Deontologism is an ethics of duty. While some great systems, especially the Stoic and the Kantian, put duty at the heart of morality, modern deontologism is a species of British intuitionism. Intuitionists are divided on two questions. Whereas G. E. Moore held that good is the fundamental concept of morality, that the right act is the one that will produce the most intrinsic good, the deontologists held that right or duty is the fundamental notion, that the rightness of an act depends on its nature, not on its consequences. The term deontologist (from δέον, it is necessary) originated with J. bentham, who claimed that duty is the prime ethical concept. The older deontologists held that man has an intuition of moral principles; present-day deontologists say that man intuits only the rightness of particular acts.
Basic Notions. According to Ross, the right act is the one that a man "ought" to choose. Right is what is fitting, wrong is what is inappropriate. While moral suitability may resemble utilitarian suitability for the production of good consequences, it is not identified with it, but it is akin to aesthetic rightness. Rightness may be analyzed to the extent of saying that it is suitability, but beyond that the concept cannot be analyzed. Again, the ground of right is those characteristics in an act that make it morally suitable. This is certainly not capacity to produce the greatest good. There is, moreover, no single principle underlying all moral rightness: morality is pluralistic.
There are prima facie duties and proper duties. The former are acts that at first sight tend to be morally obligatory. They result from a partial view of the situation, whereas one's proper duty is that which fits the entire situation. Proper duty is left to the immediate insight of the agent.
How does man know that any act is a duty? Prichard says that no one can prove by reasoning that any act is obligatory. To know that an act is obligatory (say, payment of a debt), all that one can do is to put himself in the situation in which he owes a debt; there, he immediately perceives the right thing to do. However, any ultimate basis of obligation is unknown, for "obligation," like "good," is unanalyzable. One can only say that certain actions are to be done or not to be done; their obligatory character is seen immediately. If, however, someone does not see a particular obligation, he cannot be proved to be wrong. For example, in the case of someone who gets the wrong answer to a simple arithmetic problem, all that can be done is to tell him to look again. Can anyone give reasons why he should be moral? The answer is no, and if ethics is looked upon as the attempt to answer this question, ethics is based upon a mistake.
Some deontologists hold that good is of secondary importance, that unless one acts from a sense of duty, one's act is immoral and that morality and virtue are absolutely distinct. They argue that to be virtuous an act must be done willingly and from a good motive, but motive is not always within a person's control.
All deontologists say that right is independent of good, that the assertion that an act is right or wrong is not the same as saying that it is good or bad. Just as the right road need not be a good road and a good road may be the wrong road, so an act good in itself may not be right and a bad act may not be wrong. Moreover, when one acts from a sense of duty, one has no purpose, for the moral act is done neither for the sake of itself nor for anything to be got out of the act; duty alone explains it.
Critique. The deontologist makes such statements about motive because if he should admit that the moral act proceeds from a motive, he would have to admit that right is based on good—a thesis he attempts to deny. Yet modern deontologism has something in common with scholastic ethics in the sense that its proper duties are common Christian principles. Moreover, it evokes sympathy for its effort to keep close to common sense; the adult, particularly, has easy insight into his duties in obvious cases, but all cases are not obvious, and some require very close reasoning. Nor is it true that one is unable to give reasons for being moral and doing one's duty; it is the task of the moralist to elucidate these reasons. Deontologism fails to make a good case for its claim that right is independent of good; if right were independent of good, man would sometimes be obliged to do evil. It is mistaken also about motive and its influence on the moral act. Again, while making much of right and duty, it fails to give an ultimate account of moral obligation; it confuses synderesis with intuition and does not completely explain the role of either in establishing norms of morality.
See Also: categorical imperative; stoicism; good; obligation, moral; ethics, history of.
Bibliography: w. d. ross, Foundations of Ethics (Oxford 1939); The Right and the Good (Oxford 1930). a. c. ewing, The Definition of Good (New York 1947); "A Suggested Non-Naturalistic Analysis of Good," Mind 48 (1939) 1–22. c. d. broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory (New York 1930). e. f. carritt, The Theory of Morals (London 1928). a. a. prichard, "Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?" Mind 21 (1912) 21–37.
[t. j. higgins]
"Deontologism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/deontologism
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