Philosophy — Ethics


Deontological Ethics

Theories in this category address the question of what makes one action right and another one wrong irrespective of the consequences of the action. It emphasizes what is the right thing to do rather than what is the good thing to do. The term deontological derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘duty’ which neatly encapsulates this approach. Thus, theories of this type seek to justify our duty to behave in some ways, not behave in other ways. This is in direct contrast with consequentialist theories. In the latter whether we are violent or not would be judged right or wrong depending on the consequences. But in deontological theories the violence would be considered in isolation: is violent behaviour right or wrong in itself – and why?

Again, we might start traditionally and consider the individual: is there anything I can do by myself to determine what my duty is in a given situation? Are there rules which spell out my duty?

The problem with having rules for anything is that they are supposed to work in all situations at all times (otherwise there is not much point in having rules). Even a fairly narrow acquaintance with life shows us that there always seem to be exceptions to rules – particularly when it comes to complex things like human behaviour. So, can we do without rules (which deal in generalising about behaviour) and just decide what to do in the one situation we find ourselves in at the time? Some have thought that this can be the case. This looks attractive in that it gets us out of the problem of having rules which can’t always be made to apply. The trouble is, even a cursory examination makes the proposition look inadequate.

Somehow, you are supposed to arrive at how to behave without any reference to a guiding rule or without regard to the consequences of your actions. How do you do this? Well, you ‘listen to your heart’ or something equivalent. A Believer might justify this approach by saying that their God will guide their behaviour in this way but, as we have seen, this begs the question of how God knows what is the right thing to do – is He following rules Himself or is it His whim that a certain behaviour is right? The latter is unacceptable to most Believers and the former puts us squarely back with the problem of making rules for ethics. A nonbeliever might appeal to something intuitive (such as ‘search your conscience for what do to now’) but I think that many of us would not feel all that happy about our fellow-citizens deciding on what is the ‘right’ thing to do by doing what ‘feels right’. We would want a rather better justification than this.

Apart from these rather opinionated objections, we could appeal to real life. The way that people behave is of a piece with the way that we learn anything: we generalize from particulars. In learning to walk we discover that putting a foot in front as we lean forward saves us from falling. From this particular event we can generalize – it won’t just work in the kitchen, in the morning, on a Monday, when Mummy’s watching, etc., but will work generally – on (nearly) any surface, at (nearly) any time, (nearly) irrespective of others present, etc. (The brackets are there because, as we know, there can be sneaky exceptions that life can surprise us with. But even these can be generalized from once experienced: the icy surface can make us fall but from it we can generalize to ‘all icy surfaces need to be walked on with more care than usual’). A similar pattern holds for our ethical behaviour. Perhaps one or two attempts at lying will be enough to generalize that lying doesn’t pay, or only pays given certain conditions which, if repeated in the future, will encourage us to lie again. In short, everything we do as we learn is governed by the generation of principles to guide us in the future. We are incorrigible generalisers and so, to be the best guide, we should seek the best set of guiding principles that we can – including guiding principles for moral activities: rules, in other words.

The philosopher who sought to establish ethical rules on the firmest possible foundation was Immanuel Kant. He thought that he could set out rules for our behaviour which, if we did not follow them, would be because we were irrational. This is probably the most persuasive grounds for anyone since it trumps everything – if you admit to being irrational then you are beyond argument, beyond help, probably beyond belief. What spurred Kant into thinking about this was the view of other philosophers (most notably David Hume) that reasoning was useless when it came to our behaviour. Famously, Hume taught that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Kant thought this inadequate and championed reason as the sole guiding principle for rational beings like ourselves. Here is why.

Kant’s deontological ethics

A good place to start is with the ‘What if everyone did that?’ question. We usually ask this when we think that someone is doing something wrong but perhaps have no really persuasive argument that we can level at them. It is generally referred to as the universalisation test and it sounds a lot like the Golden Rule for ethics: ‘Do as you would be done by’, a rule that is found in nearly all ethical traditions reaching back to Confucius (551–479BC). Kant thought that his argument, though apparently the same as the Golden Rule, was much better. For one thing, as he pointed out, the Golden Rule can be misapplied in some circumstances. Trying to persuade a rich man to give to charity by appealing to the Rule is unlikely to work: he doesn’t need people giving him their money, so he needn’t give others his.

Kant starts his argument by getting to what he sees as the heart of ethics. He strips it down to something he calls good will. This, he maintains, is the only thing that is good in itself, something which ‘shines like a jewel for its own sake’. On the way to this conclusion he dismisses other sorts of thing which might be considered good in themselves (like courage, happiness, understanding) by saying that these are always capable of being channeled into bad acts: it takes courage to murder; a thief can be happy to thieve; understanding can be used to pervert the thinking of others.

But what is this good will? Kant gives us the answer through considering examples. Imagine you are visiting a foreign country and are unfamiliar with the coins. You buy something at a shop, cannot really understand the shopkeeper’s language, and proffer a handful of coins. The shopkeeper helps himself to a few of them and hands you the purchase. In this situation the shopkeeper could have taken more money than he should have but let us assume that he didn’t. Now, was his behaviour good (i.e. not taking advantage of you)? Kant says it depends. If he took the right money because he thought you more likely to come back to buy more, or tell your friends to go there, then Kant says he is not doing good. Yes, he is honest but his motive is not good. The good will is acting from a good motive, acting from a sense of law or duty. As Kant puts it: “When moral worth is at issue, what counts is not actions, which one sees, but those inner principles of action that one does not see”.

So far, however, we seem to just have got as far as the person ‘searching their conscience’ that we looked at right at the beginning of this section. Kant’s telling us to ‘act from a sense of duty’ leads us to ask what this duty is. His reply that our one and only duty is to act from a sense of duty seems to just lead us around in a circle. He himself acknowledges this apparent stalemate but then produces a move of utter brilliance:

But what kind of law can that be, the representation of which must determine the will, even without regard for the effect expected from it, in order for the will to be called good absolutely and without limitation? Since I have deprived the will of every impulse that could arise for it obeying some law, nothing is left but the conformity of actions as such with universal law, which alone is to serve the will as its principle, that is, I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.

This is Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative and is supposed to establish our moral principle (to act out of a sense of duty) as being proved by reason alone (which, uniquely, provides us with grounds for our thought). His argument seeks to show that the structure of the Categorical Imperative gives it universal authority: you cannot flout it and, at the same time, defend yourself against the accusation of being irrational.

Let us see it in action. Why should we not break a promise? Well, if I were to universalize my breaking a promise, then all promises will become worthless. In other words, the institution of making and keeping promises would disappear – which is counter to what I as a rational person would want. And it is irrational to wish to do something which will result in what I do not wish to happen.

A first weakness is the assumption that I think promise-keeping worthwhile in the first place. What if I don’t? Remember that Kant has rejected other things like trust and integrity, happiness and courage, as being good in themselves, resting his ethics on the good will alone. If I don’t value trust, say, then this example about promises isn’t going to win me over. I might wish to undermine trust and a good way – a very rational way – to do that would be to give false promises.

A second weakness is that, in the real world, giving a false promise in a certain circumstance is desirable and rational. If I promise a madman that I will carry out the executions he wants me to perform (in order that he doesn’t execute me on the spot) this is universalisable but goes against the principle of it being a duty not to break a promise. So long as it is only in similar circumstances that promises get broken, the institution of promise-keeping will continue as robustly as ever.

A third one is that it doesn’t cover all the cases we want. Consider the rich man who doesn’t give to charity mentioned above, who argued in accordance with the Golden Rule that he needn’t give to others and they needn’t give to him. Kant has only one argument to persuade the man that he fails the Categorical Imperative test: he might get into a moneyless situation in the future and then he will need the assistance of others. Of course, this simply invites the reply that, then again, he might not lose his money and why not take the risk? Thus he can will that nobody is charitable to anyone else and hope that he stays rich.

It seems that the great philosopher was aware of such limitations and, though never explicitly admitting it, produced more persuasive versions of his principle of founding ethics on reason. (Whether his alternative versions are equivalent to his version above is debatable but Kant thought they were.) In practical terms, he held that humans have the capacity to act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative, and that this capacity is the thing of value. True, we can never be certain that our motives are pure when we decide to do the right thing, but we can at least try. It is this effort that is the important thing and wins us both the respect of others and our own self-respect. The fact that we reason through our motives, that we reason through the motives of others, is what counts. This combination of reasoning and respect produces, for Kant, the version of his Imperative which runs:

So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person of in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.

In other words, it is the respect for other humans as reasoning beings, capable of being appealed to through reasoning, understood through reasoning, that lies at the foundation of ethics. This has an enormous appeal and, though wanting in several ways (some of which have been outlined above), seems to be have within it the truth about how we ought to behave.

It is only fair that a further major criticism of this approach is pointed out before we turn to an alternative. This is the lack of practical guidance which stems from there being just the one underlying good will rather than a variety of guiding virtues (such as happiness, courage, honesty, etc). Since there is just the one good will, it cannot help us sort out what to do in certain circumstances when there is an apparent conflict of duties. Further, since our motives may not always be trusted, examining the consequences of our actions is also not allowed to figure in the reasoning process (except with respect to universalisability). So, when a psychopath with an axe asks me where you are hidden so that they can chop you to bits, what do I say? I must not lie (since this is not universalisable), I must not tell the truth (not protecting the innocent from the demented is not universalisable). Thus, according to Kant’s system, I will be paralysed since I can do neither of these without condemning myself as irrational. This hardly recommends it as a system to help decide what to do in life.

The example of the mad axe-man points us towards an alternative ethical system which seems to help in situations like this: the choice between lying and protecting the innocent is not best addressed through consideration of duty alone, what helps is to consider the outcome of doing either and then judging which outcome is preferable. Such systems are called consequentialist and we will turn to them later.


Before doing this we can have a look at a more modern deontological system which focuses on our rights and duties and attempts to incorporate the Kantian emphasis on reason as being at the heart of ethics. This is generally referred to as contractarianism and, basically, is the idea that people should adopt norms of behaviour because it is reasonable for them to do so given the ‘contractual’ nature of human society. Thus, you should not steal because you are under a type of contractual obligation not to steal by being a member of society where stealing is morally wrong.

An immediate objection to this approach might be to point out that this is all very well but who decided in the first place that stealing was wrong? In other words, what is the basis for the various ‘contractual obligations’ that we are signed up for? It seems that for a group to sit down and decide whether stealing is right or wrong they will have to appeal to something other than a ‘contract’ if no such contract currently exists.

A sort of answer to this ‘where do the values come from?’ question was given by John Rawls in 1971. He proposed a famous thought-experiment in which a group of humans come together and have to devise a set of principles for their society to work by. The imaginary part of this is that the individuals doing the deciding are told that there will be some people of greater and lesser intelligence, greater and lesser degrees of health, greater and lesser pigment in their skin, ability to lead, to follow, to carve wood, to care for babies, etc etc – in other words, these people would represent a reasonable cross-section of the types found in human society. However, the deciding individuals did not know which attributes they themselves possessed. One might be black, female, intelligent and a leader; another might be yellow, male, dim and artistic; and so on. This ‘veil of ignorance’ Rawls thought would ensure a just distribution of rights and duties in his hypothetical society – just as if you were in charge of cutting up a pizza to share and only knowing that you would get the last piece: you would do your best to cut it equally.

Rawls said that the individuals setting up the ‘contractual principles’ would agree to such things as freedom of expression for all; the limiting of powers of Governments; an equitable distribution of wealth that is consistent with continued wealth creation – in short, something close to a democratic socialist state where a well-educated population approves of reasonable institutions. No individual, for example, would say that the poor should not be able to vote, or that yellow people should be the wood-carvers since, behind the veil of ignorance, you might be the poor yellow person and you would not want to be disenfranchised and might not want to be forced into being a wood-carver. Being reasonable, you would then see that this should not be forced on anyone in the group so you agree to the contract allowing everyone to vote, everyone to choose a job within their capabilities. And so on.

This idea of ethics emerging from the reasonable view of ‘the common man’ has a great appeal but doubt has been cast on whether, in fact, Rawls is really describing a contract or just what most people seem to prefer at this stage in our history. One can imagine some non-risk-averse people being willing to agree to a principle where the poorest 10% are annually culled to leave the richer ones better off through not having to pay extra taxes to look after them. I dare say that few of us would agree that if this principle were to become part of a contract that it would then become ethically acceptable.

There is something attractive about ‘the reasonable common man’ as being close to the heart of an acceptable ethical system. We will come back to this notion when we consider the Virtue Ethics section later.

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