Ethical Theory - Deontology


Many people follow ethical approaches that are called deontological. This word comes from "deon" or "duty". In other words, deontological thinking is based on the idea that we have a duty to do certain things and to not do certain things. For example, if you were one of the students who refused to shoot one of the Indians, it might have been because you felt you had a duty to follow the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." This sentence becomes a rule that you attempt to live by.


Deontologists do not look at how much good might be caused by an action. They look at the action itself, deciding whether it is prohibited or made obligatory by one of their rules. Usually, the rules are expressed negatively: do not lie, do not steal, do not harm the innocent. In a few cases, the rules are expressed positively: keep your promises; treat all persons as beings with rights, tell the truth.


These rules are often called constraints. A "constraint" is like a set of handcuffs - it stops you from doing something, even if you want to do it.


In every case, the deontologist believes that there is something right or wrong in the act itself. There is something about lying or killing that is simply wrong, regardless of what good you could accomplish by lying or stealing - or killing - in some particular case. When they are challenged on this, they have some very compelling answers:


"My duty is to make sure that I do not do evil. If I kill to save a life, by killing I am causing evil. My first duty is always to ensure that I am good in myself. Killing or lying or stealing would make me bad in myself."


"If everyone followed my rules, then no-one would be killing, lying, or stealing, and evil would disappear in the world."


The last response may seem a little silly. But is it really? How many times have you heard people say things like, "If everyone paid their taxes, the rate of taxation would go down." or "If everyone loved everyone else in spite of skin colour, racism would disappear."?


In other words, we often hear people make use of the idea that everyone should do or not do something. Most ethical theories, deontological and non-deontological, make use of this idea that what is right or wrong for one person should be right or wrong for all persons. This is called universalizability.  It simply means that when you say it is right to do something, you are saying that you would accept a world in which everyone did or did not do certain things.


For example, if you steal my pencil, you are giving me permission to steal your stereo or your car, for what you are really saying when you steal my pencil is that anyone who wants or needs something may steal it.  If you lie to your parents, you are giving your parents permission to lie to you. If you decide that you are going to be a "player", you can hardly demand that your boyfriend or girlfriend remain absolutely faithful to you. One famous philosopher, Sartre, tells us to be careful about what we do because when we act, "we invent the world." He means, of course, that when we act, we are setting a rule that we are willing to have everyone in the world follow.


Deontologists have very strong feelings about the words, "right" and "good". Right has to do with actions. Good has to do with outcomes. Everyone wants there to be as much good as possible in the world. Good can be many things: happiness, pleasure, wealth, peace, chocolate, fast cars, and so on and so on and so on. Some people feel that when we are trying to decide what to do in a certain situation, the good comes before the right. In other words, we have to decide what good we want to see in the world - no Kosovars or Serbs being driven from their homes - and the right action is any action that brings this good about - for example, Nato bombing raids. A poor man might decide that the good he wants to see is his children having warm clothes. If the only way he can get those clothes is by stealing them, then stealing them is right.


Deontologists say that the right is the only consideration. We cannot worry about what good may come into the world. Right and good are two different things, and we must worry about the first.


In the case of Jim and his Indians, if Jim decides that the good demands that life be protected in the world - or at least as much right as is possible - then killing one to save nineteen is right. But for a deontologist, the preservation of our own goodness is the only thing that matters. It is more important than saving the lives of others. Thus, it is a very self-focussed (not selfish ) way of thinking. It is also absolute. This means that a deontologist should follow the rules even if doing so would bring about personal harm.


Deontologists don't have a lot of rules. In some cases, this gives them a fair amount of freedom. Since their rules forbid or require only certain actions, other actions are available to them. A deontologist would never say, "It is good to preserve the rain forest." After all, preserving the rain forest is all about consequences and that is not what a deontologist looks at. So the deontologist might be able to chop away and not feel guilty. Deontologists might say, "respect the world God gave us" and respecting the world might require protecting the rain forest but that would not be why the deontologists did so. They would be acting to do what was a duty, and whether or not that saved the rain forest or cost a half a million poor people their jobs in those forests would not be their main motive.


In other cases, however, even one or two rules can make life very difficult. Immanuel Kant is one of the worlds great deontological thinkers. He established what are called the categorical imperatives. These are rules he feels all people must follow, and while there are only a few, imagine trying to follow them all the time.


The first Categorical Imperative is act only in such a way as to treat people as ends and never as means. Great! What does that mean?



When we decide on a goal, that goal is our end. If I decide I want 100% in Ethics, then that is my goal or end. Now I have to decide how to get that 100%. The way I choose to do it is my means. Some people say that the end justifies the means. If the goal is good, it doesn't matter what the method is. Kant says that we may never use other people as ways of getting what we want. Other people are their own ends. They have a right not to be used by us. Therefore, to get that 100%, you may not trick your best friend into doing your essay for you, even if that friend isn't being made to do something unpleasant.


His other rule is one we have already mentioned. Act only in ways that you are willing to see everyone in the world do.


Let's look at a couple of examples. Suppose an individual wanted to commit suicide. Kant would apparently respond by saying, 'What if the whole world committed suicide." Would you be willing to see that happen? Hopefully, the person's answer would be, "No", and therefore the action of suicide would be forbidden.


But what if someone with a terminal illness suffering great pain wanted to end that pain. Kant might accept the idea that anyone suffering great physical pain should be allowed to commit suicide, because it is a little more specific than the first situation, and allowing such people to do so might not bring harm to the world.


Of course, what this does is reinforce the idea of personal choice in ethics. We must choose our own rules freely, and it is possible that two different deontologists might approach the idea of suicide in two different ways. But each would have to be able to say that he or she was content to have everyone else act in the same way.


Let's consider another classic example. Assume your friend is being hunted by people who want to kill her because she has lost her virginity and dishonoured her family. They arrive at your door and ask if you know where she is. You do. Now let us consider how you deal with this.


You may assume that it is wrong to lie. You may believe that a family has a duty to protect its honour. You may believe that it is wrong to allow harm to come to another human being. It is possible to believe in all three deontological constraints at the same time. But you have to act!  You have to decide which rule supersedes the others. This means you must choose which rule comes first?


Because situations like this come up, some people say there is no such thing as deontology. They argue that the person making the decision would have to base it on how much good each act brought into the world. Whether or not they are right is something you must decide.


Deontologists face more problems than conflicting duties. They are sometimes accused of being cold hearted moral machines who ignore the world around them. For example, some might say that if Jim refuses to kill one Indian, not only is he being selfish in considering his own virtue first, he is being cruel to others. He must have a stone where his heart should be.


Some deontologists would answer that there are catastrophes that come along which make morality or ethics irrelevant. If, to save 10,000,000 children you had to kill one innocent old man, a deontologist would probably say this was a catastrophe and might allow the killing to occur.


But deontologists point out that those who look only at consequences are guilty of ignoring people and the fact that people ARE people. They would point out that the one Indian Jim kills is a living human being who deserves to be treated according to the rights of a human being. A famous dilemma asks if you would kill one million children today to save ten million potential children twenty years from now. People who look at consequences could be forced to commit this truly horrifying action. A famous deontological rule comes to mind here: "Let justice be done, even if the sky should fall."


Finally, let's take a quick look at those who claim that all ethical decisions can be made by looking to God, the ultimate judge. Some atheists - people who do not accept the idea of God - envy those who do believe. They feel that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others have it easy. Do you want to do what is right? Just look it up in a book. Do whatever it says because God said do it.


There are one or two little problems with this. First, we have free will. What are we supposed to do with it if not make our own decisions? That's one argument. Second, what if the Holy Book is a little ambiguous, or what if two scholars disagree about what God actually means? Again, we have a situation in which the individual has to make a decision. Finally, there is a difference between being obedient - doing what you are told - and being ethical - doing what you think is right. If you are simply being obedient, you cannot claim to be moral. So just doing what God says may not be as easy as it seems.


By the way, if you do what God says just so you can go to heaven, you are not being ethical. You are being selfish. If you are doing what God says because you do not want to go to hell, you are not being ethical. You are being prudential. Prudential acts are acts that are done to spare the doer pain and suffering. There is nothing ethical about this.


In summary, deontologists are people who freely choose to accept certain constraints and who decide what is right by looking at the nature of the act itself. Some establish specific rules - keep your promises, do not kill etc. - and some follow Kant's categorical imperatives or God's commandments. They do not examine consequences as a rule and they sometimes find themselves in very difficult situations.


But then, so do utilitarians, and they will be the subject of our next lecture.