Elements of an Ethics Textbook (4): Deontology

Whereas utilitarianism, at least in its classical formulation, presents a strictly consequentialist approach to ethics, deontology offers a very different view. Unlike consequentialism, which measures the moral worth of an action by the fruits that follow from it, deontology considers only the motive of the action itself. Deontology, thus, can be starkly contrasted with utilitarianism, and also with the broader category of teleology in ethics altogether. This is because, in a crucial sense, in the deontological conception of ethics, the moral worth of an action is determined before the action is even carried out. Teleological ethics, on the other hand, always refers toward some end that is ulterior to the action itself. This is implicit in the names of these two categories: “teleology” stems from the Greek word telos (τέλος), which means “end,” while the name “deontology” is derived from the Greek work deon (δέον), which means “duty” or “what is proper.” Thus, while some teleological theories like utilitarianism, which was covered in the preceding chapter, tend to discount the internal motivation of the agent who is performing the given action, for deontological theories of ethics, this internal motivation forms the very crux of the moral question. To judge the moral worth of an act, from a deontological perspective, just is to ask whether the act followed from the proper motive. This leads to the somewhat strange implication that two identical actions with same outcomes could feasibly be evaluated very differently from a moral perspective if the motivations behind them diverged sufficiently. At the same time, most people intuitively feel the truth of this possibility. That is why if one person strikes another with an oar, the event will be interpreted very differently according to whether it was deliberate or not, and it is why not every domestic fire is an instance of arson and so on. 

On the other hand, our common intuitions are liable to grant preference to deontology over teleology in ethics in that from the deontological perspective, the moral value of an action can be determined in an unequivocal way, and not merely in a contingent or conjectural one. Whereas a teleological outlook must defer judgment of any given deed to some future time at which its value can be parsed, deontological ethics allows this question to be settled at the very point at which a given motive becomes a deed, and that value is firmly and univocally established—determined solely by the will that impelled it. Immanuel Kant, whose Metaphysics of Morals (1785) will serve as the representative selection for this chapter on deontology, identifies the constitutive moral value of the good will, and employs it as the cornerstone of his moral philosophy:

Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgement, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is the same with the gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even health, and the general well-being and contentment with one’s condition which is called happiness, inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind, and with this also to rectify the whole principle of acting and adapt it to its end. 


Whereas Kant’s approach to deontology takes its departure point from the Enlightenment ideal of ordering life to a perfect system of principles derived directly from Reason, many deontological theories of ethics appeal to other foundations for moral obligation. Many traditional religious codes of ethics, for instance, present prime examples of the deontological approach to ethics. Among the best known of these codes is the Decalogue, more commonly known as “The Ten Commandments,” which Moses is recounted to have received straight from God when he ascended to the top of Mount Sinai and which Moses thus conferred to the Israelites. In this way, the Mosaic Law represents a species of deontology known as divine-command theory. Following this excerpt from the Book of Exodus (circa 7th century B.C.) is another short excerpt, this one from the tradition of ancient Greek drama. Namely, it is an excerpt from Sophocles’ powerful tragedy Antigone (442 B.C.). Next follows an excerpt from the dialogues of Plato that was composed within a few decades of Sophocles’ play. This selection from Plato’s Euthryphro (circa 399 B.C.) presents the notorious “Euthyphro dilemma.” Though the Euthyphro dilemma is, in itself, accidental to the divine-command theory of deontology that the eponymous character in this dialogue presents, it nevertheless remains a perennial selection for ethics compilations and not without reason. Finally, I have included a selection by W. D. Ross in which he outlines a theory of deontological pluralism based on what he calls “prima facie duties.” Unlike Kant’s notorious “categorical imperative,” Ross’ duties are meant to order themselves in relevance in response to any given situation.

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