Deontology Essay Plan

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  • Created on: 30-03-15 11:03


  • The term deontological is derived from the Greek work deon, meaning 'duty'. Deontological systems therefore are concerned with describing our moral duties. 
  • Not consequestialist, instead concerned with the intrinsic properties of actions- actions are right or wrong in themselves

Nancy-Ann Davis says deontological statements have three qualities:

  • 1. They are negatively formulated (start with 'do not')
  • 2. They are narrowly framed and bounded (refer to specific actions- 'do not lie')
  • 3. They are narrowly directed (directed at actions themselves not consequences)

For the deontologist, it is wrong to act if that action breaks a rule. However if failing to act causes a negative consequence, you have done nothing wrong. This is criticised by James Rachels, who argues that if you fail to act knowing that this will have bad consequences, then it would be immoral. 

Deontologists must: perform actions that are good in themselves, refrain from wrong actions, not violate a rule even if harm will occur, not favour one person over another, follow absolute standards from fundamental sources of morality such as reason, conscience and God. 

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One of the most famous deontologists was Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804. Kant stands as part of the 'European Enlightenment'- the attempt to get beyond authority and superstition, to deal with the world on the basis of human reason. Kant was influenced by science and empirical evidence, and his ideas were visionary, powerful and important to philosophy. He has been described as 'one of the greatest thinkers of all time'.

Famous works include Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

He believed in God only because he concluded he must. He himself proved that there was no proof of God, and no need of God except as part of a 'system' that he thought was necessary to the workings of the human mind. 

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Kant's Moral Theory

Aquinas' Natural Moral Law and the Utilitarian's weighing of consequences both attempted to establish some objective basis for moral claims. Kant, in Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals, started from a totally different position. He argued: 

  • We all know what it is to have a sense of moral obligation- to believe that there is something we have to do, irrespective of the consequences it might have for us. We know this as a result of human reasoning. 
  • Coming from this, it should be possible to give a systematic account of moral duties and principles, which would be based on our sense of moral obligation and reason, which would therefore be universal. 
  • Morality should be, not as Hume argues rooted in desire and feelings, but grounded in pure reason alone.
  • Therefore there is an objective right and wrong based on moral reason. We should do the right thing because it is right and not because it fulfils our desires. 
  • Moral judgements are not relative or subjective, moral precepts are rooted in rationality
  • They are unconditional, completely unchanging and presupposed freedom of choice. 
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Good Will

Kant's moral theory begins with the phenomenon of 'Good Will', celebrating what can be achieved by the application of human reason. We might be tempted to think that the motivation that makes an action good is having a positive goal–to make people happy, or to provide some benefit. But that is not the right sort of motive, Kant says. No outcome, should we achieve it, can be unconditionally good. Therefore the only good motivation is the will to act in a moral way. 

  • Good will and motivation is the only thing that counts, and is the starting point for ethics. Only the will is within our control so only the will can be unconditionally good and practice pure practical reason.
  • A human being is essentially a rational being, and it is this that constitutes his intrinsic dignity.
  • Reason, says Kant, is an innate, intellectual power existing more or less equally in all men (note not women- the only humans to have reason to Kant were largely white, european males), it enables the individual to resolve problems in a way, more or less acceptable to anyone.
  • If reason is universal, the moral commandments generated by reason will be universal and applicable to all men.

'It is impossible to conceive of anything in all the world which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will. Good will is like a jewel, it should shine by it's own light, as a thing which has it's own value in itself.' (Kant)

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Kant and Duty

  • Duty is what makes the good will good! If we are motivated to fulfil our duty, this is good will. 
  • We each have a duty to act morally and to follow moral law.
  • Duty is different from acting out of inclination or compassion.
  • Duty must be done for it's own sake, it doesnt matter if someone else benefits from the action- our motives have to be our own. Doing our duty for any other reason (affection, self-interest, inclination) does not count as morally good. 

For Kant, the basis of duty is what he calls 'categorical imperatives'. To explain this, he distinguishes real ethics from 'hypothetical imperatives'- instructions which have conditions attached to them. For example:

'If i want to get in shape, then i must do some exercise' (antecedent/consequent)

For Kant, hypothetical imperatives are not acceptable. Moral law is good because it has no antecedent, or 'if' part. Duties are binding for their own sake, and actions should be done purely out of duty, not because of a hypothetical reason 

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The Categorical Imperative

The Categorical Imperative is a fundamental test of maxins (rules/principles) formulated in 3 ways.

  • 1. For any maxim to be true, it must be universalisable, or able to be a law for everyone.

Before you act, ask yourself whether you would like everyone in the same situation to act in the same way. If not, what you are doing is wrong, as it contradicts reason. Kant used promise-keeping as an example- promise-breaking for my own interest cannot logically become a universal law, otherwise everyone would break promises. (See Richard Hare

  • 2. Never treat people just as a means; always see them as valuable ends in themselves.

Kant calls this the formula of End in Itself, which means we should not exploit others. To be consistent we must value each other equally, therefore good actions do not favour one over another.

  • 3. Act as though you assume that everyone is following the moral law.

Kant called this the Formula of a Kingdom of Ends. He is describing a state of affairs in which all members of a society desire good, which is a common end to humanity. There would be no wars or disagreements in a Kingom of Ends, as everyone would desire the same things. 

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The very idea of duty, however, raised a problem for Kant. How can there be meaningful moral duties unless a person is first shown to be free? Kant thought that it was crucial that human behaviour is not determined, for we cannot be held accountable unless we can make choices. 

The idea that we must do something and that we can do it can only be truly the case if we are free to do it. To solve the problem of determinism, Kant observed that we can envisage human behaviour in two different ways:

  • Firstly, if we observe other humans then from our external point of view, their actions can appear determined (e.g I know the hungry boys will eat pizza when it's offered to them)
  • Secondly, though, I can consider my own behaviour internally and see that I have a choice (if offered pizza I am quite capable of rejecting it, even if I am hungry). 

So for Kant, our own behaviour can be understood as free and rational, as even apparently determined actions require an element of free thought.  

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W.D Ross

Kantian ethics seems pretty uncompromising and not really suited to the untidiness of many moral choices that people have to make. And what do we do with conflicting moral duties?

20th Century philosopher W.D Ross (1877-1971) suggested that it would be helpful to look at two types of duty:

  • Prima Facie duties (first sight duties)- are conditional and can be outweighed by more compelling duties e.g 'Never take a life' can be outweighed by 'never take a life except in self-defense)
  • Actual duties- the highest duties that people are left with after weighing up prima facie duties. The 7 main duties are: Fidelity or promise keeping, Reparation for harm done, Gratitude, Justice, Beneficence (being kind), Self-improvement, Non-maleficence (non-harming).

These stress the personal character of duty. Ross later described Prima Facie duties as 'responsibilities to ourselves and to others', and he went on to say that 'what we should do is determined by the balance of these probabilities'. With only seven non-negotiable duties, Ross' theory is therefore much more flexible and consequentialist than pure deontology.  

Question- what do we do in times of conflicting Actual duties? 

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Part ii

Part ii will usually consist of an analysis of strengths and weaknesses, and in some cases a comparison between deontology and other ethical theories that have been studied. I have made a resource for answering part ii here: 

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