The deontological theory of ethics I shall be looking at is the theory of Kantian deontology. Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Knigsberg where he spent the majority of his life lecturing on science and mathematics before expanding and teaching most areas of philosophy. Kant was dissatisfied with the Utilitarian stance on ethics and held that morality and happiness should be separated. He also disagreed with the use of consequences as a moral guide. He maintained that the correct motive of an action is duty – this fundamental difference is highlighted in the term deontology, deon being the Greek word for duty. This eliminates the motive of self interest in decision making and also rules out natural inclinations and makes Kantian deontology an absolute approach to ethics. In his book ‘Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals’ Kant argued if you act according to what is dutiful, according to Kant you would be exercising your good will which is the only intrinsic good, ‘A good will is not good because of what it accomplishes…it is good through its willingness alone, Good will shines forth like a precious jewel.’ Kant claimed that if you follow your duty, a good act in itself, then it would seem probable that good actions should follow. It is illogical to focus primarily on consequence when we cannot predict the future.
Kant went on to expand his theory by expressing that all human beings have access to reason. To define the term according to Kant, reason is an innate human ability to think independently of instinct, circumstance and preference and this is what separates us from the animal kingdom. As moral principles through reason are a priori, and as reason is accessible to everyone, then by using reason as a basis for dilemmas it should follow that everyone should arrive at the same course of action. In essence, he believed he had created an autonomous method of working out universal moral rules.
To clarify how we know which actions are good and which are not, Kant indicated two imperatives, the hypothetical imperative and the categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is a command which has to be carried out, namely moral duties, for example one must not lie. This command would be applicable to everyone, as Kant would believe that everyone could use reason to come to the same end. It also excludes self interest. Kant said that for a command to be a categorical command it must fulfil the following criteria. If you are to take an action, you must be willing for the said action to become a universal law of nature. In the above example if you wish to lie you must then be willing for everybody in the world to then be free to lie to you and to others. As creatures with reason we can see the flaw in this plan and as such would agree that it would be best to follow ones duty not to lie. One must also as in a way that you always treat everybody as an end in themselves and not as a means to an end, you have no right to exploit or enslave anyone for any purpose. The final maxim is ‘Act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends’
A hypothetical imperative, unlike the categorical is used as a means to an end and comes with an ‘if’ clause, an example being ‘you should exercise IF you wish to get fitter.’ If you are willing to reject getting fitter then there is no moral necessity for you to carry out the exercise.
Analyse and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of deontology
To determine whether or not Kant’s theory of deontology is effective and practical enough to use as an everyday working guide, I will assess the strengths and weaknesses and come to an educated conclusion.
The first strength of Kantian deontology is that it rises above the most prominent flaw of relative theories; such as utilitarianism and situation ethics, it does not require a prediction of an actions consequence it determining its morality. As the theory is based upon the moral absolute of doing your duty it makes decision-making clearer and should lead everyone to the same conclusion without the need for lengthy calculations. One can even use their reason to decide their action ahead of time.
However, there are those who will argue that there can never be moral absolutes. If the theory were to become universalised then different cultures and opinions will not be taken into account and new laws would be forced upon them, for example there are cultures where human sacrifice takes place. Kant would believe that to sacrifice human life would be to breach the duty of preserving life, but who are we to try and change the culture of those who have been living in the same way for thousands of years?
Another strength of deontology is the justice that is paramount to the theory. Again this corrects what many see as a flaw in theories like utilitarianism where punishing an innocent minority can be justified if it were to benefit the majority. The universal nature of the categorical imperative means scapegoats and hierarchies are eliminated and no ones life is dispensable, everyone has intrinsic value and equal worth.
On the other hand, in a situation where a terrorist has twelve hostages, yet is prepared to release ten if you choose two to be killed, deontology would prevent the lives of the ten being saved and all would be killed together. As such, despite the equality being perceived as a strength, it can be described as a weakness in others.
There is also support for using duty as the motive of an action. Some argue it is a concept that is understandable and easily universalised. It disregards self interest and natural inclinations and promotes that an action should be taken because simply, it is right to do so.
This however is strongly opposed as many argue that it does not allow for natural human compassion, kindness or sympathy as a genuine motive. It is inflexible and cold and goes against a lot of human nature.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of deontology though is that Kant does not allow for conflicting duties. For example, your duty tells you not to lie, but so is allowing someone to be injured by another. So what do you do if you can protect the victim by a simple lie? Modern philosopher W.D Ross tried to amend Kant’s theory so that the problem would take priorities into account. He argued that Kantian duties are not absolute but ‘prima facie’ duties that allow exceptions.
As such, duties are not conditional but can always be overridden by a more compelling duty, for example a firework hits a girl and her clothes catch fire. She would be seriously burned if you don’t put them out but the only liquid around is the milk on the doorstep of a house. Kant’s theory would have prevented you from stealing the milk, it goes against your duty, however Ross highlights that saving the girls life is a stronger duty – the one that at ‘first sight’ seems the more important. As such ‘never steal’ is a prima facie duty, something you must not do unless it is outweighed by another prima facie duty, like your duty to preserve life. Ross separates duties into six categories such as ‘do not harm others’, ‘to repay our benefactors’ and ‘to treat people as well as they deserve to be treated’ but left them open to an individual’s interpretation of importance, unfortunately this also leaves them open to manipulation and one can arrange the duties so that their preference is the action they take.
To conclude deontology in principle seems to be a useful method of making moral decisions, its certainly manages to overcome a few of the criticisms of utilitarianism. However, deontology still carries its own flaws. Kant tells us to do our duty, always, just because it is our duty and this will not be enough to convince the majority to change the way they act. The lack of human emotion also plays a major factor in my dismissal of deontology as a practical working theory of ethics in everyday society. But perhaps the main reason that deontology fails in my opinion is that Kant offers no advice for how to act when duties collide. W.D Ross’s contributions also fail to some degree; he does not outline what exactly is a prima facie duty nor places any value of importance on his unfinished list of duties so as mentioned above can be used to justify an action in the same way as the swine ethic in utilitarianism.