Policies can’t always be relied on

When working out what should guide public institutions and policies, those who chime in have advanced various proposals and they have often been divided into two groups.

Members of one of these advance certain basic principles that ought to ground the institutions and policies, while those of the other suggest the way to decide is by focusing on anticipated consequences, never mind any purportedly firm principles.

In the United States, the former group is called deontologists while the latter consequentialists.

Deontologists try to identify principles by which we ought to live and guide our public affairs — a set of basic rights everyone supposedly has and which may never be violated; this will, argues the deontologist, ensure justice and other good things in community affairs.

For the consequentialist, the idea that should govern is whether some policy most effectively promotes what is desirable — spend whatever is necessary to eliminate poverty and sickness, never mind if anyone’s rights are violated in the process.

Is this a good, useful distinction? I have my doubts.

For one, no one can tell for sure what the result or consequence of a course of action or public policy will be. And when it is possible to tell, it is because we have discovered that following some principle is likely to bring forth a given result. The actual actions or policies are not available for inspection until after they have been tried. So if we are to be guided by anything, it cannot be the results, which lie in the future and are mostly speculative. It would have to be certain rules or principles that we have found to be helpful in the past when we deployed them.

On the other hand, principles are always limited by the fact they were discovered during the past that may not quite be like the present and future or, even more likely, the scopes of which are limited by what we know so far.

Thus, for example, take the U. S. Constitution that contains a set of principles (especially in the Bill of Rights).

It is subject to amendments in part so as to update these principles in light of new knowledge and new issues in need of being addressed. Once amendments are seen as possible, even necessary, strict reliance on the principles is admittedly hopeless.

So then what about the two kind of approaches, deontological vs. consquentialist? Neither is really adequate to what human beings need to guide their lives.

Yes, they will have to identify certain ethical, political, legal and other principles — in medicine, engineering, or automobile driving — but once they have done so they will still need to keep vigilant so as to make sure they aren’t missing some good reason for updating these.

However, focusing entirely on the consequences of their actions and policies will not do the job either since those are not yet here to deal with.