Deontology – Duty-Based Ethics (Kant)

One of the most influential ethical frameworks, deontology is focused on binding rules, obligation and duty (to family, country, church, etc.), not results or consequences.[1]

The term deontology comes from the Greek deon, “duty,” and logos, “science.”

Contributors

  • Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), German philosopher

Key Concepts

Deontologists first consider what actions are considered “right” and proceed from there.  This is in contrast to utilitarians who start by considering what things are good, and identify ‘right’ actions as the ones that produce the maximum of those good things.

What is my duty?

We may have a duty to our family, our country, or workplace, our religion.

“It is my duty to …”

Example: Do what my manager instructs me to do, even if I don’t want to do it or don’t agree. It is my duty to respect authority figures.

An act that may be considered wrong in and of itself, such as killing — could be considered appropriate in a deontology-based perspective if it is toward a duty.  For instance, if there were a home invader threatening where you live, killing him or her in order to protect your family could be deemed right.

Strengths and advantages to this approach

There are various advantages to this kind of duty-based approach.

  • No need for lengthy consideration of possible consequences
  • Deals with intentions and motives
  • Provides human dignity and intrinsic value 

Weaknesses and criticisms to this approach

  • Not as interested in effects of actions; therefore, there could be a reduction in the overall happiness of the world
  • Difficult to handle conflicting duties

Additional Resources and References

Resources

  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  https://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/

References

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/duty_1.shtml

Utilitarianism (Consequence-based Ethics)

One of the most influential ethical frameworksutilitarianism is focused on consequences and results; the sole basis of morality is determined by its usefulness or utility.  The morally “correct” action is the one the produces the most good (or the most happiness) and the least amount of suffering for the most people (pleasure over pain).[1].  

A distinction is made between act utilitarianism (one chooses an action based upon the probable consequences) or rule utilitarianism (adhering to rules that will maximize utility).

Contributors

  • Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), founder 
  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Bentham’s mentee, who popularized the term “utilitarianism”


Key Concepts

Act utilitarians place a focus on the effects of one’s individual actions (e.g. Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy), while rule utilitarians focus on the effects of types of actions (such as killing or stealing) and how to handle them in terms of rules and laws.

The greatest good for the greatest number

Unlike deontologists, utilitarians reject orders or commands given by religious or political leaders.  Instead, utilitarianism is considered a form of consequentialism because it is the results of individual actions, laws, or policies, etc. that determine whether something is right or wrong.  Proponents argue the choice that leads to the best overall results or maximized utility is best.

The ends justify the means

Utilitarianism can be thought of in terms of the saying, “the ends justify the means.”  In this way, the means are not as important as the end result.

Strengths and advantages to this approach

There are various advantages to this kind of approach.

  • Relatively straightforward to apply
  • Avoids requirement of prior beliefs; therefore possibly accepted across cultures and religions
  • Happiness and utility is the focus.

Weaknesses and criticisms to this approach

  • Uncertain to know fully the consequences of an action; consequences are unpredictable
  • Ignores duty
  • Ignores motives and personal integrity
  • Some argue that utilitarian-based approaches may not properly address concerns of justice for the minority population

Additional Resources and References

Resources

  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  https://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/

References

  1. Habibi, Don (2001). “Chapter 3, Mill’s Moral Philosophy”. John Stuart Mill and the Ethic of Human Growth. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. pp. 89–90, 112.