example: During a presidential election, imagine you are a Republican who doesn’t like the Democratic or Republican nominees. Your views more closely align with a third, less popular candidate – but you don’t vote for this third candidate, because they seem unlikely to win (think: independents, third party candidates, etc.).

Instead, you vote for the Republican nominee to make sure your vote “counts.” After all, you would rather see the Republican nominee win than the Democratic one; voting for your preferred, third candidate might swing important votes away from the Republican front runner, helping the Democratic party’s cause.

2. Vote for your “first choice” candidate.

In this case, you vote for the political candidate who most closely aligns with your beliefs and interests period – even if it appears this candidate has little chance of winning.

*This leans more towards deontology and your categorical imperative(s).

Example: During a presidential election, you are a Democrat who doesn’t like the Democratic or Republican nominees. Your views align with a third, less popular candidate – and you vote for them, even though their chances of winning are slim.

You do this because you feel it’s important to support your beliefs and principles, and have trouble placing your voting support behind any candidate you do not wholeheartedly believe in. Regardless of the supposed “consequences” of voting in this fashion, you feel true progress cannot be achieved if people always settle for less.

3. Abstain from voting altogether.

People abstain for a multitude of reasons, which may be rooted in consequentialist or deontological ethics – or perhaps not rooted in ethics whatsoever.

Example: During a presidential election, you are a young voter who knows relatively little about politics. You have never been involved in voting before, and you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself on the candidates up for election or their views, issues, and positions.

Feeling incapable of making a properly educated voting decision, you decide it’s better to abstain than to cast an uneducated vote. You know non-participation is frowned upon, but you would rather accept this fate than potentially make a mistake in the voting booth out of ignorance.

Now let’s discuss these first two possibilities in more detail.

Implications of voting for the “lesser of two evils.”

You would be hard-pressed to find an American who hasn’t heard the words “lesser of two evils” uttered near election time.

The “two” comes from our long-standing two-party system. From local and state-level elections to federal elections, it’s nearly always a Democrat or a Republican who wins. Thus many people wind up voting either Democratic or Republican since other candidates are unlikely to get elected. It’s a practical choice, right?

The existence of a strong two-party system has it’s pros and cons.

Advantages to a two-party political system

One advantage of such a system is that members of each established party have greater resources. They can organize more effective campaigns and pull a larger number of supporters into their fold. They can more easily develop a coherent political strategy, and they only have one major opponent to overcome. Furthermore, two strong parties add some solidarity and consistency to government and political processes in the long-term – and in some sense, makes it easier for the average voter to choose a side.

In summary, some of the benefits of a two-party system are:

  • Larger pooled resources (financial and otherwise).
  • Better capability to organize party interests, campaigns.
  • Easier to develop a coherent political strategy.
  • Greater solidarity and consistency in the political process.
  • Simplified options for the average voter to choose from.

Another advantage to a two-party system is the avoidance of “stalemate” situations. Elections and other voting matters often require majorities and/or quorums – these may be difficult to obtain in a multi-party system where votes are cast in many directions at once.

Imagine a presidential election with say, fifteen candidates from fifteen different parties, wherein the winner (by majority, for example) only wins with less than 10% of the total vote, because he/she did in fact obtain the largest percentage of votes in comparison to the other candidates. This hypothetical situation would result in a scenario where more than 90% of the voting public is unhappy (probably not ideal).

Therefore we might conclude two-party systems promote democracy and majority representation, whereas multi-party systems divide people further and lead to outcomes even less acceptable on the whole.

Disadvantages to a two-party political system

Of course there are also disadvantages to a two-party system.

Creativity can be stifled when established political views become hard to unseat; innovation in the political process is diminished. Voters may feel they must settle for the options provided, rather than inventing new and improved options. Any idea that doesn’t fit into the existing political architecture is quickly dismissed as radical or unrealistic. Many issues become polarized as voters choose one side or the other – and what might normally evolve as a cooperative mindset regarding politics erodes into a hostile “us vs. them” battle.

In summary, some of the costs of a two-party system are:

  • Stifled creativity, innovation in the political process.
  • Limited, potentially unsatisfactory voting options.
  • Progressive ideas dismissed as radical or unrealistic.
  • Polarization of the voter base, leading to…
  • Focus on “being right” instead of working together.

No doubt different ideas, competition, and healthy debate are good, if not necessary for progress. But polarization can sometimes divide people too strongly.

It may cause individuals to lose sight of bigger goals in their immediate effort to “defeat” the other side.

Instead of working alongside one another to discover the truth – fighting productively to find truly optimal solutions to society’s problems – many people instead surround themselves with “yes” people, entrench themselves in confirmation bias, and become defensive to a point where ongoing hostility undermines higher levels of sophisticated, cross-party collaboration.

Even in the absence of such a sharp divide, though, what are people to do when neither of the two parties (in a two-party system) are attractive? When their candidates, policies, and proposals are substandard on both sides of the fence? America wasn’t founded on settling for meager options; it was founded by visionaries who created their own options upon realizing existing options weren’t satisfactory.

When a two-party system fails to address the needs of its citizens, it’s unconscionable to expect them to simply accept failure. More likely, the people will start looking for alternative solutions. But…

Election day is tomorrow; what shall you do?

Discussing alternatives can be interesting to contemplate, but reality sets in when voting day approaches.

Perhaps there really are only two likely contenders – and your practical choices are indeed limited. Sure, you could vote for a third party candidate who you really believe in – but what if that swings votes away from your second, less preferred candidate and results in a worst case scenario?

This is the exact thought process that leads so many people to “settle” for the lesser of two evils. Its value proposition is clear: you have power today to affect an outcome tomorrow. Use that power and make a difference; make any other choice and you’re not – or worse, perhaps making the wrong type of difference. It’s the old adage of “…a vote for candidate C is really just a vote for candidate (A or B).”

And at least in the short run, this is a very convincing argument.

If, when you look around, it indeed appears there is no chance of a third candidate being successful, one must examine the consequences of voting for that candidate despite what the data shows.

A vote for that third candidate may indeed be a swing vote that does nothing more than to empower your ultimate enemy, despite the inherent virtue of backing your preferred candidate.

Hence, it’s hard to blame someone who applies this logic to solve the “For whom shall I vote?” problem.

Implications of voting for your “first choice” candidate.

In the last section, we explored (some of) the logic and framework behind consequentialist voting decisions in a two-party system. Voting for the lesser of two evils is arguably quite pragmatic.

Are people who vote for third party candidates completely nuts, then? Are they living in a fantasy without regard for the consequences of their decisions? Maybe, maybe not.

People who vote for their first choice candidate – despite the potential setbacks and consequences – tend to feel strongly about their principles and values. They have a firm sense of duty to their categorical imperative. To stray from this duty would be to undermine the very foundation of their belief system and morality.

Interestingly enough, staying true to one’s beliefs and morals is also quite pragmatic.

“Never have I ever…”

Many people would agree (including many consequentialists) there are certain things they would never do. Not everyone agrees on exactly where they draw this line, but for example:

  • Many people would never steal, regardless of their financial need.
  • Many people would never intentionally deceive someone, even if it would result in a “good” outcome for the deceived.
  • Many people would never commit adultery, no matter how poor their relationship might be.
  • Many people would never kill another human being, even if required for self-defense.

But again, people draw this line at different points.

For example, the pope draws this line at a much different point than your average sociopath. The vast majority of us probably fall somewhere in between, all with slightly different perspectives and beliefs, depending on the issue at hand.

Sliding scale of fidelity to categorical imperatives

We might call this a sliding scale of fidelity to categorical imperatives.

Notably, this sliding scale leads to frequent disagreement, debate, and conflict. Take the death penalty for example. Some people believe punishment by death is fundamentally wrong, while others believe it’s a necessary deterrent and punishment for heinous crimes.

You can find out where your own line is drawn by asking yourself when, and in what situations, you place categorical imperatives above consequences. You might call this line your reservation price for “switching” between deontological and consequentialist decision-making.

For starters, examine your own position on the death penalty:

  • Do you believe it’s okay to punish an accused killer by death?
  • Does it depend? For instance, if research shows the death penalty does deter crime – preventing/decreasing the number of future homicides, and potentially saving lives – then is it okay?
  • What if the research is inconclusive?

As a bonus question, consider that many innocent (wrongly accused) people have been put to death. To what extent do you feel the legal system must “prove” the accused’s guilt before it becomes acceptable to issue the death penalty, if at all?

How do your feelings change if the probability of the accused’s innocence increases? Imagine there is only a 1% chance the accused is innocent? 10%? 25%? 50%? 90%? At what percentage value does it become acceptable to take the accused’s life?

Realistically, these are very complex moral and ethical questions – and at least in my opinion, it’s hard to say if there is a single “right” answer.

Categorical Imperatives in Voting, Politics, and Government

This same complexity arises when we examine categorical imperatives in politics. Voters of different backgrounds, belief systems, life experiences, etc. may all come to different conclusions about what’s “right.”

At the present moment (June 2016) we can see this process taking place before our very eyes in the Democratic party. With the presidential primaries now coming to a close, it’s been a tight race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Many in the “Bernie or Bust” camp believe Hillary Clinton simply isn’t fit to be our country’s next leader. Her past is just a bit too questionable and her character too flawed for them to get on board. We might say the #bernieorbust crowd feels Hillary Clinton violates one too many of their collective categorical imperatives to receive their support, even if she does win the nomination.

Meanwhile there are those #nevertrump Democrats who remind the #bernieorbust crowd their actions may ultimately secure the presidency for Trump, if they are unable to unite behind Hillary if she wins the nomination.

Note, some of these very Democrats strongly prefer Bernie and even despite Hillary – but they really despise Trump, and we might say their reservation price for abandoning their underlying categorical imperatives (and moving towards consequentialism) is lower than the #bernieorbust crowd.

So, who’s “right?”

An interesting thought experiment

There is an element of compromise in consequentialist decisions, and most people would agree compromise is a necessary aspect of human cooperation. Yet this is both a blessing and burden, isn’t it?

It’s one thing to compromise with your date on restaurant or movie choices, but it’s another to compromise one’s deepest beliefs and values. Here again, where do you draw the line?

Let’s try a simple thought experiment.

Imagine you’re a young girl subject to an arranged marriage.

Your father wants you to marry a man whom you have reason to believe will physically beat, abuse, and berate you. Your mother wants you to marry a different man, one who will treat you well to your face – but who will also lie and cheat on you behind your back.

Since they cannot decide (between the two of them) who is “best” for you, they give you the generous opportunity of making the final choice yourself. But if you can’t decide in the next few weeks, they will flip a coin and make the decision for you. (Yikes!)

You feel neither of these men have your best interests at heart, yet you are supposed to engage in a lifelong relationship with one of them – climb in bed with them, start a family, and pretend to be happy. Meanwhile, your true love is someone your parents do not approve of for various reasons.

Furthermore, if you try to run off with your true love, they will interfere and attempt to force you to marry their chosen suitor anyways.

At best you escape with your true love and are banished from your family forever; at worst you wind up stuck with your parents’ choice anyways, except with additional contempt from them and your chosen suitor because of your actions.

What would you do?

The case for strong categorical imperatives in voting and society

In the thought experiment above, we might ask ourselves whether or not any person – woman or man – should be expected to accept and tolerate abuse and/or infidelity at any level.

We might also ask ourselves, “What are the long-term consequences of accepting poor outcomes in the short-term simply because they are more ‘realistic’?” (In other words, what are the long-term consequences of consequestialism itself?)

It’s worth considering the effect of multiple iterations of a particular ideology or philosophy. In layman’s terms, what happens when we make a series of consequentialist decisions, over and over, ad infitium?

Let us first acknowledge most consequentialist decisions implicate some type of compromise, setback, or less-than-ideal choice in the short-run, in order to obtain a favored outcome in the long-run.

(This is true almost by definition, since consequentialism is a means of justification for making less-than-ideal choices in the short-run. If our choices in the short-run adhered perfectly to our categorical imperatives, there would be no need to justify them.)

When examining a single consequentialist decision, especially one whose long-term consequences are mostly positive and near – it can be easy to accept temporary setbacks or compromises to achieve an eventual, positive outcome. The outcome feels concrete and realistic, and the situation is finite.

Notably, if all we do is look at the span of time surrounding a single consequentialist decision – one could argue the consequentialist methodology produces a “better” result for society. After all, this is its aim – to take a realistic inventory of the possible options and their purported outcomes, and make the best choice under the circumstances.

For instance, if you are a Democrat who supports Bernie Sanders, but you believe the prospect of a Trump presidency is the worst possible outcome – voting for Hillary Clinton may be more realistic, and serve to prevent the Trump presidency with more certainty, than voting for Bernie Sanders (even if you despise Hillary Clinton).

This becomes more “true” if Hillary Clinton clinches the democratic nomination, in which case votes for Bernie Sanders in the general election may truly be swing votes that simply diminish her chances of beating Trump.

But now consider what happens in the long run if we always make the consequentialist decision.

The person forever caught in a loop of consequentialist decisions is by definition always making bad, or less favorable, choices in hopes of *eventually* reaching the promised land. And if you’re any good at math, you can understand how this doesn’t compute in the long run. It’s an endless cycle. It’s guarantees that you’re always making poor choices (even if you have the best of intentions). The promised land is constantly postponed into the future.

Keep this up for long, and you build a house of cards so large, it need not even fall over to understand the mess it creates.

On a sidenote, this is partly why corruption has become so bad in politics, business, and law in the first place. One small concession after is made another until one day, people wake up and realize the entire system is compromised. The aggregate sum of all the individual concessions and bad choices made, even if with the intent of securing a positive future outcome, generates a critical mass of bad choices so large that when viewed from the outside, it becomes harder and harder to believe the actors’ decisions and actions are truly separate from their intentions. They start blending together and it becomes a bastardly, broken state of affairs. Consider our political system today, which in reality probably has many good people in it, but also enough bad people and utilitarian political trading happening to undermine the integrity of the whole.

In a nutshell, consequentialism reinforces an infinite loop whereby our real, true goals are always postponed – whereby we are always settling for less. We commit a “wrong” to make a “right,” which doesn’t seem so bad with respect to any one decision – in fact, it may seem or even be optimal – yet in the long run, if this is always our go-to strategy, then by definition we are always committing wrongs.

And in the case we risk never reaching our true goals while slowly undermining the moral fabric of society. We compromise our values and beliefs little by little, until they are no longer recognizable.

The consequentialist may become upset by this analysis, reminding us of the importance of pragmatism over idealism. This is especially true in the case of voting and politics.

But let us consider that America would not be here in the first place, had our founders simply accepted the “better” of options provided to them at the time, rather than venturing out and creating new options that adhered to their values, beliefs, and goals.

Certainly there was an immediate, short-run risk of things going sideways when our founders fought for America’s freedom – they very well could have lost the battle, and many people died in the process – but they didn’t, and true progress was made as a result.

These were not weak men and women who bent over and accepted whatever the authorities at the time wanted them to accept. They were a strong, bold people who aligned their actions with their vision and purpose. They did not do what appeared to be realistic, they did what they knew was right.

We can find more examples of such behavior throughout history, such as the abolition of slavery or the civil rights movement. Fact is, doing the right thing is almost never easy or realistic, and the world will always ensure there are harsh consequences for pursuing this course of action.

Furthermore, people who maintain strong categorical imperatives are often villainized, and accused of creating the poor outcomes consequentialists hope to avoid (i.e., swing voters). Yet in a political election, for instance, are not the people truly responsible for the elected candidate the ones who actively cast their ballots for that person?

There is certainly a difference in responsibility between the person who actively voted for an elected candidate, versus the person who did not.

Network effects of consequentialism

Another troubling effect of consequentialism on a mass scale relates to human psychology and behavior. We previously discussed how people have different “reservation prices” for “switching over” from a would-be categorical imperative decision to a consequentialist decision.

The more a categorical imperative decision would seem to be unrealistic in the short run, the more people whose reservation price for “switching over” will be met – in turn, making the categorical imperative decision even more unrealistic, and triggering yet more people to switch over.

Add in the psychological effects of social proof, and what you have are significant network effects that manipulate the thought processes of very large groups of people.

(This is why it’s so important for politicians to garner early support, because if they can hit a tipping point with their popularity, it becomes far easier to tip over the remaining dominoes.)

Without meaning any disrespect to anyone, this is akin to monkeys jumping off a bridge after one another simply because the other monkeys in front of them did it first. And the more monkeys who are observed to be jumping off, the easier it becomes for subsequent monkeys to do the same – even if they had some initial reservations about it. When so many others are doing it, they must be right.

Frankly, this is entirely senseless behavior that signifies a lack of independent thought and sophistication. Yet this is part of the human mind, and there are deep psychological reasons for it. Psychologist Robert Waldinger discusses this in detail in his book Influence.

Reversal: long-term issues with categorical imperatives

One reason people act like senseless monkeys is because there are evolutionary advantages to doing so. Social proof offers us a shorcut by which we don’t need to spend mental energy thinking about something critically, because it would appear others have already done it for us. The more social proof there is, the more convincing it becomes that those people “must be right” in their analysis.

Despite the flaws inherent in mental shortcuts like these, they do in fact speed up group consensus and decision-making, which have positive effects on society in many cases.

Furthermore, leaning exclusively on one’s categorical imperatives has its own problems – namely because most of us have different values, beliefs, and categorical imperatives in the first place.

If everyone were to stubbornly demand their individually-conceived categorical imperatives must be met in all cases, and all circumstances, without any ability to compromise for the greater good, then it would be very tough for large masses of people to cooperate as a group. Progress could very easily grind to a halt as people refuse to give an inch to others’ ideas.

Recall the scenario where there are so many political parties that the elected leader wins with less than 10% of the vote, and the vast majority of people are entirely dissatisfied with the result.

Perhaps, then, consequentialism and its network effects are an evolutionary mechanism designed to help us progress as a whole despite our individual differences – to make some progress instead of none.


My belief is that neither consequentialism nor deontology offer a perfect solution for ethics, whether in the context of voting or other types of decisions. They both have their advantages and their pitfalls. Thus I’m not sure anyone can blame another person for leveraging one ideology more than the other.

This also leaves us at something of a stalemate with regards to what’s “best” or what’s “right.” Perhaps what we need, then, is a much larger discussion of ethics, morality, psychology, and the means by which human beings organize themselves, in hopes our combined efforts will produce greater insight into more optimal systems.

At the end of the day, I personally believe both consequentialists and deontologists have good intentions. I believe most people do what they think and feel is best, and that which will help the most people in the most fair manner.

The inevitable disagreement between people is probably more a function of their chosen methods to pursue common goals, then, rather than the goals themselves. After all, most of us want things like freedom, rights, and fairness. Just maybe, if we can all band together, we can identify increasingly effective methods for achieving these things.

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