Revising Deontology Deontological Ethics A duty is a moral obligation that an agent has towards another person, such as the duty not to lie. In a broader sense, duties are simply actions that are morally mandatory. Medieval philosophers such as Aquinas argued that we have specific duties or obligations to avoid committing specific sins. Since sins such as theft are absolute, then our duty to avoid stealing is also absolute, irrespective of any good consequences that might arise from particular acts of theft. Traditionally absolute duties are of three sorts: Duties to God Duties to oneself and Duties to others Kantian Ethics Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) developed the idea that moral judgements are expressions of practical, as distinct from theoretical, reason. For Kant practical reason, or the `rational will', did not derive its principles of action by examples from the senses or from theoretical reason; it somehow finds its principles within its own rational nature. The ability to use practical reason to generate principles of conduct Kant calls `the autonomy of the will', and he sees it as constituting the dignity of a person. It is this conception of the autonomous will which is the main source of Kant’s ethics. Kant attempted to discover the rational principle that would stand as a categorical imperative grounding all other ethical judgments. The imperative would have to be categorical rather than hypothetical, or conditional, since true morality should not depend on our individual likes and dislikes or on our abilities and opportunities. These are historical "accidents;" any ultimate principle of ethics must transcend them. The Categorical Imperative Kant formulated the categorical imperative, in three ways. First formulation (Formula of Universal Law) says: "Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature." The second formulation (Formula of Humanity) says: "Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." The third formulation (Formula of Autonomy) is a synthesis of the first two. It says that we should so act that we may think of ourselves as legislating universal laws through our maxims, in a possible kingdom of reason. The first and third formulations illustrate the need for moral principles to be universalisable. The second formulation points to the radical distinction to be made between things and persons, and emphasizes the necessity of respect for persons. Universalisability The first and third formulations of the categorical imperative imply that if a maxim or rule governing our action is not capable of being universalized, then it is unacceptable. Note that universalisability is not the same as universality. Kant's point is not that we would all agree on some rule if it is moral. Instead, we must be able to will that it be made universal; the idea is very much like the golden rule --Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you cannot will that everyone follow the same rule, your rule is not a moral one. Respect The second version of the categorical imperative given above emphasizes respect for persons. Persons, unlike things, ought never to be merely used. Their value is never merely instrumental; they are ends in themselves. Of course, a person may be useful, but must always at the same time be treated with all the respect due to a person, i.e., also as an end. Kant's theory judges morality by examining the nature of actions and the will of agents rather than goals achieved. (Roughly, a deontological theory looks at inputs rather than outcomes.) It is therefore an intentionalist rather than a consequentialist theory. One reason for the shift away from consequences to duties is that, in spite of our best efforts, we cannot control the future. We are praised or blamed for actions within our control, and that includes our willing, not our achieving. This is not to say that Kant did not care about the outcomes of our actions – we all wish for good things. Rather Kant insisted that as far as the moral evaluation of our actions was concerned, consequences did not matter. Modern Deontology The last serious attempt to revive duty-based ethics is W.D. Ross's The Right and the Good (1930). Like his 17th and 18th century counterparts, Ross argues that our duties are "part of the fundamental nature of the universe." Ross believes that when we reflect on our actual moral convictions they reveal the following set of duties: Fidelity: the duty to keep promises Reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them Gratitude: the duty to thank those who help us Justice: the duty to recognize merit Beneficence: the duty to improve the conditions of others Self-improvement: the duty to improve our virtue and intelligence Nonmaleficence: the duty to not injure others Although some of these duties are the same as those of traditional dutybased ethics, such as beneficence and self-improvement, Ross does not include duties to God, self-preservation, or political duties. By appealing to our actual moral convictions, Ross attempts to address the problem of including principles that are not duties by our standards today. This list is not complete, Ross argues, but he believes that at least some of these are selfevidently true. He also addresses the problem of choosing between conflicting moral duties. For Ross, the above duties are prima facie (Latin for first appearance) insofar as we are under obligation unless a stronger duty shows up. If I am torn between two conflicting actions, such as preventing myself from starving or a neighbour from starving, I am under obligation to follow only the strongest of the two duties. Ross argues that there is no obvious priority among the principles, hence it will not necessarily be clear which is the stronger duty. To choose between conflicting duties, we must use our own insight on a case by case basis. For critics, the weakness in Ross's theory is that it rests too heavily on spontaneous moral intuition. We are given neither a definitive list of duties, nor a clear procedure for prioritising our duties. Thus, only an immediate moral intuition will tell us both our possible duties and our primary obligation in the situation at hand. Strengths Deontological ethics is strongest in many of the areas where utilitarianism is weakest. In an ethics of duty: the ends can never justify the means individual human rights are acknowledged and inviolable we need not consider the satisfaction of harmful desires in our moral deliberations. Weaknesses Kant's ethics pose two great problems that lead many to reject it: 1. Unlike the proportionality that comes out of the utility principle, the categorical imperative yields only absolutes . Actions either pass or fail with no allowance for a "gray area." Moreover, the rigid lines are often drawn in unlikely places. For example, lying is always wrong – even the "polite lie." 2. Moral dilemmas are created when duties come in conflict, and there is no mechanism for solving them. Utilitarianism permits a ready comparison of all actions, and if a set of alternatives have the same expected utility, they are equally good. Conflicting duties, however, may require that I perform logically or physically incompatible actions, and my failure to do any one is itself a moral wrong. 3. Another problem with traditional duty-based ethics involves the list of prescribed duties. What was self-evident in the 17th and 18th centuries seems less self-evident today. The existence and nature of God are more widely questioned now, hence it is speculation to claim that we have a set of duties toward God. 4. Advocates of personal liberty question the traditional duties to ourselves. For example, the right to suicide is now widely defended, and the right to self-rule implies that I can let my faculties and abilities deteriorate if I so choose. 5. Many of the traditional duties to others have also been under fire. Defenders of personal liberty question our duties of benevolence, such as charity, and political duties, such as public spirit. For some, the traditional list of self-evident duties needs to be reduced to one: the duty to not harm others.
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