We often conclude that something is good or bad simply because it is morally correct or wrong. Mostly based on societal or religious norms, our sense of attributing moral acceptance to certain actions is an exciting field of study in moral philosophy. Deontology is one such moral theory concerning ethics.
Nothing in the world-indeed nothing even beyond the world-can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.
How do you judge a person, an action, an event, or a mistake? Depends, right? OK. How do you judge a burglary, a murder, a betrayal, a hoax, or a lie? Of course, as an immoral act, or something very WRONG. And, how would you judge some acts of kindness, philanthropy, monetary help, donations, etc. Naturally to be something very moral, or very RIGHT.
Alright, so how did we come to these conclusions of right and wrong so easily, without even asking for any details. Why do we feel that we know something is right or something is just plain wrong? And, more interestingly, humans do not have the same conceptions of right and wrong the world over. Let us try to figure out how we judge our actions, which is also the focus of deontology.
What is Deontology?
The term ‘deontology’ originates from the Greek words of ‘deon’, meaning duty, and ‘logos’, meaning science or the study of. A normative theory in moral philosophy, it became prominent after being put forth by the renowned philosopher, Immanuel Kant, in 1788. This moral theory deals with the rightness and wrongness of actions, which are decided upon by adhering to given moral rules and duties.
Examples of Deontology
Deontology does not always, in fact, almost never, equates the ‘right’ with the ‘good’. Because an act served the purpose successfully does not make it ethically right. Hence, lying is considered wrong, even if it is to benefit or bring about better consequences. Here are some simple day-to-day instances of how certain moral rules, or principles, affect judgment.
Suppose a man is drunk, and while driving back home, he crashes into a parked car in his neighborhood. Here, according to deontology, the action of drunk-driving itself is wrong, and not just the resultant damage to the car.
Several acts, including some rituals, are followed by people universally, because they are believed to be divine commandments. Something that is forbidden in a religion (interpreted as forbidden by God) would thus turn out to be completely wrong and immoral. Good or bad is not the concern, but its rightness is. Also, certain religious traditions are based on deontology.
Some acts can be classified under the umbrella of duty-based ethics. There are many people who just have to be perfect in their work. Give them any task, and they would obediently execute it in the best manner possible. Even you must have heard people say, “because at the end of the day, what is important is doing your duty”. This explains the innate sense of rightness that individuals have.
Moral Dilemma: Let us assume that you are driving a train with no brakes. There is enough fuel to keep the train going for the next 20 miles. You can see, on the railway track ahead, there are five people tied to the tracks. All you can do is to change the lever and go onto the adjoining track. Before you are to redirect the train, you see that there is one man tied to this adjoining track too. So, you have to either change the track, kill one person, and save the five innocent lives, or let all the five die. What number would you choose to save, and would it be a decision of numbers at all?
In this case, many usually answer in favor of redirecting the train to the adjoining track. However, in a similar case, where a surgeon, on killing a healthy person, can transplant the organs from his body to five patients on their death bed, most respondents condemn such action.
Interestingly, the reason behind different responses is that, in the case of organ transplant, the healthy person’s body will have to be used to save others. The five dying patients cannot otherwise be saved. But in the case of diverting the train, those five people can be saved anyway, even without that one person being tied to the track; he is not used to save them. This approach falls under the ‘patient-centered’ deontological theories.
In Business: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”
These are the thoughts of Kant on humanity. Consider that a child steals a toy from his friend. This shows that the child is using the friend (treating him only as a means), which is immoral. If the child asks his friend for the toy, it shows respect for the friend’s right to deny, and this ensures the child is treating him as an end, and not as a means.
Similarly, in professional life, it is not utterly wrong to be using people as means in the literal sense of the term, as for example, getting a cab to reach the airport. However, the use should not be ‘only as a means’. Industrial owners working up their labor too hard in inhumane conditions, and at very low wages, therefore, becomes immoral.
Nursing: Restraining older people for their safety is a common practice. However, not using restraint as a tool, and coming up with other measures for their safety is a welcome change a nursing community brought about. As they did not want to forcefully restrain the old against their will, they exemplified an ethical act, where their intentions determined the morality of their action.
Abortion: Ethics to medical science, today, has become more important than ever. It is particularly referred to as bioethics, which relates to several ethical issues arising from advancements in biology and medicine. It is observed that arguments against abortion are seen to be relying upon the deontological theory. Abortion is advocated by consequentialist thought, which focuses on the end or goal of the act, unlike deontology.
A major drawback of the theory of deontology is that, it simply ignores the outcomes or consequences of an action. The resultant from an action might be quite significant in determining the morality of that act. There is a popular example relating to this drawback of deontological ethics. If someone tells a lie to a would-be murderer about the direction a potential victim went in, his act of lying is considered to be immoral, irrespective of the fact that it saved a life.