Deontological Ethics

Two Approaches to Ethics
Most philosophers argue that there are two systems for determining what is right or good. The ways in which ´right´or ´good´affect a course of action is the primary difference between two of the most common ethical systems.

Consider the following pictures.....

Deontological theories: What is right and good are separated – one is independent of the other. Right is not defined in terms of what is good; producing a favourable outcome is not the goal. Acting in a moral way means doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. The consequences of an action are unimportant in establishing whether an action is right or wrong. Humans have a duty to act morally even if their actions produce unfavourable consequences. For example if lying is wrong then telling a lie to a person is wrong, even if the lie would prevent a death. According to deontological ethics morality is absolute. What is right and wrong are objective moral principles that do not change over time or culture. Humans have a duty to obey these moral absolutes in order to lead a moral lifestyle without regard for any consequences those actions might produce.
An example of a set of deontological rules are the 10 commandments. Actions such as lying, stealing, adultery and murder are inherently wrong. So for deontologists the important thing is not the result or the consequences of an action, but the action itself.

Watch – Unthinkable (last 25 mins)

Think it through
A politician has to make a decision about a ´terrorist´who is in police custody. The ´terrorist´ is suspected of having information that could result in the death of a large number of innocent people, but he refuses to talk. The police argue that the only way they will get the ´terrorist´to reveal his information is to torture him. The politician argues that torture is always wrong, no matter what the consequences. Consider which viewpoint is teleological and which viewpoint is deontological. What would you decide and what reasons would you give to support your decision?

Kantian Deontological Ethics

´two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe....the starry heavens above and the moral law within´ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason 1788.

Key concepts
• • • • • • • The categorical imperative. The principle of universalization Furthering the ends of others Good will Duty The kingdom of ends Gods necessary existence

The categorical Imperative
In Groundwork to the Metaphysic of Morals (1797), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that morality is a matter of following absolute rules – rules that admit no exceptions and appeal not to religious considerations but to REASON.

Before discussing Kant’s moral theories it is important to note his beliefs about the difference between human nature and animal nature.

He believed animals were dominated by instinct and desire. Animal behaviour is shaped by these compulsions.

They eat

They fight

They have sex

And when its all over they sleep

Of course human beings are no different to animals and Kant believed we shared their instincts and desires

We eat


Have sex

And when its all over we sleep

However what separates humans from animals is our ability to REASON. It is this faculty that enables us to act freely and against our instincts and desires if we so choose. It is also the reason why we are superior to the rest of the animal kingdom.

To be able to question, intellectualize, ponder, critically evaluate and philosophize

Something animals cannot do

Well most....

Lets start by taking a look at Kant’s theory of the Categorical Imperative.

The difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives.
• The hypothetical imperative: Immanuel Kant observed that the word ´ought´is often used non-morally, for example ´if you want to become a better artist or guitarist, you ought to practice´; ´if you want to get an A in Ethics you ought to study hard´. We have a certain wish and recognizing that a certain course of action would help us to fulfil this wish, we follow this course of action. Kant called this the hypothetical imperative; telling us what we OUGHT to do if we want to fulfil our wishes. The categorical imperative: In contrast Kant observed that moral obligations do not depend on particular wishes or desires. The form of a moral obligation is not ´if you want something, you ought to do so and so. Instead, moral requirements are categorical, that is ´you ought to do so and so regardless of your particular wishes or desires.

So a categorical imperative is the moral obligation to act in a certain way. But how are categorical imperatives to be known? In any moral dilemma Kant stresses that the right way to act is known to us. Our thinking (reason) as long as it is not corrupted will always light the path we ’ought’ to follow in order to be morally virtuous. Kant stated that by applying the principle of universalization categorical imperatives are known. By applying this formula morality becomes as self evident as the stars above. we all have the ability to know what categorical imperatives we ´ought´ to obey as we all have the ability to reason. Reason enables us to determine the difference between ´right´and ´wrong´ by applying what Kant called the principle of universalization. This States ´Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law´.

Think about it.
A friend who is appearing on a television quiz show asks you to sit in the audience and cough at particular key moments during the multiple choice questions to help him win the top prize of a million pounds. He promises to split his winnings with you. Before deciding what to do, ask yourself what rule you would be following if you were to sit in the audience and help your friend. Then ask yourself if you would be willing for that rule to be followed by everyone all the time and in all places. If that ´rule´can be universalized, should you do it? If it cannot, then should you refrain from doing it?

So only those actions that conform to rules that could be adopted by all people at all times are moral.

Kant gave his own example
Kant used the example of telling lies to show how categorical oughts can be derived by applying the principle of universalization. His reasoning goes something like this: a man is so poor that even if he borrows money he will not be able to repay the loan. The debt collectors are threatening action and so he asks himself whether he should borrow the money from a friend to get the debt collectors off his back, knowing he will not be able to repay his friend. If he were to go down this path and borrow the money from his friend his maxim would be ´whenever you need a loan, promise to repay it, even though you know you cannot do so´. Now, could this maxim become a universal law? No, says Kant. If it did people would no longer believe each other and nobody would lend money. Such a maxim therefore would be self-defeating. Therefore the man ´ought´ to be honest no matter what the consequences will be for him.

Quotable quotes
• ´So act that your principle of action might safely be made a law for the whole world´. • ´Always recognize that human individuals are ends and do not use them as means to your end´. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

´Always recognize that human individuals are ends and do not use them as means to your end´.
• In this quote Kant is arguing that human beings have intrinsic worth. Every human should be treated with dignity because we are all rational agents, free to make decisions, set targets and guide our conduct by reason. Kant believed that human beings embodied the moral law within and that if they disappeared from the planet so to would the moral dimension of life on earth. Human beings therefore have value ´beyond all price´ and must be treated ´always as an end and never as a means to an end´. Therefore we have a duty to treat others well; respect their rights, treat everyone as equal, promote the welfare of others, never manipulate others or use them to achieve our own purposes (no matter how good those purposes might be) we should in the words of Kant ´try as far as we can to further the ends of others´.

Think about this in relation to the man on the quiz show asking his friend to sit in the audience and cough when the correct answer has been presented.

Or perhaps this far more serious situation

Kant argued that human beings occupy a special place in creation and have an ´intrinsic worth´ that makes humankind ´valuable above all price´. Other animals, by contrast have value only in so much as they serve human purposes. According to Kant humans can use animals in any way they please. We do not even have a direct duty to refrain from torturing them – although Kant thought it wrong, especially as it was far more likely that ´he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men´.

So what would Kant think about this

Or this

Human beings on the other hand, could never be treated or used as a means to an end.

Human being are to treated with dignity. Kant considered human beings ´Holy´.

´Duty for the sake of duty´.
For Kant there was only one ´intrinsically good thing´ and that is a ´good will´. To have a good will is to do ones duty. Kant thought that morality rarely had anything to do with happiness and is all to do with DUTY. He argued that whenever people make decisions and actions that benefit themselves at the expense of other people then they are acting selfishly and therefore immorally. Even if people appear to be acting unselfishly and honestly they can still be acting immorally if their actions are not based on duty and a good will. Kant gave the following example.

Suppose a shopkeeper sold his goods at a very reasonable price and gained a good reputation with his customers as being honest and fair which led to his financial success based on customer relations. Kant argues the shopkeeper is acting immorally if his intention to sell his goods at a low price is a business strategy that guarantees him prosperity due to a large number of customers choosing to buy at his shop. Kant argues an honest approach to low price goods should be done from a good-will without any regard for business prosperity. It is the shop keepers duty to trade with honesty and integrity because people are not to be treated as a means to an end.

There is no answer to the question ´Why should I do my duty?´ except ´ because it is your duty´. If there was an answer to the question it would represent a reason and would make the imperative hypothetical and not categorical. Kant stated ´duty should be done for the sake of duty and duty alone´. It is here we can see the importance of a good-will. Even when reason enables us to know what categorical imperatives we have a duty to follow it is not always easy to act on ones duty when the consequences could be disastrous to us or other people. A good-will is neccesary in order for us to act dutifully. Consider Faramir´s obedience to duty in Return of the King.

Suppose you offer a safe place of hiding to a woman who is on the run from her husband who is threatening to kill her. The crazy husband has knocked on your door looking for his wife and asks you if you have sen her. According to Kant .... 1. What is the right way to act according to Kant ? 2. Why?

3. What problems does this raise?

Kant argues your actions are irrelevant for morality if: • You do something from which you expect to benefit, even if you are doing things that benefit others as well. • You are motivated by natural interest as this would make your actions essentially selfish. • You act because ordered to do so by someone in authority. Hence, it all that counts for morality is the rational choice of actions based on a disinterested sense of duty.

The Kingdom of ends
Kant argues that is never right to treat people as a mere means to an end. We are always ends in ourselves. For Kant, human reason is the key and by making laws for ourselves based on reason alone we become ´law abiding members of a kindom of ends´- a community in which the laws adopted by all the individuals will be in harmony.

Kants ideas can be compared to Jesus’ ethical teachings consider Jesus’ teaching of ´do unto others as you would wish them do to you´. It is very similar to Kants idea of only acting on the maxims that you would want to become a universal law.
Both value the ultimate dignity and worth of all people irrespective of class, colour, race, age or gender.

Kant´s theories have helped us to shape our legal system and our sense of moral law. Certain political conclusions follow from Kant´s ethical theories. Kantian ethics require individual liberty, since each memeber of society should be as free as possible to choose for himself or herself. Each member of a community, too, should consider himself or herself a member of the moral community – a community shared by others with equal moral rights and equal moral responsibilities.

Kant focussed on the individuals right to choose for himself or herself. What distinguishes human beings from other animals or other objects is their dignity based on their ability to choose freely what they will do with their lives, and humans have a fundamental moral right to have these choices respected. People are not objects to be manipulated; it is a violation of human dignity to use people in ways they do not freely choose. Of course, many different but related rights exist besides the basic one; for example the right to truth, the right to privacy, right to not be injured.

God: The Moral Governor
In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant argues that since human reason is limited, it is not capable of discovering God by reason alone for God is infinite and transcends all things. He rejected, therefore the traditional arguments for Gods existence eg The ontological, cosmological and design arguments. He argued that God can be discovered by observing how obligation dominates all our lives. For example, I ought to be good to my pets, I should practice the piano. This sense of ought, should, must is universal (we all do it) and since we do not invent it (or often want it) it must come from another source – God. The supreme moral governor which speaks through our conscience. Kant also postulates the idea of God in order to guarantee justice to all the people who have dutifully carried out their actions in a morally virtuous way, true to themselves and to their fellow human beings. But Kant also acknowledged that a lot of people lived selfish, greedy and immoral lifestyles and yet still seem to flourish. Therefore Kant postulates Gods existence in order to bring about justice to all in the next life. Gods existence although not proved is necessary in order for Kants ethical theory to be sound.

Criticisms of Kantian Ethics
• Conflicting duties • Sometimes consequences need taking into consideration • Is it possible to act unselfishly • Humans are motivated by pleasure • People not motivated by reason alone • Kants theories of conscience and free will have all been challenged eg Social conditioning, determinsm.
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