How do you judge a person, an action, an event, or a mistake? Depends, right? OK. How do you judge a burglary, a murder, a betrayal, a hoax, or a lie? Of course, as an immoral act, or something very wrong and how would you judge some acts of kindness, philanthropy, monetary help, donations, etc. Naturally to be something very moral, or very RIGHT.
Alright, so how did we come to these conclusions of right and wrong so easily, without even asking for any details. Why do we feel that we know something is right or something is just plain wrong? And, more interestingly, humans do not have the same conceptions of right and wrong the world over.
Deontology is an ethical theory that uses rules to distinguish right from wrong. Deontological Ethics is an approach to Ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions or to the character and habits of the actor. Deontology holds that some actions are either right or wrong because of what they are. Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that ethical actions follow universal moral laws, such as “Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat.”
Deontology is easy to understand and simple to apply. It just requires that people follow the rules and play their part in doing what is right. Deontologists hold to moral rules that are binding, for instance, it is wrong to murder people, to take advantage of the weaker, and to lie. Essentially, one ought to prevent themselves from doing bad things and strive to do what is right. This approach tends to fit well with our natural intuition about what is or isn’t ethical.
Whether a situation is good or bad depends on whether the action that brought it about was right or wrong. What makes a choice “right” is its conformity with a moral norm: Right takes priority over Good. For example, if someone proposed to kill everyone currently living on land that could not support agriculture in order to bring about a world without starvation, a Deontologist would argue that this world without starvation was a bad state of affairs because of the way in which it was brought about.
A major proponent of this ethical theory was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who theorized that to act morally one was to do so from duty. Kant argued that consequences were not the deciding factor in moral decisions, rather it was an individual’s motives that carried the most weight. For Kant, one was to begin acting from duty with the highest good in mind. This action must be good in and of itself without qualification. Kant also argued that since humans are rational beings we can acknowledge that moral laws exist and that we ought to obey them. Such laws would be broad, apply to all humans, and even to other rational beings: “The supreme principle of morality would have an extremely wide scope: one that extended not only to all rational human beings but to any other rational beings who might exist – for example, God, angels, and intelligent extraterrestrials”.
Deontology does not always, in fact, almost never, equates the ‘right’ with the ‘good’. Because an act served the purpose successfully does not make it ethically right. Hence, lying is considered wrong, even if it is to benefit or bring about better consequences. Here are some simple day-to-day instances of how certain moral rules, or principles, affect judgment.
Suppose a man is drunk, and while driving back home, he crashes into a parked car in his neighbourhood. Here, according to deontology, the action of drunk-driving itself is wrong, and not just the resultant damage to the car.
Several acts, including some rituals, are followed by people universally, because they are believed to be divine commandments. Something that is forbidden in a religion (interpreted as forbidden by God) would thus turn out to be completely wrong and immoral. Good or bad is not the concern, but its rightness is. Also, certain religious traditions are based on deontology.
Quotes About Deontology
“Do what is right, though the world may perish.” (Latin Proverb)
This proverb is a favourite of deontologists. It’s a strong bone of disagreement with consequentialists, who would say that letting the world perish is the opposite of doing what’s right! But for deontologists, morality is not defined by consequences, so a good action may have disastrous results; but that doesn’t change the fact that it was the right thing to do. Consequentialists say that this is a dangerous philosophy because it allows people to justify horrible things, but deontologists reply that this is unlikely so long as the rules are true and just.
“Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” (Thomas A. Edison)
Thomas Edison was the inventor of the light bulb and numerous other devices (several of which may have been stolen from less famous inventors!) He lived in America at a time when there was intense interest in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Edison’s own ethical beliefs were heavily influenced by the Hindu / Buddhist concept of ahimsa, or non-violence; he believed that a commitment to do no harm to other living things could lead to a completely ethical code of behaviour.
Despite its strengths, rigidly following deontology can produce results that many people find unacceptable. For example, suppose you’re a software engineer and learn that a nuclear missile is about to launch that might start a war. You can hack the network and cancel the launch, but it’s against your professional code of ethics to break into any software system without permission. And, it’s a form of lying and cheating. Deontology advises not to violate this rule. However, in letting the missile launch, thousands of people will die.
So, following the rules makes deontology easy to apply. But it also means disregarding the possible consequences of our actions when determining what is right and what is wrong.
Nevertheless, like the other normative ethical theories, deontological ethics also has its strengths and weaknesses. It is good in the sense that it ascribes value to human life in terms of dignity, respect, and therefore provides a foundation for basic human rights. It further argues that specific actions are always immoral and ought to be prohibited independent of what the consequences may be. It also deals with an individual’s motives given that motive always a factor in a person’s moral decisions.
We often conclude that something is good or bad simply because of it is morally correct or wrong. Mostly based on societal or religious norms, our sense of attributing moral acceptance to certain actions is an exciting field of study in moral philosophy. Deontology is one such moral theory concerning ethics.