Deontological Ethics



Deontology (coming from the Green word 'deon' meaning 'duty) is an absolutist, legalist theory of ethics that Brad ****** describes as "rational self regulation." It's a contrast to aretaic theories that place character at the centre of morality, such as Utilitarianism. Deontological ethics does not concern itself with consequences, rather looks at the action to determine whether an action is right or wrong. The central idea of the theory is that morality is discoverable by reason. 

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The main proponent of deontology is Immanuel Kant, a German radical, educated philosopher who proposed the notion in 'Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals'. He believed that humans should do their duty rather than what they feel emotionall inclined to do and that there is an objective right and wring based on moral duty. We should do our duty because it is our duty, not to fulfil any selfish desires. 

His theory began with the notion of good will and that humans have the desire to reach the 'summum bonum' or the "supreme good." Good will is a persons will to do the right thing; doing what is right, irrespective of the consequences is the most important thing as "morality is how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness."

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Kant's theory entails two imperatives; the hypothetical and the categorical, his theory concerning categorical imperatives which he described as "objectively necessary." There are three categorical imperatives essential to deontology:

The Universal Law - whether everyone can behave in the same way.

Treat humans as ends in themselves - treat everyone equally.

Act as if you live in a Kingdom of ends - all members of society desire good.

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However, the idea of duty raised problems for Kant. As duty entails that doing ones duty is the right thing, and that if an action is not duty then it's not our duty to fulfil it, there appears to be a lack of free will as choices seem predetermined. Kant stressed the importance of humans being free to make rational choices and being free in order to do our duty.

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W.D. Ross, an intuitionist, developed Kant's theory believing that it raised issues, particularly with the concept of conflicting duties. He believed that morals are conditional and that intuitively people know what is moral. He proposed seven prima facie "at first glance" duties that he described as "responsibilities to ourselves and others.":


Gratitude (being greatful)


Beneficence (being kind)

Self imporvement

Non maleficence (not harming others)

When a conflict arises, intutively people know which duty takes priority over another, allowing more flexibility.

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Contemporary ethicists Thomas Nagel and Peter Singer both advocate deontology, believing that it leads to and promotes equality. The theory treats everybody as equal regardless of age and gender, among other factors. 

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The theory has strict, simple rules to follow, making it easier for people to follow without getting confused over what is right and wrong.

The theory has an objective stance on duty and what is considered duty,  therefore, the theory can not be used to someone's advantage or for immoral acts, as it explicitly prohibits actions that would always be regarded as wrong, for example, 'do not steal'. 

Deontology does not consider consequences, which can be considered a positive, as we can never know the full consequences of an action and can not control them, but we can control whether we carry out the action itself.

The theory provides humanitarian guidelines that lead to justice and equality, something that every human strives to have, particularly as it is a human right.

"There is nothing higher than reason."

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The theory is about duty and and has strict rules, asking people not to follow their emotions but to follow a rule can be regarded as unreasonable, as naturally humans are guided by emotion.

Some may argue that in some aspects, the idea that specific actions are prohibited, this needs to be flexible in certain circumstances, for example, if there was a hungry homeless child whose only option was to steal. It is circumstances like this that people would prefer to adopt the utilitarian approach, which is more compassionate. 

The theory removes sympathy from the equation, which Nagel and Singer believe leads to 'moral fanaticism' or overstepping boundaies, and creates unsympathetic and unempathetic humans with no regard for the feelings of others.

The theory alows people to justify anything as their duty if they truly believe it is their duty to follow through with that specific action.

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In conclusion, despite its strengths, deontology ultimately succumbs to its weaknesses. Although, in theory, it provides good guidelines for equality and justice, it's daal flaw is that it asks humans to remove emotion and sympathy when deciding what the morally correct thing to do, but it is human nature to be driven by emotion and be sympathetic, therefore, this is where the ethical theory fails.

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