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Deontology and Ethics: What is Deontology, Deontological Ethics?

Ethics as Obedience to Duty and God: Is Being Ethical just Being Obedient?


Street signs showing right and wrong options
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Deontological moral systems are characterized by a focus upon 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.

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. This might allow a person to not be considered immoral even though they have broken a moral rule, but only so long as they were motivated to adhere to some correct moral duty.

Nevertheless, a correct motivation alone is never a justification for an action in a deontological moral system and 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.

Perhaps the most significant thing to understand about deontological moral systems 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:

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 political philosophy that people should be legally free to do whatever they wish so long as their actions do not impinge 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.

Problems With Deontological Ethics

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, but in the above situation 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," but that means relying on which of the two has the least evil consequences and, 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 which 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 and 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.

A second criticism is that deontological moral systems do not readily allow for grey 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 more often involve grey areas than absolute black & white choices. We typically have conflicting duties, interests, and issues that make things difficult.

Another common criticism of deontological ethical theories is the question of just which duties qualify as those which we should all follow, regardless of the consequences. Duties which might have been valid in the 18th century are not necessarily valid now, but 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 of trying to explain what believers of the past treated certain duties as objective, absolute ethical requirements created by God but today they aren't — 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 can't be denied that they can at times have ethical insights to offer.

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