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What makes an action right or wrong? Do the consequences of your actions matter?  Is it allowable to act morally wrong, yet achieving good consequences? Are there situations where it is okay to against what human nature deems right or wrong?  Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, addressed these questions in his deontological ethics theory.

Deontology is a style of ethics. Ethics is hard to describe because it differs from one person to another. It is the established standards of right and wrong that explain what human beings should or should not do in a society. What society may deem wrong, could become right to an individual in certain situations. As a member of the community, humans have certain rights and benefits.

According to Kent, ethics is based on one’s duty that is defined by right and wrong. Right and wrong are deontological categories, whereas good and evil are value categories.

What is Deontology Theory in Ethics?

Deontology is derived from the Greek word deon, which means duty or obligation and logos, which means study or speaking. Deontology may, therefore, be described as obligation-based ethics or duty-based ethics.

Deontology is the moral view of an individual about rules and exclusions for an action. Deontology Ethics highlights the right or wrong of action and not how right or wrong the consequences of the activities are, which is consequentialism. It also does not focus on virtue ethics, which is the habit or character of the person acting.

The focus is, therefore, on the moral law’s rules that allow and prohibit the action which is independent of the consequences or intention.

An interesting outcome of deontological ethics is the separation between cognitive and conative state. A person may believe that a particular action has good consequences or bad results. The fact that they know it is bad or evil does not mean they intend to do evil when acting out those actions. In other words, beliefs and intentions are separate from each other. Due to their situation, the person is prepared to accept the bad consequences derived from their actions. The individual is obligated to act to fulfill their duty, even though they know it is wrong; they focus on their duty and not on the effect it has on another person.

What Are Some Examples of Deontology Ethics?

For example, parents must look after their children, including food to eat, clothes to wear, and safe shelter. The parent knows it is against the law to steal and that they will be punished if caught stealing. However, if their family is starving, their obligation to look after their family overrides the moral law of not taking what doesn’t belong to you.

Another deontology ethics example would be the duty to protect their children. If someone breaks into their home to kidnap their child, they may shoot the kidnapper. They know that if they shoot, they may take a human life. To the parent, however, the duty is to protect what is theirs is crucial; they are not so concerned about the effect on others.

Deontologists may differ in the concepts they focus on. Justice, rights, and duties are universal for most deontological theories.

How does Deontology compare with Consequentialism and Utilitarianism?

All three theories are normative theories of morality. Deontological theory is a non-consequentialist ethics theory.

Whether the end justifies the means is the moral dilemma ethical theorists need to answer. They may all agree about the morality of the action (killing, stealing), and the morality of the person acting (murderer, thief), but they may differ about the morality of the outcome.

Although Machiavelli’s quote, “Si guarda al fine,” is widely interpreted as “the end justifies the means,” a better translation is “pay attention to the result.”

Consequentialism Ethics

Consequentialism focus on the outcome or consequence of the actions. The effects of a person’s actions judge if it was right or wrong. The result justifies the means are based on a consequentialism. If the outcome is good, how one achieved the outcome is not that important. In other words, in the end, the outcome always justifies the means.

For example, if stealing food feeds your starving family, a consequentialist would say it is the right thing to do. If shooting an intruder protects your family, killing that person justifies the means.

Utilitarianism and hedonism are both types of consequentialist moral theories. Utilitarianism, however, specifies the desired outcome, whereas consequentialism does not.

Utilitarianism Ethics

Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, theoretical jurist, and economist, was the founder of modern utilitarianism. His ethical theory was based on the intentions of human actions. If the activities endorsed happiness or pleasure for most people involved, the actions were deemed morally right. If the actions, however, contributed to unhappiness and pain, the actions were morally wrong.  People’s actions are therefore judged to the extent to which they decreased or increased the well-being of a human being.

The action and outcome are not measured separately, as in Kant’s Deontology. Decisions are based on what benefits the majority, whereas deontological ethics identifies with one’s duty, and the person acts accordingly.

Utilitarianism says you should achieve happiness by considering all sides for the good if you take the examples of stealing food to feed your family or killing an intruder to protect your loved ones. Therefore, you should find the solution for feeding or protecting your family while not destroying the intruder or taking the livelihood from the baker.

Deontology Ethics

Deontological theories are the opposite of consequentialism. Immanuel Kant and John Locke are, therefore, non-consequentialists. There are duties or objective obligations required of all people, e.g., feeding, or protecting your family. According to Kant’s Deontology, when one is faced with an ethical situation, your duty comes first; you identify what your duty is, and you decide to act accordingly.

Deontologist says you should steal the food or shoot to kill because you must feed or protect your family, and it is not your concern if the intruder dies. Neither is it your concern if the baker goes bankrupt or does not make enough profit to feed his family.

Who was Immanuel Kant, the Father of Modern Deontology?

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia (Kaliningrad, Russia today), near the Baltic Sea. He was one of the greatest philosophers and a foremost thinker of the Enlightenment. He was a German philosopher, and he greatly influenced modern philosophy with his comprehensive works in epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics.

His father was a saddler, and both parents were devout Pietists, an evangelical branch of the Lutheran Church. As the eldest surviving child, he obtained an education at the Pietist school, the Collegium Fridercianum. His adverse reaction to forced soul searching reflected later as an adult where Kant’s emphasis was on reason and autonomy.

Although he took courses in theology at the University of Königsberg, he was attracted to physics and mathematics. Kant’s favorite teacher, Martin Knutzen, was a Pietist, and he introduced Kant to the work of Isaac Newton.  Kant’s studies were interrupted by the death of his father.

He found work as a private tutor for three families. During that time, he completed his degree and published three dissertations. He took up the position of lecturer, and during the next 15 years, he became renowned as a writer and teacher. His lecturing was expanding to logic, moral philosophy, and metaphysics.

He became a declared follower of Newton and admired Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s moral philosophy. He went against and attacked Leibnizian and leading ideas at that time. In 1770 Kant became a professor in logic and metaphysics at the university.

Kant was a scholar and wrote multiple books on science, morality, and history. He published three books developing his deontological ethics theory. The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785 was his main work on the fundamental principle of morality. Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1788, was a fuller discussion of topics in moral philosophy. Metaphysics of Morals was published in 1797 the year after he retired from teaching.

In these books, Kant formulated deontological ethics in three ways.

  • Act only in such a way that you would want your actions to become a universal law, applicable to everyone in a similar situation.
  • Act in a way that you always treat humanity, not just as the means of action, but simultaneously as an end too.
  • Act as if you were a legislative member in a universal kingdom of ends. Therefore, your actions should correspond with such a kingdom if those laws were binding on everyone.

Immanuel Kant introduced modern deontological ethics with his theory of the Categorical Imperative. According to Kant, an imperative is any proposition that declares a particular action or inaction necessary.  A categorical imperative means an absolute requirement in all circumstances. An effort has moral value when one’s actions are motivated by duty or obligation. Therefore, it is an unconditional obligation or duty in all circumstances and situations, irrespective of the consequences or the individual’s will or desires.

What Types of Deontological Theories are There?

Agent-Centered Deontological Theories

According to agent-centered deontological theories, a person has obligations and permissions that give people agent-relative or objective reason to act. An agent-relative reason is for that one person and may or may not be an objective reason for other people. One person must act or not act in a situation; the duty or obligation may not necessarily support someone else’s desire to act accordingly.

For example, a parent is obligated to feed their children but has no such duty toward other children. Likewise, the parent may kill an intruder to protect their child from being kidnapped, but they aren’t obligated to protect someone else’s child in like manner.

Morality is, therefore, a personal issue. Agents are obliged to keep their agency moral correct; their moral concern is with their agency and is categorically required to keep their agency morally clean. They have no interest in how their actions may affect other people enable them to do wrong.

Patient-Centered Deontological Theories

Patient-centered deontological theories are not duty-based but rights-based. One example is the right to give consent before used to the benefit of the user or other people, for instance, a person’s talents or labor.

An example would be swerving to avoid killing five kids playing in the road but hitting a cyclist riding past. In this scenario, the five lives are saved without requiring the life of the cyclist. Even if the cyclist were not there, the driver could save the five people when swerving to avoid them. Five people benefitted without the consent of the cyclist. The opposing example is using a person’s organs without permission to save five other people. Again, five people are saved, but, in this example, it is at the cost of the first person.

In these scenarios, the patient-centered Deontology does not permit taking the person’s life to save five people without the first giving their consent. Agent-centered Deontology, however, would allow the killing to save the five people if they must protect them.

See related: Blooms Taxonomy Verbs Chart

Contractarian Deontological Theories

According to contractarian deontological theories, morally wrong acts are forbidden in principle by that society of people. Deontology and other ethics theories do not clearly distinguish whether a contractual account is normative or metaethical. Set at an angle, to agent-centered and patient-centered Deontology, contractarian Deontology may coincide with the other two theories.

A first-order normative account may be deemed patient-centered Deontology. The primary duty would be to do to others only that which was consented. This calls up the age-old problem of whether consent is the first principle of morality. Metaethical contractualism does not necessarily lead to Deontology as the first order ethics.

What are the Strengths and Weakness of the Deontological Theories?

Strengths of Deontology

  • It creates the foundation for human conduct where actions can become a universal law because of its goodness.
  • It creates moral absolutes where people in society strive to be morally perfect.
  • The ethics create more personal responsibility where individuals act as if they are the lawgivers.
  • Deontology creates certainty because it is concerned with the ethics of the actions and do not have to wait to see the outcome.

Weakness of Deontology

One of the weaknesses of the deontological theories is the conflict between specific duties and individual rights. Ross’ prima facie duties may help solve this dilemma. Prima facie duties are a set of fundamental duties that people should base their conduct on. The seven primary duties are of promise-keeping, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and non-maleficence.

Other weaknesses are:

  • It is subjective, making it difficult to define right and wrong.
  • Deontology doesn’t include self-defense ideas.
  • It may be used for supernatural and religious excuses that do not benefit society.

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