I heard a mention of an interesting story this weekend on NPR’s fantastic Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! about an Irish man who saved Adolf Hitler’s life. It’s one of the best good news…bad news stories I’ve come across.
It also highlights one of the biggest reasons why I think a robustly consequentialist moral framework is not workable. Perfectly successful consequentialism requires exact knowledge of the outcome of every action ad infinitum. And in the case of a probabilistic model (i.e. taking actions most likely to lead to positive consequences), the likelihood of attaining the desired outcome decreases accordingly. Thus, in the absence of perfect knowledge, consequentialism actually fails to achieve its intended outcome (to wit, the maximization of some desirable quantity). By its own metric, consequentialism is at best very flawed.
Whereas consequentialism almost necessarily fails to satisfy its own criterion, well-conceived deontological approaches ought not to present such a paradox. The “duty” of the deontologist is simply to adhere to deontology.
This is not to say that deontology is better than consequentialism. We all care about the consequences of our actions to (at least) some degree. But robust, exclusive consequentialism just makes no sense in a world where it is impossible to know perfectly what will happen as a result of our actions.