Deontological Ethics

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Deontology is the view that because there are moral constraints on promoting overall best consequences, sometimes the right action is not the one whose consequences are best. The constraints that deontological theories emphasize are familiar from our everyday experience of morality: One ought to keep one's promises and be loyal to one's friends; one ought not to inflict unnecessary suffering or to ignore one's debts of gratitude, and so on. Some deontological theorists see a unified basis for all such duties; others are frankly pluralist.

The Meaning of "Deontology"

Apparently coined by Jeremy Bentham in the nineteenth century, the term "deontology" initially was used to refer, quite widely, to the "science of duty." This wide usage reflects the word's two Greek roots: deon, meaning "needful" or "fitting," and logos, meaning "science" or "discourse." Within a century, the term gained its narrower meaning; even this wide use of the term, however, carries some definite commitments. These stem from each of its two roots: (1) It is fitting to be virtuous; but it is not part of the concept of virtue that virtue is always needful or morally necessary. In focusing on the needful, deontology may thus either leave the moral virtues to one side or demote them to a derivative status. In its concern with duty, deontology also either ignores, or treats as peripheral, the nature of moral successdescribed by some as happiness or eudaimonia, by others as perfected moral worth. Deontology's principal terms of assessment are, instead, deontic: they concern what ought to be the case and, more specifically, what people ought (morally) to do. (2) It is possible to speak or discourse about almost anything; but holding that there is a logos of duty suggests that moral duties may be correctly described in general terms. This suggestion runs contrary to the views of at least some contemporary moral particularists, who deny that there are any general truths about what people ought to do.

By the middle of the twentieth century, "deontology" acquired its more specific meaning, which refers to a particular conception or theory of our moral duties. To say that something is one's duty is to represent a type of action as necessary in some way, but how? C. D. Broad noted that there are at least two ways. One way is to represent the action as a means best suited to our attaining some good end that we ought, unconditionally, to pursue: This he called "teleological necessity" (from the Greek word telos, meaning "end"). Another is to represent the action as one that we ought, unconditionally, to take, irrespective of the consequences: This he called "deontological necessity." Of course, it is perfectly possible to embrace both of these types of moral necessityas did, for instance, Immanuel Kant, who recognized both obligatory ends and strictly prohibited actions. Yet this contrast between two types of moral necessity may also be used to divide moral theories into two groups.

"Teleological" theories, as it has become commonplace to say, hold that the rightness and wrongness of actions is wholly determined by their tendencies to generate good. "Deontological" theories deny this, holding that the right action at least sometimes expresses deontological necessity, which stands independent of teleologyeven a teleology that tots up overall goodness. As we have seen, the initial, wide use of "deontology" suggests that there are general ethical truths. In keeping with that suggestion, the more specific idea of deontological theory, as it is usually presented, invokes the idea of a general type of duty. One or more generally statable moral constraints prohibits certain ways of pursuing good results. In this way, we arrive at the conception of deontology stated at the outset: Deontology is the ethical theory, or family of ethical theories, according to which there are constraints on promoting overall best consequences that imply that sometimes the right act is not the one whose consequences are best.

This distinction between teleological and deontological theories does not cover all possible ethical theoriesnot even all of the non-particularist ones that focus on duty rather than virtue or happiness. On the one hand, there are other ways of resisting the idea that the right act is the one whose consequences are best. Philippa Foot (1985) and others have questioned the coherence of this apparently all-purpose notion of overall goodness: Does it really make sense to ask, for any two states of affairs or any two alternative actions, which is "better?" Another possibility (emphasized by Samuel Scheffler [1982]) is to hold that the basis for deviating from what is for the best is not a set of constraints or duties, but rather a set of prerogatives or permissions: Perhaps we sometimes have moral latitude to act in some merely acceptable ways. On the other hand, there are ways of developing consequentialism that drop any reference to teleological necessity: Perhaps we simply rank (some) alternative actions as better or worse, on the basis of whatever considerations apply, interpreting "consequentialism" simply as holding that we ought to take the best available alternative. If this abstract understanding of consequentialism is taken to the limit, the contrast between deontology and consequentialism will blur. To see why, we must shift from the meaning of deontology to the merits of the view.

The Merits of Deontology

Deontological constraints are often called "agent-centered." The negative ones, for instance, direct people not to do certain things while not directing them to minimize the extent to which certain kinds of action are done. Although these constraints are typically conceived as applying to everyone, that does not mean that they apply in the latter, impersonal, way, but only that they apply to each agent in the former, personal way. This distinction is implicit in St. Paul's principle from Romans 3:8, central in Alan Donagan's (1977) deontological theory: "Thou shalt not do evil in order that good may come of it." The principal difficulty in justifying deontology is to explain why agent-centered restrictions make sense. If breaking a promise or unnecessarily harming someone is a bad thing, then would not rationality dictate minimizing this type of bad, other things equal? Niccolò Machiavelli infamously wrote that princes need to learn how not to be good. They must be ready to use cruelty well in order to minimize cruelty in the long run; but perhaps the advice applies not only to princes. Should one not suffocate the crying child so as to prevent the evil soldiers from finding the refugees in the attic and killing them all? Such cases present what are known as "paradoxes of deontology."

Some deontological theorists simply deny that the paradoxes pose any problem: The deontological constraints stand on their ownas self-evident, a priori, or resting on divine authorityand entail nothing about minimizing bads. Others do attempt to defend deontology from the challenge posed by the paradoxes, in three ways. One is to defend the moral significance of the distinction between doing ill and allowing ill effects to happen. The doctrine of doing and allowing holds that, across a wide range of cases, there is a morally significant difference between the two. As Warren Quinn's (1993) sympathetic discussion reveals, it is not easy to explain why the bare difference between doing something and allowing something to happen should make a fundamental moral difference; a first step is to concede that the distinction matters only in certain contexts.

A second way to attempt to defend deontology is to develop Thomas Nagel's (1986) idea of "agent-centered" (or "agent-relative") reasons, which explain the point of deontological constraints. We can understand how certain moral reasons may not apply to everyone, but only to some people. This may be because of special relationships in which some people stand to others (friend, physician) or it may be because of the moral leeway we have to pursue what we care about. Perhaps the reasons that underwrite deontological constraints are similarly agent-relative. W. D. Ross (1988) suggested that each important deontological constraint reflects a different special relationship in which we can stand to others: as past benefactors, promisors, and so on. Alternatively, agent-relative reasons can be given a systematic place in moral theory. For example, T. M. Scanlon's (1998) contractualist theory holds that the rightness of actions is determined by principles that could not be reasonably rejected by anyone motivated to reach reasonable agreement on principles. The reasons that individuals might reject proposed principles, he suggests, will naturally include some agent-relative ones. In either sort of deployment, however, there are grounds for worrying that the agent-relative reasons presuppose deontological constraints rather than really justifying them.

A third way to defend deontological constraints is to deny that all goods call for one to promote them. Some goodssome valuable thingsmay instead call upon us to respect or honor them. Kant's seminal contribution to deontological thinking was his insistence that rational persons are to be respected, as having a dignity that is beyond all price. Having said that, one might turn around and argue that human rational dignity, as an agent-neutral value, is to be promoted. That would be to turn away from deontology. In contrast, one might hold that the appropriate attitude to human dignity is, in turn, to respect it. Frances Kamm (1992) has argued that human dignity is best respected by ensuring the inviolability of persons' basic rights.

The Priority of Right

As Kamm herself points out, resting deontological constraints on the value of human dignity begins to efface the distinction between deontology and consequentialist views. A fully abstract consequentialism can look to any relevant basis for holding that one alternative action is better or worse than another. Jamie Dreier (1993) has argued that the strictness of deontological constraints can easily be recast in a consequentialist mode by stipulating that some actions be ranked lexically better than others. Such an abstract consequentialism gives up the title to being a teleological view, as it does not develop its content on the basis of observed teleological necessities; but it remains recognizably consequentialist. Maintaining a firm contrast between deontological theories and consequentialist theories, therefore, depends upon resisting such an abstract recasting of consequentialism. Friends of deontology may want to understand "goods" or "goodness" somewhat more narrowly, as referring only to features of states of affairs or to values towards which the correct stance is promotion rather than respect, such as human well-being. The values that do not fall within the goodor at least some of themmay then be thought of as belonging to "the right"the domain of rightness.

Accepting that there are values proper to the right, whose role is not to be promoted but rather to be honored and respected by the structure of duty, opens up many additional possible ways of defending deontology. Such an approach helps ground deontological constraints by relating them to some value, but in a non-teleological way; and this helps explain why we should care about acting morally. Barbara Herman (1993) has emphasized this layer in Kant's moral theory. Kant (1998) held that the a priori concepts of morality determine the content of the one unconditionally valuable thing, namely the good will, the will that acts from respect for the moral law. Although this value cannot, in Kant's view, be directly promoted, it helps characterize the value of acting morally. Our capacity to achieve this value also underwrites our dignity: We are worthy of respect because we are capable of acting with a good will. A contemporary example of this approach is Scanlon's contractualism. As noted above, Scanlon (1998) holds that the rightness of actions depends on whether they accord with principles that no one duly motivated to find agreement on principles could reasonably reject. What motivates us to act morally, on this interpretation? Scanlon's answer in What We Owe to Each Other is that it is "the positive value of living with others on terms that they could not reasonably reject" (1998, p. 162). This value seems to belong to the right, not to the good insofar as it is distinct from the right. Yet it is nonetheless something we might intelligibly care about. According to deontologists such as Kant and Scanlon, then, these considerations of rightness have a kind of structural priority over other types of value.

See also Categorical Imperative; Contractualism; Divine Command Theories of Ethics; Duty; Ethics; Kant, Immanuel; Kantian Ethics; Moral Rules and Principles; Ross, William David; Teleological Ethics.


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Henry S. Richardson (2005)

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Deontological Ethics

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