Deontology and Ethics

Ethics as Obedience to Duty and God

Moral compass
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Deontological moral systems are characterized by a focus upon and strict adherence to independent moral rules or duties. To make the correct moral choices, we have to understand what our moral duties are and what correct rules exist to regulate those duties. When we follow our duty, we are behaving morally. When we fail to follow our duty, we are behaving immorally.

Typically in any deontological system, our duties, rules, and obligations are determined by God. Being moral is thus a matter of obeying God.

The Motivation of Moral Duty

Deontological moral systems typically stress the reasons why certain actions are performed. Simply following the correct moral rules is often not sufficient; instead, we have to have the correct motivations as well. This might allow a person to not be considered immoral even though they have broken a moral rule. That is, as long as they were motivated to adhere to some correct moral duty (and presumably made an honest mistake).

Nevertheless, a correct motivation alone is never a justification for an action in a deontological moral system. It cannot be used as a basis for describing an action as morally correct. It is also not enough to simply believe that something is the correct duty to follow.

Duties and obligations must be determined objectively and absolutely, not subjectively. There is no room in deontological systems of subjective feelings. On the contrary, most adherents condemn subjectivism and relativism in all their forms.

The Science of Duty

Perhaps the most significant thing to understand about deontology is that their moral principles are completely separated from any consequences which following those principles might have. Thus, if you have a moral duty not to lie, then lying is always wrong — even if that results in harm to others. For example, you would be acting immorally if you lied to Nazis about where Jews were hiding.

The word deontology comes from the Greek roots deon, which means duty, and logos, which means science. Thus, deontology is the "science of duty."

Key questions which deontological ethical systems ask include:

  • What is my moral duty?
  • What are my moral obligations?
  • How do I weigh one moral duty against another?

Types of Deontological Ethics

Some examples of deontological ethical theories are:

  • Divine Command - The most common forms of deontological moral theories are those which derive their set of moral obligations from a god. According to many Christians, for example, an action is morally correct whenever it is in agreement with the rules and duties established by God.
  • Duty Theories - An action is morally right if it is in accord with some list of duties and obligations.
  • Rights Theories - An action is morally right if it adequately respects the rights of all humans (or at least all members of society). This is also sometimes referred to as Libertarianism, the that people should be legally free to do whatever they wish so long as their actions do not encroach upon the rights of others.
  • Contractarianism - An action is morally right if it is in accordance with the rules that rational moral agents would agree to observe upon entering into a social relationship (contract) for mutual benefit. This is also sometimes referred to as Contractualism.
  • Monistic Deontology - An action is morally right if it agrees with some single deontological principle which guides all other subsidiary principles.

    Conflicting Moral Duties

    A common criticism of deontological moral systems is that they provide no clear way to resolve conflicts between moral duties. A deontological moral system should include both a moral duty not to lie and one to keep others from harm, for example.

    In the above situation involving Nazis and Jews, how is a person to choose between those two moral duties? A popular response to this is to simply choose the "lesser of two evils." However, that means relying on knowing which of the two has the least evil consequences. Therefore, the moral choice is being made on a consequentialist rather than a deontological basis.

    Some critics argue that deontological moral systems are, in fact, consequentialist moral systems in disguise.

    According to this argument, duties, and obligations set forth in deontological systems are actually those actions which have been demonstrated over long periods of time to have the best consequences. Eventually, they become enshrined in custom and law. People stop giving them or their consequences much thought — they are simply assumed to be correct. Deontological ethics are thus ethics where the reasons for particular duties have been forgotten, even if things have completely changed.

    Questioning Moral Duties

    A second criticism is that deontological moral systems do not readily allow for gray areas where the morality of an action is questionable. They are, rather, systems which are based upon absolutes — absolute principles and absolute conclusions.

    In real life, however, moral questions often involve gray areas rather than absolute black and white choices. We typically have conflicting duties, interests, and issues that make things difficult.

    Which Morals to Follow?

    Another common criticism is the question of just which duties qualify as those which we should follow, regardless of the consequences.

    Duties which might have been valid in the 18th century are not necessarily valid now. Yet, who is to say which ones should be abandoned and which are still valid? And if any are to be abandoned, how can we say that they really were moral duties back in the 18th century?

    If these were duties created by God, how can they possibly stop being duties today? Many attempts to develop deontological systems focus on explaining how and why certain duties are valid at any time or at all times and how we can know that.

    Religious believers are often in the difficult position. They try to explain how believers of the past correctly treated certain duties as objective, absolute ethical requirements created by God, but today they are not. Today we have different absolute, objective ethical requirements created by God.

    These are all reasons why irreligious atheists rarely subscribe to deontological ethical systems. Though it cannot be denied that such systems may at times have valid ethical insights to offer.