III. Deontology

A. Point of View

-ever since ethics became a part of philosophy, there have been attempts to create a normative theory of right conduct

-the main task of such a theory has been to find and prove a fundamental principle on which all rules and courses of action could be based

-such a principle is supposed to state what it is that people should be trying to do, based on a theory of what rightness and wrongness consist in

-corresponding to different points of view and emphasis, there have been different theories of right conduct

-Deontology is one such theory, so named because of its emphasis on duty (deonto = duty; logy= theory of)

-we find seeds of this thinking in Socrates (470-399BC) but the theory is not fully developed until Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Sometimes the theory is simply called Kantian Ethics.

-this theory, as we shall see, basically claims that there are certain fundamental duties that we must always follow, regardless of the particular outcome

-e.g., keeping promises, paying debts, respecting others' rights

-and in the absence of a call to duty, individuals can behave as they desire

*the next few sections (B-E) are based on a reading of Immanueal Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

B. The Concept of Duty

-early on, Socrates noted that making rules subject to individual discretion (like in Subjectivism and Policy Egoism) is tantamount to making them meaningless

-part of what it means to be a rule is that people will follow it, even if they are inclined not to

-that is, our imperatives, if they are to be true imperatives, must be categorical (i.e., without qualification)

-focussing on this, Kant erected a theory designed to capture the categorical nature of morality, yet at the same time, not burden us with so many duties that all freedom would disappear

-unlike many of his predecessors, Kant contended that it is not achieving what you desire that makes something right

-there must be a rational standard that goes beyond individual or even collective desires

-following our duty, then, is main driving force in Kant's ethics, but it is not enough to simply abide by duty, we must do it for the right reason

C. Motives and the Good Will

-rational action is the ultimate goal for Kant, both because this gives humans autonomy, and because it makes them do what's right

-there is a fundamental connection between goodness, rightness, and rationality, according to this view

-right conduct is rational conduct, and rational conduct is motivated from good motives

-so if we do what's right, and do so for the right reason (from the motive of good will), then we are being moral

-actions that comply with duty but do so for the wrong reasons are not morally praiseworthy

-this can be summarized in three propositions:

1) an action has moral worth if it is done from duty

2) this worth comes not frome purpose, but the good will of the agent

3) having good will means acting out of respect for the moral law

D. The Categorical Imperative: 1st Formulation

-the question, of course, is how one knows whether their willing has been good, whether we've been rational, and not just rationalized our decision

-Kant's answer is that rationality consists in universality and consistency

-it is embodied in his preliminary statement of his ultimate principle of morality, the Categorical Imperative:

-Always act so that the motive behind your action could be turned into a universally binding law, without inconsistency

-in other words, consider your reason for acting this way as opposed to some other, and ask yourself:

"Could I will that everyone else did the same in these circumstances?"

-if not, then my action has no moral worth, it should therefore not be done

-this imperative to universality and consistency is Kant's answer to the question of how one may know whether their actions follow a rational standard for right conduct

E. The Categorical Imperative: 2nd Formulation

-at the same time, Kant wants to protect individuals

-the main goal of his ethics is to insure that human dignity is preserved at all times

-ingeniously, he argues that the rationality found in right conduct is the same thing that gives us our dignity

-the reason, says Kant, that humans have a dignity which deserves protection and respect is that, unlike inanimate objects and lower forms of life, humans possess the capacity to direct rationally our conduct-- we have rational autonomy

-ordinary things have only one type of value: price, which is merely instrumental and replaceable

-by contrast, humans have intrinsic value: dignity, which makes us inexpendable

-accordingly, Kant offers another statement of his principle:

-Always act so that you treat humanity as an end-in-itself and never as a mere means to an end

-in other words, respect the rational autonomy in each person

F. Problems With Deontology

-with all the insights that we find in this normative theory, there are some basic difficulties that its critics have had

-I'd like to indicate them here, but caution you that even if one or more criticisms of this theory are correct, that does not make the theory worthless

-rather, what they indicate is that the theory needs adjustment and revision

-here are three major criticisms of deontology:

-first, when it is said that duty is necessarily categorical, that one cannot allow exceptions, we find the possibility open for disastrous consequences of following a perfectly good rule

-truth telling to Nazis?

-promise-keeping to enraged gun owner?

-second, a related problem is that of conflicting duties: if all duties are to be held categorically, what if two duties pull you in opposite directions?

-for Kant, there can't be a hierarchy of duties

-third, is it really true that all consequences are morally irrelevant, or only certain kinds (e.g., personal ones)?