July 25, 2014 by Benjamin Sylvester
Hear ye, Kantian fans! Hear my maxims! Deontological ethics, or the study of the nature of duty, is a form of normative ethics that stands almost directly opposite to consequentialism. Where consequentialism, like some forms of utilitarianism, relies on the outcome of an action being good and beneficial for the majority of people (or just individualistic benefits), deontological ethics argue that there are absolute moral codes and maxims that are true and universal.
There are obvious pitfalls when it comes to deontological ethics and philosophers try to defend themselves on issues like when innocent people die as a result of deontological ethics, which we’ll get to, but there are also some benefits to the majority of people who have other issues.
The more widely-used thought experiment is the maxim of telling the truth. In deontological ethics, telling the truth is always right and good, and lying is bad and wrong. That seems to make a lot of sense, until you put it into context.
Take, for instance, Germany, France, or Poland in 1939-45. Let’s say you are hiding Jews from the SS in your house. The SS comes to your house, and your friends hide. The German officers ask you, “Do you have any Jews in your household?” (Obviously, I’m simplifying things, for the sake of argument.) If you follow deontological ethics to absolutes, then you must tell the truth, since it is your duty to do good, even if it means innocent people die.
The consequentialist, on the other hand, will determine the risks and lie to the German officers in order to save the Jews in his house. One small wrong, in this case, will produce a greater and more moral outcome. Permissibility is a huge issue in deontological ethics.
Now, there are different forms of deontology. Some base their maxims on agency or victim-based deontology. The most important points of deontology, though, are that rules and general truths in a moral society should be upheld as part of one’s duty. Immanuel Kant delves much more deeply into this and is a good read if you have the stamina!
The good part about deontology is that for the most part, not killing innocent people and telling the truth are pretty good and moral things to do, and they don’t always collide like in the SS example. You can make some pretty good choices with deontology and it’s worth checking out in more detail. It’s your moral and ethical duty, however, to continue reading the rest of the Triangle. See you next time with more philosophy for the beach!