Moral Absolutism: The Detriments of Deontology

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to discuss deontological ethics, the notion that an act or behaviour is right or wrong in and of itself, irrespective of the consequences of that act. Deontological ethics are illiberal and come at the expense of free thought and human autonomy. Here’s why.

The classical example of deontological ethics is the Kantian deontology and its categorical imperative. Immanuel Kant believed that moral behaviour necessarily stemmed from duty, or adherence to rules. The categorical imperative is Kant’s core rule as to how people should behave ethically, and he felt it applied universally. The most famous formulation of this imperative comes from Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and reads as follows:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.

This means that any given action taken should only be taken if one agrees that it would be acceptable for any person to take the action in any circumstances without exception. For instance, if there’s a runaway train. The runaway train will, if it continues on its present course, kill fifty people. However, if I throw a switch and alter its course, the train will only kill one person. Under Kantian deontology, it is my duty not to throw the switch, because that would be murder, and unless I am willing to permit everyone to commit murder for any reason, I cannot commit murder just because I believe there to be special circumstances justifying that behaviour. For Kant, I am morally blameless for the deaths of the fifty other people, because intervening would have resulted in a violation of the categorical imperative, a rule that must universally be followed.

All deontological ethics eventually lead back to a rule. In the case of some religious ethics, for example, homosexuality is considered immoral. The reason for this is not anything specific about homosexuality that is bad for society, it rests simply on the notion that, in various religious texts, there is a rule against it. Some authoritarian governments and philosophies have historically been rather deontological–some Marxists attempt to evaluate right and wrong based on adherence to Karl Marx’s writings. In fascism and racism, the ethic is often deontological in nature. An example would be the logical formulation of the fascist notion that Jews should be exterminated:

  • Jews are bad
  • Why are Jews bad?
  • Because book X, leader Y, or law Z says so

There are particularly harsh examples to illustrate the principle. Let’s examine something more banal and seemingly acceptable, such as the notion that murder is immoral. Murder is felt by many people to be intrinsically wrong. Some people claim that murder is wrong because “it kills people” or “it violates other people’s rights”. These formulations are not deontological because they are based on an outcome, an outcome that could vary in exceptional circumstances, such as the train case, in which my killing one person will save the lives of fifty and likely produce a better outcome. For deontologists, murder is wrong because murder is wrong. Pressed for some basis for this belief, a deontologist will cite a rule–murder is wrong because book X or leader Y says so. This is no different in terms of its thought process than the sequence of thoughts that make homosexuality wrong, or being Jewish wrong, or failing to adhere to Marxist tenants wrong.  Sooner or later, in deontological ethics, an authority, usually a book, a leader, or a law, is appealed to. It is ethics via rules, and consequently it is ethics without critical thinking.

Deontological ethics result in black-white paradigms in which actions are either right or wrong in themselves because of the edicts of some book, organisation, leader, set of laws, and so on. They are comfortable and easy to believe in because they do not require critical thinking or scepticism. The consequences of these acts do not matter, mitigating circumstances do not matter, even the definition or meaning of what it is to do “good” does not matter, since that definition is received wisdom from the authority. No one does any thinking, one simply obeys. It is like a perpetual childhood, in which, whenever the child inquires as to why something must or must not be done, the answer is always “because I said so”. Millions of people all over the world freely submit themselves to deontological mindsets, they freely choose perpetual ethical childhood, because it is easy and it makes their lives simple. 

I believe these kinds of absolutist morals based on fixed rules create narrow-minded people, people who mindlessly carry on the traditional beliefs of parents, leaders, and other community authority figures without question, irrespective of changing circumstances, irrespective of whether or not said beliefs promote any “good” that they understand or agree with independently of the authority figure’s commands.  It is an ethical system for primitive, uneducated man, in need of outside moral guidance lest he become some kind of violent, marauding barbarian. It is not an ethical system for well-educated people in 21st century society, and it is certainly not an ethical system upon which our society should be structured. There will always be disagreement about what the “good” is for people not receiving their understanding of morality from an external authority, and it will always present difficult debates and hard decisions for societies, but those conversations and arguments are worth having, because they raise humanity to a higher intellectual plane and produce a higher degree of civilisation. 

Let each man formulate his own understanding of the good, let them argue among themselves, and let the one that produces the best consequences and best results for people and society as a whole triumph. Let us cast aside the intellectual idols that ensnare us in the circular logical of the deontologist.

Source List:

Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: