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.
Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals:
A very interesting post, thank you.
I post a lot of my articles in the category of deontology, which I understand as the logic of that which should be done. I think any ethical standpoint is basically deontological and, especially in ecological and poverty issues, deontological thinking is sadly needed to protect an endangered environment. Anarchy needs a strong moral code to hold it together, as does liberalism if it is to do any good. On a political level our liberal-capitalist system is not based on individuals making good decisions for humanity, but on individuals with money promoting profit making decisions for themselves. They have little regard to what should be done to make a better world. Deontology doesn’t have to be any more stubborn in its application as any other logical disciplline, and it isn’t deontological thinking that necessarily creates unbendable dogma, any more than nihilism and liberalism must necessarily create sound and humanitarian judgements.
Thank you for your thoughts on this.
I think it is possible to do things like environmental protection without relying so heavily upon deontological ethics. A consequentialist rather than deontological attitude toward environmental protection might be one of “if the conseqeunces of polluting in X way are negative, and potentially far more harmful than any positive gains, it is not reasonable or ethical to pollute in X way”. I think such an argument would have as much if not more moral force than an argument proposing that we do not pollute because pollution is always wrong. I agree that there is nonetheless going to be some level of deontology–in any workable system, a government or public authority of some kind must reach a decision and issue a rule or a law to the respective interested parties. It is possible, however, for that government to base its laws and rules on an analysis of outcomes rather than on fixed, immutable principles based on tradition or social convention, and it is on that basis that I criticise deontology.
Obviously within our capitalist system the Categorical Imperative has to be rejected. Nevertheless it is not.
First formulation: The principle upon which one acts should also be capable of becoming a universal law… The capitalists say, “We want to make money, and therefore believe that everyone should want to make money.” And the system rejects those who have other aims foreign to the mere acquisition of money. But capitalism doesn’t just stop there, it also instigates the universal laws for the global economy and dictates its deontological dogma through the IMF.
Second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: One should treat humanity in oneself and others, never simply as means but also as ends. One should never simply use people… which of course is the opposite of what capitalist dogma teaches, and is therefore a deontology that capitalism rejects for the deontology of its direct opposite.
Third formulation: we should treat others as autonomous and self-determining agents and thereby respect their autonomy and freedom.
What a horrible idea for capitalism.
Indeed, while there is some flexibility on the first formulation in that a person can select a mode of employment that offers say, less income in favour of more leisure time or the opportunity to do more fulfilling work in some capacity or other, there still remains no credible alternative to the life of work and labour to provide people an alternative to the pursuit of capital. The welfare state seemed to be developing in an ameliorative direction, but the requirements imposed in many countries over the last couple decades requiring that recipients demonstrate pursuit of capital via pursuit of employment has undermined that alternative to what becomes in effect wage slavery. We have some freedom to select the kind of wage slavery we engage in, but there is no credible alternative entirely.
[…] because it is illegal, not because of any negative consequences resulting from it–quite deontological. I find the distinction arbitrary and […]
Are you going to actually tell me that killing an innocent person when it isn’t necessary is not always wrong? Your semantics are too narrow and non-specific. Of course killing per se is not always wrong, I think that goes without saying. But by narrowing your semantics, you’re pigeon-holing deontology into a hole it cannot even attempt to dig itself out from.
Also, a person flicking the switch to save 50 people but killing 1 does not mean that person has comitted a murder.
Definition of murder: The killing of another person without justification or excuse, especially the crime of killing a person with malice aforethought or with recklessness manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.
The agent in this situation clearly would not be charged with murder. He/she would be a killer, sure, but also a life saver and definitely not a murderer. Based on the proper definition of murder, it’s pretty clear that murder is intrinsically wrong regardless of the consequences. Killing someone, on the other hand, is morally right within a very specific context. For instance, necessarily killing a Nazi in order to save an innocent Jew. Deontology is based on duties indeed, and highest among those duties is to defend innocent life. A strict absolutist deontology is not held by most deontologists, such a deontology would prohibit even telling a lie to save an innocent life. But a liberal deontology would clearly allow telling lies to save an innocent life, but it wouldn’t even consider the notion that murdering of innocents when unnecessary is NOT always wrong, or that raping children for fun is NOT always wrong. Clearly they are.
I take it you’re a consequentialist, which is just as shaky a normative theory as your straw man deontology. It’s a theory that would allow a cheating wife to have her abusive husband killed, because it would lead to positive consequences for her and her children. No more abuse, they can live without fear. Even if a few people were hurt by his loss, it would be grossly outweighed by the many people who undoubtedly hated him. So long as the wife and killer don’t get caught, only their getting caught would make their act morally wrong because negative consequences would then creep up. So killing a bad person without getting caught is morally justifiable? And it’s only wrong if you don’t cover your tracks? That’s pretty wacked if you ask me.
Kant went on record claiming that he opposed lying even if it were for the purpose of saving a life. Kant is the most famous and important deontologist–it is bit strange to accuse me of attacking a straw man when Kant himself held these views:
Click to access Kant.pdf
It is the consequentialism you describe that is the straw man account as I see it–your account only considers act consequentialism (not rule or two-level), and it considers act consequentialism only in a very narrow, short-term sense, in which larger possible consequences are ignored so as to make the theory appear ridiculous. For instance, in the case of the wife, there are a wide array of negative consequences of permitting the wife to take morality into her own hands and murder the husband. For instance, it would be difficult to prove that society was better off without the husband. If the law permitted people to make this determination for themselves, they would often make mistakes about this, increasing the number of wrongful murders and creating a climate of fear. That said, a consequentialist does not rule out the possibility that these negative consequences could in some rare circumstances be overcome, and in those scenarios a consequentialist tries to make space for the exceptional action rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater (perhaps by defining a category of “justifiable homicide” granting killers protection from murder charges in certain very specific kinds of situations).
In answer to your assertion of the possibility of a less radical form of deontology, a deontologist who bends the definition of murder to exclude “justified” killing must now explain what makes a killing justified if it is not the consequences of that killing. I submit to you that there is nothing else that can make a killing justified and that any deontologist who sees a distinction between murder and justified killing is not a deontologist, because this person judges the act of killing not by anything intrinsic to killing but by the consequences of the act in a specific context. This sort of argument plays word games to create illusions, changing the definition of deontology until it is indistinguishable from consequentialism and then proceeding to straw man consequentialism.
With all due respect to Immanuel Kant, his strain of deontological ethics needs to be abandoned. You can have a duty-based theory without being so strictly absolutist. I would recommend reading the works of W.D. Ross, who I believe to be the greatest deontologist. A modern proponent of this strain of deontology whose works I recommend is Robert Audi. I’d also recommend Frances Kamm’s work. From now on when I use the terms “deontology” and “deontologist” I am not referring to Kantian deontology.
It’s not so much rule consequentialism that bothers me, but act consequentialism. Although rule consequentialism still has contingency at its core, and I believe that some acts are necessarily wrong rather than contingently wrong. Rule consequentialism is essentially a middle ground between act consequentialism and deontology, rule-based but rules are determined by consequences. My attack on a straw man consequentialism was deliberate, to illustrate a point that attacking the most historically popular variant within a normative theory isn’t the way to go. We need to contend with the modern variants held by current philosophers.
Moving on to the subject of murder and killing. Myself and most modern deontologists believe that murder (killing of another person without justification or excuse, especially the crime of killing a person with malice aforethought or with recklessness manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life) is always wrong. We also believe that murder is the greatest wrong, and our most important duty is to prevent it. Yes we have a duty to be honest and tell to truth, but that duty is trumped by the duty to prevent murder. If lying to save a life were wrong, then that would mean the duty to be honest supersedes the duty to prevent murder. That is incredibly counter-intuitive and cuts against the values that ground our obligations.
I don’t believe that a sniper killing a terrorist with a bomb strapped to his chest before he can detonate it is unjustified. I think it’s incredibly justified, because the sniper is preventing the very act that we deontologists deplore: murder. This, I believe, is the one and only context in which killing should be permitted; to save lives.
We’re often labelled as not caring about consequences, which is incredibly misguided. One popular criticism is that we leave open the possibility that we won’t do the right thing when incredibly negative consequences will result. We’re very concerned about consequences, but just the ones that are tethered to acts. Acts are carried out as a result of other acts that are carried out, and we need not lose sight of that. The acts that we don’t approve of, we don’t approve of because of the types of acts that they are, not because of their consequences. If telling the truth to someone makes them merely furious, so be it. But if it makes them attempt suicide or so angry that they go out and run someone over? I’ll have to lie, to fulfill my duty of protecting life. Consequences matter because within them there are acts, but they’re not be-all and end-all, acts are. And it is our duty to prevent the worst acts from being carried out.
I have to press the consequentialist by asking, what is it about murder that makes it wrong? The difference between the theories is this: the act consequentalist sees murder as wrong only if (and because) it has negative consequences, the rule consequentialist sees murder as wrong only if (and because) it violates a rule that when generally accepted leads to positive consequences, and the deontologist sees murder as wrong because it’s a heinous act that rejects our intrinsic value.
I don’t accept the premise that life has intrinsic value. I think life has instrumental value provided that living beings derive pleasure from being alive, but I see no reason to value life in itself. For surely life has some purpose, and it is the fulfillment of the purpose of life that gives life value? This would be so whether you think the purpose of life is to derive pleasure from it or to exercise autonomy or what have you. To speak of life as having intrinsic value distinct from any other criteria makes it impossible to distinguish what makes one life more or less valuable than another. Moral philosophers should have a theory of what kinds of lives are worth living and what their relative value are, and any such theory will necessarily include further evaluative criteria.
Personally, I don’t think preventing murder is the only legitimate justification for killing. Sometimes it is necessary to kill to defend the utility of living, perhaps by protecting oneself or others from exploitation, enslavement, or other such things. I do not think life is valuable if it is nasty and brutish and I think one is justified in killing if doing so improves the quality of the lives of others more than it diminishes the quality of the lives of those killed and those who care about those who have been killed. If you respond by broadening your definition of “justified killing” to include all the kinds of killing that promote good consequences, it will not be meaningfully distinguishable from consequentialism. So to maintain deontology distinct from consequentialism one must necessarily oppose killing in cases where it is overwhelmingly clear that nearly everyone will be much better off and being able to offer an effective defense of doing so. I have not seen this done by anyone, nor do I think it possible.
Perhaps read some more into Eastern Philosophy or its Western analogues. Camus and Gandhi are good places to start , and would provide you some well-reasoned and compelling arguments for the intrinsic value of life (there are obviously more obscure, “academic” resources for these sorts of arguments, so apologies if you’ve already read the big names).
I find it rather strange that your stated purpose is “to make the world a better place,” while you have such dogmatic and overtly institutionalized views regarding violence and death. Especially ironic in the context of this post specifically,where you dismiss Deontology as too easily influenced by the norms of overarching structures.
In any event, I found the post compelling, and I do not intend this response to be merely disputatious (though it may seem otherwise).
I’ve read many arguments for the intrinsic value of life, but I’ve never found them convincing. It seems to me that there are certainly cases (albeit rare cases) in which violence and death can be used to bring about net positive consequences.
I didn’t read through the comments, so this may have already been said, but, in case not, I’d like to point out that Kant’s deontological moral theory doesn’t appeal to the authority of a book or leader, but to the authority of reason itself.
Generally speaking, “murder is wrong” because to murder a person is to forcibly strip them of their free will. Given that you’re exercising your free will (in killing them), you clearly don’t want your free will forcibly stripped from you, and therefore the principle on which you acted is contradictory (if posed as a universal law of nature).
This presupposes that a rational being would never want to be murdered, and this is appropriate because a perfectly rational being wouldn’t act in such a way that that being would wish for self-harm as punishment. It just wouldn’t occur.
However, we aren’t perfectly rational beings, and murder doesn’t occur in a vacuum – and there are imaginable situations in which i would want someone to murder me.