Are normative theories compatible?

I was reading Hare’s paper ‘What is wrong with Slavery’ for my undergraduate tutorial. From Hare’s argument, I construct my simple version of the argument against anti-utilitarianism as follows:

Suppose you are in a position to decide whether you take slavery as the option of the social arrangement of your country. According to your knowledge which is somehow grounded, if you do not make some of your citizens slaves, almost all citizens of your country including the people who are supposed to be slaves will be dying soon due to lack of foods (imagine your country is so poor and adoption of slavery is the only option you can avoid the chaotic result). The consequentialist happily concludes that you ought to adopt slavery in that situation since this is the decision which decreases people’s sufferings. On the other hand, somebody who holds a view that slavery is intrinsically good (because of whatever reasons, such as the deontologist ground), cannot accept slavery even in this kind of difficult situation. Thus, the conclusion of the argument is that consequentialism is an adequate normative theory while anti-consequentialism is not.

My thought is that this scenario nicely supports consequentialism and nicely attacks non-consequentialism or the proponent of the intrinsic badness of slavery. My intuition was as follows: ‘of course, we ought to adopt slavery in this scenario!! There is no point of keeping people’s autonomy if it requires us to sacrifice somebody’s life!!’. According to my intuition, this scenario is a good example against the proponent of the intrinsic badness of slavery since the proponent needs to accept the abolition of slavery even in this kind of hard case.

However, some of my students had a different intuition: ‘of course, even in that kind of situation, we ought not to adopt slavery since autonomous choice is intrinsically good and we ought to keep it even if we sacrifice our lives!!’. According to students’ intuition, the example is rather a nice one against consequentialism since we have an intuition that we ought to abolish slavery even in that kind of hard case.

I was wondering how we can resolve the conflict in our intuitions. My thought was that the conflict came from the normative theories we endorse: my students were endorsing a kind of deontology while I was endorsing consequentialism. So one way to resolve the conflict is something as follows:

My students start to explain how consequentialism is radically mistaken. My students exhibit many counterintuitive cases against consequentialism (such as, sacrificing an innocent person life and saving five people’s lives by transplants). Gradually, I start to feel that consequentialism is radically a mistaken view. In the end, I give up consequentialism and agree with my students.

One thesis we could infer from the above scenario is as follows:

(T) We can resolve our moral conflict only if one of our normative theories is radically mistaken.

If this thesis is true, this is bad news for the proponents of the view (I call ‘the compatibility thesis’) that normative values which are emphasised by different normative theories (deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, etc) are in fact compatible and all normative theories could be true.

The proponent of the compatibility thesis needs to say that the conflict between students’ intuition and mine can be resolved without denying the truth of one of normative theories. However, if (T) is true, such a project is impossible.

I am just curious what people would say about the compatibility thesis and the way we resolve moral conflicts which are due to people’s endorsing different normative theories. I personally hope to defend a kind of compatibility thesis though I sometimes find it is a hard job …



I had a conversation with Prof. Robin Attfield on this issue, and his claim was that the compatibility thesis is just false. I am wondering if many people have an intuition that the compatibility thesis is just a wrong thesis.


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4 Responses to Are normative theories compatible?

  1. Julian Bennett says:

    I think you are going to have a very, very hard time defending such a thesis Ryo. What are your motives for defending such a strange idea?

  2. Ryo Chonabayashi says:

    Hi Julian,

    There are two reasons why I am interested in such a strange idea …

    1. The first reason is just that there are some people who say so! There are some philosophers they say that different normative theories are compatible. For instance, Parfit is trying to say that what his version of Kantian normative theory essentially tells us does not conflict what his version of consequentialist tells us (see his On What Matters Audi also argues that different values different major normative theories hold are, in fact, compatible (see his ‘Pluralist Universalism’, Moral Value and Human Diversity).

    Probably I should have presented some of their idea rather than just put the thesis without having any argument …

    2. Suppose you are moral realist. Suppose also you hold a view that moral properties are sui generis properties. Here, it does not matter whether they are natural or non-natural properties. Then, what would be examples of such sui generis moral properties? Examples are something as follows: Julian is compassionate, and his being compassionate is a sui generis property which cannot be reduced to any other lower level property. This thought is considered as a thesis which rejects the reductive relation between the moral and the natural (though it can accept the supervenience between two kinds). But if your being compassionate is a real sui generis property, logically speaking, this property does not need to be reduced to other moral properties as well, if there is no such reductive relation.

    Given this rough idea, what I have in my mind is as follows: there are many sui generis moral properties. What different normative theory tries to find are different moral properties. The deontologist tries to give the good account of such notions, rightness, wrongness, duties, etc, while the virtue ethicist gives us the account of virtue concepts such as being compassionate, being courageous, etc.

    But this idea might be entirely wrong because of the following question: doesn’t each normative theory conflict on how we account such normative concept? For instance, the virtue theorist’s account of being courageous and the consequentialist’s account would be different, therefore, there is a real tension between two views.

    I have two replies to this objection: (a) I personally don’t really know if there is really such a real tension. A serious virtue theorist’s account of being courageous does concern what would be the consequence of the act in question while a serious consequentialist theorist’s account of being courageous could say that the character of courageous is really needed to achieve the consequentialist theoretical goal. (b) there may be some spheres only particular normative theory concerns. For instance, the deontologist might give us accounts of some duties which are not dealt by any other normative theories.

    I hope I answer to your question what are motives of my having a strange idea!


  3. Julian Bennett says:

    Thanks Ryo, it makes more sense now. And thank you for the links too.

  4. Hi,

    thanks for the great quality of your blog, each time i come here, i’m amazed.

    black hattitude.

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