Deontological ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L015-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

4. Agent-relativity and agent-neutrality

Consequentialism, one of the main alternatives to deontology, comes in several varieties. These varieties are united, however, by their common claim that all our moral duties stem, ultimately, from considerations of value alone. One particularly simple form, which we will dub ‘simple consequentialism’, maintains that we have only one duty: unlimited beneficence. (Like Rossian deontology, then, simple consequentialism is very demanding.) Traditionally, simple consequentialism and deontology are distinguished by their differing accounts of the relation between the right and the good. Simple consequentialism holds that the good determines the right – the amount of goodness produced by an action is the sole determinant of its rightness – whereas the deontologist denies this, holding that other considerations are relevant. More recent writers, however, distinguish between the two in terms of agent-relativity and agent-neutrality, claiming that simple consequentialism is an agent-neutral theory whereas deontology incorporates agent-relative elements.

The distinction between the agent-neutral and the agent-relative may be introduced by reference to reasons for acting. Roughly, someone’s reason is agent-relative if, at base, there is reference within it to the agent. For example, egoists hold that each of us has reason to promote only their own welfare, whereas certain simple consequentialists believe each of us has reason to promote the general welfare. Note that each theory offers reasons that apply to all agents, but agent-neutral reasons incorporate an added element of universality: to say that each of us has reason to promote the general welfare is to say that each of us has reason to pursue the common aim of promoting the general welfare (and this requires that any person sacrifice their welfare if that will increase the general total), whereas according to egoism, each of us has a distinct aim: I have reason to pursue my welfare, you yours.

How does this distinction mesh with that between simple consequentialism and deontology? Simple consequentialism holds that all moral reasons are agent-neutral, whereas deontology denies this. According to simple consequentialism we each have reason to maximize the good, and morally speaking this is all we have reason to do. We have one common moral aim: that things go as well as possible. Deontology, by contrast, maintains that there are agent-relative moral reasons. Duties of special relationship are obviously agent-relative. That she is your daughter gives you special moral reason to further her interests. On this view, I am required to care for my family, you for yours: we have distinct aims. Simple consequentialists might maintain that parental care is valuable. But if so, they would claim that we have the common aim of promoting parental care – which requires that I neglect my own children if I can thereby increase the total amount of parental care.

Constraints are also agent-relative. Suppose I can only prevent you killing two innocents by killing one myself. Those deontologists who advocate an absolute constraint against killing the innocent forbid my killing the one (they also forbid, of course, your killing the two, but we are assuming here that you will ignore this proscription): I have overriding moral reason (a distinct moral aim) not to kill anyone myself (as you should aim not to kill anyone yourself). Thus although you will do wrong in killing the two, I should not kill the one in order to prevent you. Simple consequentialism, by contrast, holds that, ceteris paribus, I should kill the one: killing innocents is bad, so I have an agent-neutral moral reason to contribute to the common aim of minimizing the killing of innocents.

Permissions need not be agent-relative in their formulation. They simply permit us not to maximize the good. But their standard rationale is agent-relative. Each of us is morally permitted to give special weight to our own interests. Simple consequentialism denies this: no one is allowed to give more weight to their own interests than is compatible with their doing their part to maximize the good.

There seem to be two ways of distinguishing agent-relative and agent-neutral moral theories. On the one hand, theories prescribe aims, and these can be common or distinct. By this criterion, a moral theory is agent-neutral exactly if it prescribes only common aims, and is agent-relative otherwise. On the other hand, a theory is agent-neutral just in case it countenances only agent-neutral moral reasons, and is agent-relative otherwise. Simple consequentialism is agent-neutral, and deontology agent-relative, on either account.

Common-sense morality acknowledges special obligations, constraints and permissions. Thus a deontology that incorporates all three of these elements is closer to common-sense morality than simple consequentialism in this regard. Those advocates of simple consequentialism who are radical reformers claim that common sense is mistaken here. But many moral theorists hold that we cannot ignore our common-sense moral intuitions, seeing them as a key source of evidence.

Citing this article:
McNaughton, David and Piers Rawling. Agent-relativity and agent-neutrality. Deontological ethics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L015-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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