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I'm working on an article in which I attempt to defend a "unified" theory of morality that takes insights from all the most popular moral theories in Western philosophy. The main principle of this moral theory is the following:

The best action is always the one we have most reason to believe will maximize the total long-term quality of sentient life.

Is this principle best described as consequentialist, deontological, or neither? Or perhaps is this question subjective? If this is flagged as subjective, I guess that would also answer my question.

Update: I know the principle seems consequentialist at first sight, but my point is that by defining what's right not in terms of how good the actual consequences of an action are, but in terms of our reasons to believe those consequences would be good, I am not appealing directly to consequences. To use the terminology from the SEP, I define "the Good" in terms of consequences, but "the Right" in terms of our present beliefs, and I defend that "the Right" has priority over "the Good". This all sounds quite deontological, which makes me wonder if it would be reasonable to say this philosophy is perhaps a hybrid deontic-consequentialist philosophy.

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    Any ethics that maximizes something is utilitarian, the something is called utility. It is a special case of consequentialism, your version is similar in spirit to ideal utilitarianism of Moore. It is not quite clear in what sense it is unifying (utilitarianism has major alternatives in ethics), but for a notable attempt at constructing a unifying ethics see Parfit, On What Matters.
    – Conifold
    Apr 8 at 11:58
  • @Conifold right, but because of the way I formulated it, one could say "The right thing to do is what you have most reason to believe will maximize the total long-term quality of sentient life, no matter the (actual) consequences". Isn't that the definition of deontology?
    – Ariel
    Apr 8 at 14:42
  • @Ariel: It's still consequentialist. The 'have most reason to believe' phrase is implicit in consequentialism, and making it explicit doesn't change the nature of the beast. Deontology looks for universal rules of moral behavior that apply regardless of specific consequences. Apr 8 at 16:31
  • Imagine one contributes to a pension scheme now for his long-term benefit, though this is detrimental to one's present interests. But it seems equally reasonable to maximize one's interests now by spending the contribution now (not his future self, who is arguably a "different" person). Parfit argues that since the connections between the present mental state and the mental state of one's future self may decrease, it is not plausible to claim that one should be indifferent between one's present and future self. So I'm curious how do u quantify and maximize your "long-term quality" utility? Apr 8 at 17:36
  • @DoubleKnot -- Utility is in practice impossible to compute, hence the computation of utility maximization that Utilitarianism calls for -- is always instead a judgement call. And future sentient life is -- both potentially infinite, and uncertain -- making the computation of future utility impossible to a higher degree.
    – Dcleve
    Apr 8 at 17:55
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Other responses claim that moral rightness depends on foreseen, foreseeable, intended, or likely consequences, rather than actual ones.

-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's Entry on Consequentialism, Section 4: Which Consequences? Actual vs. Expected Consequentialisms

Your philosophy has traditionally been categorized as Consequentialist. If you want, you could claim in your article that this categorization is incorrect. However, your article would change from being about what moral theory is correct to how moral theories should be classified.

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Your principle could be both consequentialist and dentological. In what it requires of you, in the obligation it imposes, it is plainly consequentalist but that says nothing about the considerations that make it obligatory. It could be a requirement of God (as in an ethics of divine commands) or a requirement of justice, neither of these requirements having any necessary connection with consequences. I sketch these requirements as conceptual possibilities, and not as expressive of any view I hold.

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I know the principle seems consequentialist at first sight, but my point is that by defining what's right not in terms of how good the actual consequences of an action are, but in terms of our reasons to believe those consequences would be good, I am not appealing directly to consequences.

the reasons to believe those consequences would be good must be based on prior experience. If we agree that the future can be predicted from the past (the actual consequences of prior choices), then we are fully consequentialist. If , while we had all the reasons to choose A, in happens that this was a worse choice than B, then it means we poorly understood the situation and it's a call to revise our descision making. There, consequentialism ties with the scientific method.

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Just to offer a contrary opinion, I believe your maxim could be seen as deontological. It is stated as an imperative, it does not assume foreknowledge of consequences and outcomes, only "reasons to believe." It is not hypothetical, it transcends the interests of any given individual.

Above all, it conforms somewhat to the Kantian idea of an internal coherence, the actions are necessary to the conditions that make those action possible in the first place. In this case, we can assume that sentience itself is necessary for the possibility of moral actions to begin with, so that the stated aim gives it a nearly tautological symmetry, not unlike Kant's.

But even more than Kant's categorical imperative it is pretty vacuous. The "we" is too vague to qualify the "belief," when beliefs of any individual can obviously be judged mistaken. It seems like it's assuming a universal ground it ought to be proving. And the "total long-term quality" is immeasurable, could even apply to wicked actions that provoke good ones, as in the ever-problematic case of Judas.

It does appear to be consequentialist and utilitarian on the face of it, conditioning actions on reasonable beliefs and the stated goal of maximizing a good. I am only suggesting that the goal of supporting "sentient life" makes the moral "sentient act" self-rationalizing in an internally necessary way, which might fit some definition of deontological morality.

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    "it does not assume foreknowledge of consequences and outcomes, only "reasons to believe."" If consequentialist theories had to assume foreknowledge of outcomes none would be applicable at all, for we are mere humans and all we have are "reasons to believe" what the outcome will be. Deontologism is an entirely different view, it is "never lie, even when a Nazi asks you were you hid a bunch of Jewish children". The mere fact that OP's formulation is concerned with consequences is, well, consequentialist.
    – armand
    Apr 9 at 0:39
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    @armand One of Kant's arguments against consequentialism is precisely that it assumes, indeed assumes by definition, we can know outcomes of, e.g., lying to the Nazis, where his theory allows for no certainty in such matters. A "consequence" is generally attached to an interest, and in this case, I am arguing, the interest is so general that it is closer too Kant's "could be a universal law," which could also be narrowly defined as a "consequence." I don't think there is really any totally clear dividing line where any sort of motive is present, including the motive of wanting to be moral. Apr 9 at 18:17
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    Every single moral framework is about finding a universal rule for determining the correct behavior, otherwise they are no framework at all. Consequentialist maxims like "People should act in order to maximize utility" is no exception. What makes a framework deontologist is the disregard for consequences, but the OP's proposal is clearly about consequences. The "most reason to believe" formulation changes nothing, as it is how we make all of our decisions anyway. Nobody assumes foreknowledge, only best judgment, I.e. "most reason to believe".
    – armand
    Apr 9 at 21:52

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