Sunday, March 12, 2006

consequentialism, deontology, upaya,
and "Follow your situation"

Charles of Liminality brings up an interesting point in a recent response to one of my comments (see original post and comments here):

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't consequentialism another way of saying "the end justifies the means"? Personally, I think that can be a dangerous philosophy.

I think any philosophy blindly adhered to is dangerous.

Many ethicists draw the distinction between consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialists, who probably take their cue from the likes of David Hume or the Buddhist tradition (think: upaya) tend to weigh actions according to their fruits, an orientation that often does correspond to a "the end justifies the means" approach. Deontologists, in the tradition of Kant, tend to think in terms of abstract, universal principles: an action is wrong because it's wrong in principle, not merely because it's wrong at this moment. Deontologists, again taking after Kant, whose Christian biases are evident in his philosophy, think in terms of duty: the sense of obligation that leads to adherence to principle. ("Deontology" comes from the Greek "deon," meaning "duty," and isn't etymologically related to "ontology.")

Consequentialism is dangerous in certain cases if, for example, a desired result is achieved, but only at terrible cost. However, not all situations are so extreme. There is room for a consequentialist to weigh the pluses and minuses of his actions, and to try to see what his choices will lead to, every step of the way, in situations both uncommon and quotidian.

Deontology can be dangerous, too. "Thou shalt not kill," too strictly adhered to, would make it almost impossible to defend one's family against an intruder with obviously deadly intent. Here again, it would be unfair to judge the deontologist by extreme cases. I can note that "deontology can be a dangerous philosophy," but this assessment, while correct, results from exclusive focus on extremes and may be misleading about how the philosophy actually operates in everyday life.

It should be noted that the two orientations often produce the same sorts of action. Take, for example, the proverb about the hungry man:

Give a hungry man a fish, and you've fed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you've fed him for life.

The deontologist and the consequentialist, each for his own reasons, will agree with the above maxim. For the deontologist, it may be that a categorical imperative such as "When you help someone, give that person the maximum amount of help" will be relevant, in which case he'll teach the hungry man to fish. For the consequentialist, the literal truth of the proverb will move the helper to teach the man to fish rather than merely helping him for a single day, because it's obvious that teaching him to fish will ultimately produce better results.

What about the idea that one should never lie? Every major religion contains this precept, but the Buddhists, who also subscribe to the notion of upaya (skillful, expedient, or efficient means), tell an interesting story that goes something like this:

A man who has just taken the Five Precepts (no lying, no stealing, no sexual immorality, no killing of sentient beings, and no consumption of intoxicants) is walking along a forest path. Ahead of him, the path branches right and left. At that moment, a rabbit zooms by and takes the right fork. Just as our man is nearing the fork, a hunter runs up to him, stops, and asks breathlessly: "I was chasing a rabbit. Which way did it go?"

The newly minted Buddhist just took five precepts, two of which are now, it seems, in conflict. Should the Buddhist tell the truth, thereby dooming the rabbit? Should he lie, thereby breaking the great precept against uttering falsehoods?

In this case, the Buddhist decides to lie. Blind adherence to the no-lying precept would be unskillful action. Preserving the life of the rabbit should be more important than worrying about the karmic "stain" of a life-preserving falsehood.

This isn't a foreign concept for people of other religions: think about charitable families that hid Jews during World War II. Those good folks were lying constantly, in spite of the Judeo-Christian injunction against lying.* Such families had to make an ethical judgement call because several virtuous principles were in conflict.

Yet you might be asking yourself, "Well, how did the Buddhist know that telling the truth would be unskillful? Isn't he reasoning from a set of principles?"

No, he isn't. He is, in the language of Korean Zen, following his situation. In the language of American idiom, he's using his head (for something other than a hat rack). The discursive, logical, rational, principle-oriented, dualistic mind resists this insight mightily** and finds itself asking, rather petulantly, "But, then, how do you know--?" STOP RIGHT THERE!

If you're still looking for a reason, a principle, some sort of cosmic rulebook to be consulted no matter your situation, you aren't following your situation.

"Follow your situation" isn't really consequentialism or deontology. It's mere common sense. This is why Jesus was constantly getting into trouble: unlike his scripture-quoting interlocutors, he understood that blind adherence to precepts and principles was merely the following of the written scripture. Far more important for Jesus and other enlightened folks was the unwritten scripture, the unsayable scripture that we must live from moment to moment, which springs forth from our hearts and connects us all together-- that unutterable, dynamic, vital reality in which (to co-opt St. Paul) we live and move and have our being.

And maybe that's a good, nondualistic way to wrap this little essay up. As I noted in one of my comments, deontology and consequentialism aren't in fundamental opposition: they might, in fact, be considered forms of each other. If one stance is dangerous, well, so is the other: they are not-two.

*I'm aware that the phrase translated "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" had a more technical valence in the original hebraic (and possibly Hammurabic) context, but if religions are as they are practiced, then evidence abounds that most Jews and Christians have construed and still construe the commandment as having a general import.

**See my post on the nondualistic approach to "right" and "wrong," here.



  1. Very good points, especially the point about any philosophy being dangerous when followed blindly. It is interesting how philosophies, not matter how seemingly disparate, become more and more similar to each other the further they go toward the radical end of the spectrum.

    I really need to learn to talk about philosophy so I don't sound like an idiot. My arguments tend to be very simplistic and metaphor-laden (being a lit major and all).

    Thanks for the insights.

    (Oh, just curious... is "following the situation" a translation of "sanghwangeul ttaraseo" or "sanghwange ttaraseo"? The latter is a common Korean phrase, and would probably be better translated as "(acting) according to the situation." But maybe the former is a Korean Zen phrase I'm not familiar with. Very likely, since I know next to nothing about Korean Zen. Would appreciate being (ahem) enlightened.)

  2. Hmm, interesting. Some thoughts:

    I very much doubt that Muslims have a universal prohibition against lying. For one thing, the militants have some kind of theological justification for lying (I do recognize the fact that they are extreme, but I think they are closer to the original spirit of their faith than many imagine).

    Also, in the Hebrew Bible, there is a delightful story about lying: I'm thinking of the tale of the Egyptian midwives, who were rewarded for lying by the God of the Hebrews. This passage has probably given birth to a whole rabbinic commentary on the nature of when lying might be right (that's just a guess, though).

    There is also within the modern evangelical religion the notion of graduated ethics: namely, what happens when two ethical precepts come up against each other, as, for example, in the lives of those who were harboring Jews in the Holocaust. In this case, many theologians and philosophers of faith used passages like the one in Exodus to justify lying for the greater good.

    I agree that, generally speaking, one shouldn't lie, but I don't think we can say that any of the three Abrahamic religions has a monolithic view of lying.



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