Recent case studies in categorical and consequentialist moral reasoning
The following are two recent examples from international politics that serve to illustrate how categorical and consequentialist considerations underlie policy decisions in varying degree. Prof. Sandel introduces here consequentialist and categorical moral reasoning which are associated with the the Deontological and Utilitarian schools respectively and for historical reasons sometimes referred to as Kantian and Benthamite approaches. These examples are intended to convey the limitations of exclusive adherence to either approach, while affording a demonstration of what contributes to their persuasiveness.

President Obama on Syria

Quoting from recent NYT coverage:

Quote:In Iraq Mr. Bush was explicitly seeking regime change. In this case, White House officials argue, Mr. Obama is trying to enforce an international ban on chemical weapons and seeking to prevent their use in Syria, or against American allies.
Mr. Obama has referred, somewhat vaguely, to reinforcing “international norms,” or standards, against the use of chemical weapons, which are categorized as “weapons of mass destruction” even though they are far less powerful than nuclear or biological weapons.
(Emphases mine)

This argument maybe considered categorical to the extent that it is centered on norms and standards irrespective of such obvious utilitarian considerations as casualty counts inflicted by certain weapons.


UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi on the Food Security Bill

Quoting from recent coverage in The Hindu:

Taking on the detractors who raised doubts whether the country had resources to implement the landmark food security measure, the United Progressive Alliance chairperson said to a thunderous applause from the treasury benches: “The question is not whether we have enough resources or not and whether it would benefit the farmers or not. We have to arrange resources for it. We have to do it.” (Emphases mine)

Here, the argument maybe considered categorical to the extent that budgetary calculations are treated as secondary if not immaterial to the upholding of a principle.


There are some obvious disclaimers to the characterization of both of the above statements. Conveying indifference to a particular consequence (eg. intervention costs) does not preclude other consequentialist considerations (eg. shoring up credibility and pleasing certain constituencies) and therefore any categorical-consequential distinction is very issue-based and limited by context. Invoking and articulating a principled stance during a debate may not always, if ever, be accompanied by career-long or even tenure-long adherence to the said principle. Considering the legislative contexts in which these arguments were made, these may be a study in rhetoric rather than moral reasoning per se, as this is an endeavour of justifying already held positions rather than a means of seeking and finding a position (There is more here on the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning).A more workaday disclaimer that doesn't call for too much philosophical sophistication, is that vocal indifference to intervention costs may amount to a self-defeating over-promising that will in the long run end up betraying the principle to which such lip-service is done, for money as we know doesn't grow on trees.

Notwithstanding the philosophical disquiet cautioned about by Michael Sandel that such analyses may distract from pragmatism and decisiveness that are virtues in political participation, one utility of such exercises is that they serve to make age-old moral questions very concrete and in this limited sense at least, challenge prevailing apathy.
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An example from civil society circles, that can serve as a useful addendum to the post above giving two recent examples from international politics that serve to illustrate how categorical and consequentialist considerations underlie policy decisions in varying degree, is presented in this recent episode of NDTV Dialogues by Rohini Nilekani of the Arghyam sustainable water project. The section quoted below from the transcript available at NDTV, acknowledges the limitations both of a naive utilitarianism with overly facile metrics that can result in setting the bar on performance too low, and of a naive deontology which is, as seen above too, self-defeatingly indifferent to intervention costs and outcomes.

Quote:In my case, I am not very rigid about measurement of impact, because I think some things have good in themselves. So, for example, in Arghyam we work on water. One is that physically you are developing some physical water infrastructure. But more interesting to us is when we are able to galvanize communities and build up the quality of demand of citizens on the supply side. So that when you have universal access to clean water, you try to get involved in the question of why are our water resources depleting or getting polluted? For us, when citizens begin to engage, we find that they have found their own solutions. It's not that we have to go there with some chhaapa of a solution and say, do this. So for me impact is when people start to internalise the locus of control and that's easy. You know, there are no easy in metrics for that. But there are some proxies. And we look obviously to make sure that the money is not ill spent.

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