33 Deontology: Strengths & Weaknesses

Radford University, Radford University Core Handbook, https://lcubbison.pressbooks.com/

Recall that:

  • Deontology is a universal ethical theory that considers whether an action itself is right or wrong.
  • Deontologists argue that you can never know what the results will be so it doesn’t make sense to decide whether something is ethical based on outcomes. You can consider it the opposite of consequentialism and utilitarianism in many ways.
  • Deontologists live in world of moral rules: It is wrong to steal. It is right to keep promises.
  • Deontology is also concerned with intentions. If you intended good through your action, then the action is good, no matter what actually happened as a result.
  • Deontology encompasses two kinds of approaches: duty-based and rights-based.

What is duty-based ethics?

Duty-based ethics says that there are universal moral norms or rules, and it is essential that everyone follows them. If you’ve ever said, “I did it because it was the right thing to do,” then you’ve employed duty-based ethics.

Duty-based ethics maintains that you should follow an ethical code without considering the consequences of your actions. If an act is by its nature right, you should perform that act even if someone is harmed as a result. If an act is by its nature wrong, you should not perform that act even if someone might be helped. For example, if by definition stealing is wrong, you do not steal. If by definition lying is wrong, you do not lie.

When you think about duties, think about obligations that individuals must accept in order for society to work and be well. Your duties and obligations come from both your personal and professional lives. If you are a parent, you are obligated to take care of your children. If you see someone in distress, you have a duty as a human to try and help.

The duties themselves may be tied to professional roles, too. Teachers have a duty to grade students fairly; police officers have a duty to enforce the law; psychologists have a duty to respect the confidentiality of their patients. When you encounter codes of professional conduct—either written or unwritten—likely you are dealing with duty-based ethics.

What is rights-based ethics?

An outgrowth of duty-based ethics, rights-based ethics insists that you need to respect individual’s human rights and never treat people as a means to an end.

right is something you are entitled to. In terms of ethics, it is the treatment you should be able to expect from other people. For example, under most ethical codes, as a human you are entitled—have a right—to exist in safety.

Another way of stating this idea is that you have a right not be harmed by anyone. When the idea is put that way, it is apparent that duties and rights are closely related concepts. You have a right to exist in safety, which means that other people have a duty not to harm you.

Since duties and rights are so closely related, a version of a duty-based ethics can be created by identifying the rights that someone has a duty to respect.

Rights-based ethics are built upon four claims. Rights are

  • natural insofar as they are not invented or created by governments,”
  • universal insofar as they do not change from country to country,”
  • equal in the sense that rights are the same for all people, irrespective of gender, race, or handicap,” and
  • inalienable which means that I cannot hand over my rights to another person, such as by selling myself into slavery.” (Fieser, n.d.)

A noteworthy example of an argument grounded in rights-based ethics is found in the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson states that humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” By drawing attention to these rights, Jefferson provides the context for a lengthy list of the ways in which George III had not fulfilled his duty to uphold these rights.

Remember that deontology is a universal system, so that means any rights that you claim you also have to grant to all others. If you believe your family has a right to drinking water, then this means everyone in the world has that same right. If you believe that you have a right to marry the person you choose, then so does everyone else.

The Strengths of Deontology

As we discussed in utilitarianism, a flaw with consequentialist thinking is that we can never really know what the results of an action will be. History is full of examples of “unintended consequences.” For example, in an attempt to raise standards and accountability in public schools, high stakes testing became common. To ensure that the tests were taken seriously, school districts held teachers responsible for their students’ scores; teachers whose students did well would get raises, while those who did poorly could be fired. The proponents of this policy predicted that children’s learning would improve. It seemed to be working: in Atlanta; students were showing extraordinary gains in the yearly competency tests. Then an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that teachers and principals were correcting the answers provided by students. This scandal rocked the Atlanta school system and as of 2015, eleven teachers were convicted on racketeering charges. This certainly is not what the high-stakes testing supporters had thought would happen!

Because of such examples, deontologists disdain the uncertainty of consequentialist ethics. The future is unpredictable; we should only make judgments on things we are certain about. We know whether an action is inherently right or wrong as we’re doing it.

Another good point about deontology is its emphasis on the value of every human. While utilitarians consider everyone equal, it’s more of a numbers game. But a deontologist insists that you treat everyone with respect and give everyone the rights you expect to have yourself. It works against our tendency to be self-centered.

Finally, deontology gives credit for intentions and motivations. You may do something for the very best reasons and it could turn out negatively. Does that condemn your action as unethical? A deontologist would say no. Accidents happen, results are uncertain, and you can’t be held responsible for the future.

The Weaknesses of Duty and Rights-Based Ethic

Both duty and rights-based ethics are forms of universalism because they rely on principles that must be applied at all times to all people. Some people object that the universalism of duty and rights-based ethics make these theories too inflexible.

Both also rely on absolute principles regarding duties and rights. But there’s no definitive list recorded anywhere. One person might say parents have a right to spank their children, but others will disagree. In the case of duty-based ethics, people may object to the principle that people deciding on a course of action should ignore the circumstances in which they and other individuals find themselves. Duty ethics allows little room for context. In Les Misérables, was Jean Valjean wrong to steal bread to feed his starving sister’s children? Would it have been wrong to lie to a Gestapo officer asking where Jews were hidden or to slave-catchers in pursuit of runaways in the pre-war South? Some would say that the answers depend upon the circumstances and options available to us, rather than on it being the case that certain types of actions are always and necessarily wrong.

Duty-based ethics accepts as a principle that one should never use another person merely as a means to someone else’s ends. So it would never be justified to cause the death of one to save several. But is that action always wrong, as a duty ethicist would argue? Societies regularly sacrifice individuals. For example, people are drafted into armies and regularly sent into battle, even though it is certain that some of them will die. Is it ethical for a government to draft people and send them into harm’s way? Is this a case of treating a person as a means to an end?

We have seen that duty and rights-based ethics are ‘flip sides’ of the same coin. One theory emphasizes how people should behave toward each another; the other emphasizes that an individual should be confident that her human rights will be acknowledged and respected. So the above example could be rewritten from the perspective of the rights-based approach. A person has a right to be respected on her own account rather than treated as a means to an end, yet we see that societies regularly sacrifice their members. The universalism of rights-based ethics does not appear to allow for this societal choice.



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