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Deontology Ethics Essay Questions

About duty-based ethics

Duty-based or Deontological ethics

Deontological (duty-based) ethics are concerned with what people do, not with the consequences of their actions.

  • Do the right thing.
  • Do it because it's the right thing to do.
  • Don't do wrong things.
  • Avoid them because they are wrong.

Under this form of ethics you can't justify an action by showing that it produced good consequences, which is why it's sometimes called 'non-Consequentialist'.

The word 'deontological' comes from the Greek word deon, which means 'duty'.

Duty-based ethics are usually what people are talking about when they refer to 'the principle of the thing'.

Duty-based ethics teaches that some acts are right or wrong because of the sorts of things they are, and people have a duty to act accordingly, regardless of the good or bad consequences that may be produced.

Deontologists live in a universe of moral rules, such as:

  • It is wrong to kill innocent people
  • It is wrong to steal
  • It is wrong to tell lies
  • It is right to keep promises

Someone who follows Duty-based ethics should do the right thing, even if that produces more harm (or less good) than doing the wrong thing:

People have a duty to do the right thing, even if it produces a bad result.

So, for example, the philosopher Kant thought that it would be wrong to tell a lie in order to save a friend from a murderer.

If we compare Deontologists with Consequentialists we can see that Consequentialists begin by considering what things are good, and identify 'right' actions as the ones that produce the maximum of those good things.

Deontologists appear to do it the other way around; they first consider what actions are 'right' and proceed from there. (Actually this is what they do in practice, but it isn't really the starting point of deontological thinking.)

So a person is doing something good if they are doing a morally right action.

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Kantian duty-based ethics

Kantian duty-based ethics

Immanuel Kant ©

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was arguably one of the greatest philosophers of all time.

Kant thought that it was possible to develop a consistent moral system by using reason.

If people were to think about this seriously and in a philosophically rigorous manner, Kant taught, they would realise that there were some moral laws that all rational beings had to obey simply because they were rational beings, and this would apply to any rational beings in any universe that might ever exist:

Kant taught (rather optimistically) that every rational human being could work this out for themselves and so did not need to depend on God or their community or anything else to discover what was right and what was wrong. Nor did they need to look at the consequences of an act, or who was doing the action.

Although he expressed himself in a philosophical and quite difficult way, Kant believed that he was putting forward something that would help people deal with the moral dilemmas of everyday life, and provide all of us with a useful guide to acting rightly.

What is good?

Although Kantian ethics are usually spoken of in terms of duty and doing the right thing, Kant himself thought that what was good was an essential part of ethics.

Kant asked if there was anything that everybody could rationally agree was always good. The only thing that he thought satisfied this test was a good will:

All Kant means is that a good will alone must be good in whatever context it may be found.

Other things that we might think of as good are not always good, as it's possible to imagine a context in which they might seem to be morally undesirable.

Kant then pondered what this meant for human conduct. He concluded that only an action done for 'a good will' was a right action, regardless of the consequences.

But what sort of action would this be? Kant taught that an action could only count as the action of a good will if it satisfied the test of the Categorical Imperative.

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Kant's Categorical Imperative

The Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant ©

Kant's version of duty-based ethics was based on something that he called 'the categorical imperative' which he intended to be the basis of all other rules (a 'categorical imperative' is a rule that is true in all circumstances.)

The categorical imperative comes in two versions which each emphasise different aspects of the categorical imperative. Kant is clear that each of these versions is merely a different way of expressing the same rule; they are not different rules.

Moral rules must be universalisable

The first one emphasises the need for moral rules to be universalisable.

To put this more simply:

This means at least two things:

  • if you aren't willing for the ethical rule you claim to be following to be applied equally to everyone - including you - then that rule is not a valid moral rule. I can't claim that something is a valid moral rule and make an exception to it for myself and my family and friends.

So, for example, if I wonder whether I should break a promise, I can test whether this is right by asking myself whether I would want there to be a universal rule that says 'it's OK to break promises'.

Since I don't want there to be a rule that lets people break promises they make to me, I can conclude that it would be wrong for me to break the promise I have made.

  • if the ethical rule you claim to be following cannot logically be made a universal rule, then it is not a valid moral rule.

So, for example, if I were thinking philosophically I might realise that a universal rule that 'it's OK to break promises in order to get one's own way', would mean that no-one would ever believe another person's promise and so all promises would lose their value. Since the existence of promises in society requires the acceptance of their value, the practice of promising would effectively cease to exist. It would no longer be possible to ‘break’ a promise, let alone get one’s own way by doing so.

Moral rules must respect human beings

Kant thought that all human beings should be treated as free and equal members of a shared moral community, and the second version of the categorical imperative reflects this by emphasising the importance of treating people properly. It also acknowledges the relevance of intention in morality.

Kant is saying that people should always be treated as valuable - as an end in themselves - and should not just be used in order to achieve something else. They should not be tricked, manipulated or bullied into doing things.

This resonates strongly with disapproving comments such as "he's just using her", and it underpins the idea that "the end can never justify the means".

Here are three examples of treating people as means and not ends:

  • treating a person as if they were an inanimate object
  • coercing a person to get what you want
  • deceiving a person to get what you want

Kant doesn't want to say that people can't be used at all; it may be fine to use a person as long as they are also being treated as an end in themselves.

The importance of duty

Kant thought that the only good reason for doing the right thing was because of duty - if you had some other reason (perhaps you didn't commit murder because you were too scared, not because it was your duty not to) then that you would not have acted in a morally good way.

But having another reason as well as duty doesn't stop an action from being right, so long as duty was the ‘operational reason’ for our action.

If we do something because we know it's our duty, and if duty is the key element in our decision to act, then we have acted rightly, even if we wanted to do the act or were too scared not to do it, or whatever.

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