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Ethics: Where are you? part 9

July 2, 2010

Boss says that deontology is one of the most popular approaches to ethics because moral laws are based on duties in which we do not need to consider the consequences. I think deontology is popular because if everyone is acting on moral duties, and it is implied that the moral duties are all right, then no one would be hurting anyone else and would, at the same time, be fulfilling their duties. Deontology is also popular because the theory of duty-based morality is part of Confucianism, Hinduism, and other Western ethics (Boss, 2008, p. 311).

Confucius’s ethical theory “emphasizes our duties, as a member of a family and the community” (p. 314). Confucius’s ethical theory is deontological by its emphasis on duties, although it “emphasizes community responsibility over individual autonomy” (p. 354).

Kant’s ethical theory was founded on “why we ought to behave morally” and that morality is based on reason (p. 354). Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative is that the individual must “universalize moral maxims” and that one individual should not use another individual as a “means to an end” (p. 354). Kant’s notion of good will stems from the belief that only rational beings – humans – have moral worth. Rational beings are autonomous and “a person of good will acts out of an autonomous sense of duty” which comes from the ability to reason (p. 355).

The contemporary philosopher, Bok, outlined an ethical theory on lying in which it is okay to lie in certain circumstances. Bok states that “in some circumstances lying may be the only way to avert danger” (p. 335). Bok is acting as a deontologist because she knows that we have a duty not to lie, but she also feels that the consequences of lying or not lying should be considered. Bok has three criteria that should be used when deciding if a lie is justified or not and Ross has seven prima facie duties.

Prima facie duties are moral duties that are not absolute which means that there are exceptions to these duties and that they “may be overridden on occasion by stronger moral claims” (p. 355). Ross did not believe that moral duties could be absolute. Ross believed that good and right are two different things. We ought not to lie, but it may be right to lie “if lying seems the only way to save someone’s life” (p. 339).

The “duty” of justice refers to the equality of each individual. Distributive justice is the “fair distribution of benefits and burdens in a society” and requires impartiality, need, and merit (p. 345). Retributive justice refers to punishment for wrongdoing; it is not the same as revenge. It is the “most controversial moral duty” (p. 349).

In terms of “means” versus “ends,” utilitarianism and deontology are exact opposites of each other because in utilitarianism, morality is a means to an end, whereas in deontology moral duty is performed for duty’s sake. The ends do sometimes justify the means. How and why I do something may be more important than the results.

In deontology, moral law is an end in itself; consequences are not considered, but the right intention is important. Confucianism is concerned with our duties as members of society more than our individual duties and states that our moral duties can formulate public policy. The Analects of Confucius covers the importance of moral development, specifically wisdom, compassion, and courage. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative states that the consequences are not as important as acting on our moral duties. In Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics, Kant writes about good will, universal morals, the importance of rational thought, and the absoluteness of morals (no exceptions). When a person acts out of good will, the basis for action is the moral law itself and not the consequence of the action. Self-esteem is tied to good will in that as one strives to act on one’s moral duties for the sake of morality and not consequence, one’s self-esteem increases. Kant believes that we have a moral duty not to lie, without exception. Sissela Bok, on the other hand, believes that situations may arise in which – prima facie – lying is acceptable if it prevents a harmful situation. Prima facie deontology notes that moral dilemmas occur in which one must choose an action that causes the least harm. John Rawl’s theory of justice has its basis in the social contract between those in need and those who have what they need. Rawls believes that primary social goods should be distributed to those in need. Critiques of Kant’s deontology include that it is heavy on individual autonomy and does not consider sentiments.


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