Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Deontology is a duty based ethical system. It is not necessarily concerned with the outcome of an action, but rather the duty to perform what is morally right. In some ways, it is the kind of Captain America type system where you do what’s right regardless of the outcome. The theory is completely devoid of pragmatism. Above the other ethical systems (virtue and teleology), it is an absolutist form of ethics; there can only be one morally right choice.
In some ways, there is a lot of appeal to deontology. Having only one morally right choice with no need to worry about the outcomes sounds freeing, right? But the theory is more complicated than that, and it lends itself to some major issues like what if people use their reason to come up with different moral “absolutes,” and what happens if a situation has conflicting moral duties? These were not major obstacles for Immanuel Kant, who is considered to be the strongest proponent of deontology.
Kant was an ethical rationalist who believed that humanity was capable of using reason alone to figure out what is universally right or wrong. At face value, this view seems harmless, but it was a major shift from the classical way of thinking. That is, his views make a subtle distinction that can easily go missed: reason alone. Unlike so many others that came before Kant, he did not believe that God needed to be a part of the equation in order to understand absolute truths. Reason alone can help any individual determine proper moral actions.
There were three assumptions that Kant made in order to develop his theory within deontology. First, there needs to be free will. The actions that are made by an individual cannot be deterministic, but there still needs to be some sort of constraint that causes an individual to consider moral actions. For Kant, it was our ability to use reason that helps a person have a moral obligation or duty to do what is right. The use of reason is critical here and differs greatly from other moral philosophers like David Hume (who believed that our passions motivate reason).
Second, moral decisions must be universally true. There is no middle ground or circumstantial answer for how to interpret moral actions. This is radically different from teleological ethics where the end result or consequences is the primary focus. This ability to understand right and wrong as a universal truth is borrowing on the other branch of deontological ethics known as natural law, or the belief in a universal law that is inherent to all humanity. St. Thomas Aquinas was the biggest proponent of natural law theory. He considered natural law to be a moral category within the theological doctrine of general revelation. These knowable theological truths (i.e., general revelation) are not contingent upon divine revelation, but are available to all.
Kant labeled universal morality as a categorical imperative. So not only was it universal, but humanity is morally obligated to act on these categorical imperatives. We as people have a duty to do what is right. This, in itself, is the justification for doing right moral actions regardless of the consequences. Considering the Enlightenment period marked a time within history were people were depending upon their own reason to justify their beliefs and understand the world, Kant’s views of deontology called people to the highest standard.
the Enlightenment period marked a time within history were people were depending upon their own reason to justify their beliefs and understand the world, Kant’s views of deontology called people to the highest standard.
God, for many of the Enlightenment thinkers, was no longer a part of the equation; the Bible was not authoritative. Though people recognize the good morals the Bible taught, without the belief in a divine law giver, teleological utilitarian views were generally the most popular. This troubled Kant since he believed these views did not teach true morality. Instead, they created more problems as the utility of a society was the most important standard. But utilitarianism gave no moral imperatives to a person; it merely focused on the needs of the many and, often times, this would result in the expense of the few.
Unchanging Moral Duties
Having a universal morality gave everyone a responsibility, which leads to the third Kantian assumption: moral duties cannot be changed by desires. Kant considered any moral obligation that is based upon a desire as a hypothetical imperative, that is, what you want is what leads you to moral action. A hypothetical imperative prescribes our behavior based upon our particular goal. For example, I want people to like me, so I will be nice. But Kant did not want a system where your desires influenced your morality because desires change and truth must be fixed in order to make sense of the world. Therefore, inherent goodness was the primary objective of Kant’s categorical imperatives.
Kant believed lying was wrong regardless of the circumstance; telling the truth was always obligated, but what happens when telling truth will cause harm?
However, Kant’s staunch belief in universal truths created some problems. Take lying, for instance, Kant believed lying was wrong regardless of the circumstance; telling the truth was always obligated, but what happens when telling truth will cause harm? Kantian formulated morals never offer exceptions to the rule, which means even if someone is confronted with the need to lie in order to protect the life of an innocent person, the duty to tell the truth prohibits telling a lie. This is a major problem within absolutist views of deontological systems. Even though Kant believed that absolutes were supposed to be derived from universal duty, and that all people should treat each other with this type of equality (borrowing from Jesus’ Golden rule), reality demonstrates that people cannot hold to this high standard. A Kantian ethic calls an individual to be good and hopes that there will be enough individuals that will make up a moral society, but this will never be the case.