There are many philosophers who reject the entire teleological agenda by arguing that moral goodness has nothing to do with generating pleasure, happiness, and or consequences. Deontological theories are by definition duty-based. That is to say, that morality, according to deontologists, consists in the fulfillment of moral obligations, or duties. Duties, in the deontological tradition, are most often associated with obeying absolute moral rules. Hence, human beings are morally required to do (or not to do) certain acts in order to uphold a rule or law. The rightness or wrongness of a moral rule is determined independent of its consequences or how happiness or pleasure is distributed as a result of abiding by that rule, or not abiding by it.
It's not difficult to see why philosophers would be drawn to this position. In ordinary life, we often encounter situations where doing our duty toward others does not necessarily increase our pleasure or decrease pain. In early nineteenth-century America, many members of the anti-slavery movement argued that slavery was wrong, even if slaveholders and southern society in general, economically benefited from it. Suppose, also that the slaveholders were also able to condition the slaves to the point where they actually enjoyed living under slavery. From a teleological perspective, slavery might appear to be an ideal economic institution. Everybody is happy!
A deontologist, however, would argue that even if the American government conducted a detailed cost/benefit analysis of slavery and decided that it created more pleasure in society than pain, it would still be wrong. Therefore, deontologists believe that right and wrong have nothing to do with pleasure, pain, or consequences. Morality is based on whether acts conflict with timelessly universal moral rules or not, and the motivation behind those acts. An act is therefore, good if and only if it was performed out of a desire to do one's duty and obey a rule. In other words, act out of a good will. Hence, slavery is wrong, not because of its negative consequences, but because it violates an absolute moral rule. The problem here is: "How does one distinguish absolute moral rules from mere convention, prudence, or legality, without reference to the distribution of pleasure and pain?" In the Western tradition there have been two approaches to the establishment of deontological rules: divine command theory and Kantian theory.
Divine Command Theory states that the moral goodness of an act is based on religious authority. Hence, for many Christians, killing another human being is wrong simply because it violates the God's 6th commandment. In short, the rightness or wrongness of an act is based on the truthful pronouncements of an outside authority, that is to say, "It is wrong because God or one of God's designated spokespersons said it is wrong." Divine command theorists argue that moral rules are universal because all human beings were created by the same omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. There are several sources of religious authority: personal revelation (God personally tells you the rules), or the revelation of others (God personally tells someone else the rules and they pass them on to you). When we accept the authority of others from the distant past, moral rules are usually encapsulated in ancient sacred texts that allegedly were written under divine inspiration. Rational theological discourse, therefore usually focuses on whether a specific person or group, that interprets this God-given moral rule, speaks with legitimate religious authority. Sometimes, theologians even debate over the authenticity of the sacred texts and/or their meaning. Theologians might also inquire whether acts such as: killing in time of war, killing a fetus via abortion, or executing a convicted mass murderer are violations of "Thou shall not kill?" But they ordinarily don't calculate cost/benefit ratios.
Sometimes divine command theory relies on teleological considerations. For example, many religions also use the omniscient, omnipotent, and goodness of God as a means of rewarding compliance and punishing non-compliance. God rewards believers and punishes non-believers. Sometimes these positive or negative consequences are felt in this life, (in the form of good or bad fortune here on earth); sometimes the consequences are felt in a subsequent life (in heaven, or hell where either eternal reward or eternal punishment is administered by God.)
So even though many of us approach morality from the standpoint of divine command theory, we must recognize that the only possible basis for rational debate is over the actual meaning of the moral rule and authority that sanctions it. Moreover, religion's tendency to rely on the unquestioned authority of religious experts, often leads to unquestioned immoral behavior. In other words, religion does not, and must not, have a monopoly on morality. So beware of those that argue that morality is contingent upon religion and its institutions. If there is such a thing as morality apart from mere convention and prudence, then religion must ultimately be judged based on morality, and not the reverse. Historically, religion has been both a noble servant of morality and an evil purveyor of immorality.
The obvious puzzle here is that in the history of the human race, many religions teach their believers that the tenets of their own particular religion are universally true and everyone else's universally false. Historically, this has contributed to wars over religion and the seats of religious authority. Therefore, I don't believe that morality is contingent upon religion. In fact, I think religious beliefs can be judged based on morality. Yes, there are immoral religious tenets, and immoral religions. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that God would ever command us to kill or subjugate other humans. So there must be some way for us to know the rules of morality apart from the dictates of religious authority.
In the Western deontological tradition moral rules have also been derived, not only from divine command, but also from the so-called "facts" of human nature. The fundamental assumption here is that moral goodness can be somehow deduced from a set of descriptive, natural facts. This approach has always been attractive because, like divine command theory, it claims to provide an objective and universal foundation. Moral rules based on natural law, like the dictates of science, are portrayed as objective and existing independent of personal, social, or cultural beliefs. Natural law theory (or naturalism) is often invoked in support of divine command theory, secular humanism in the Western Enlightenment tradition, and even evolutionary biology.
The key here is to identify natural attributes that provide the basis for knowledge of moral goodness. We might argue, for example, that human beings are rational by nature and therefore any act that is performed after sufficient and effective reasoning is good. The assumption is that all rational persons will arrive at the same moral conclusions if only they reason properly. Moral disagreements, therefore, turn out to be a conflict between rational and irrational agents. For example, suppose I was to discuss the issue of slavery with a
slaveholder and attempt to convince that person to liberate his/her slaves. If we are both rational, eventually I should be able to convince that person that slavery is wrong. Then again, if I fail, I might decide that either: a.) I did not argue effectively. b.) The slave-holder is simply irrational, and therefore, unable to follow my rational argument. Convinced of my righteousness, I might decide to forcibly liberate his/her slaves. I might even decide that the irrational slaveholder is not a person worthy of moral consideration and simply kill him/her in the process.
Other natural law theorists say that all human beings naturally seek to possess private property and therefore any act that interferes with the pursuit or holding of property is wrong. So if you try to steal my guitar, you are violating the natural and moral law that states that I have a right to keep property that I own. The slaveholder might argue that my attempt to liberate his slaves violates his right to own private property. I might retort that slaves are not property but persons.
Finally, evolutionary biologists have sought to empirically identify the genetic characteristics that comprise human morality. Typically, they argue that moral behaviors such as kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, feelings of sympathy, and consolation are evolutionary traits that have contributed to human survival.
The basic problem with naturalism is determining which human behaviors or attributes are empirically consistent with our nature. Are human beings really naturally rational? Do we really naturally pursue private property? Are we natural hedonists? Suppose we are, in fact, all three. What happens when those natural impulses conflict? Is it not possible for me to irrationally pursue property or pleasure? What happens if my lifelong pursuit of private property interferes with my personal happiness? Even if we could establish an exhaustive list of natural human attributes, how would one go about deciding which ones can serve as the grounding for morality? After all, one might argue that human beings are also naturally selfish, xenophobic, erotic, sexist, and violent. Some philosophers have attempted to contrast natural acts with unnatural acts, arguing that human beings by reason of rationality, alone are capable of acting unnaturally. This line of argument is often linked to theological premises that blame our propensity to perform unnatural acts on the fact that God granted human beings freedom of the will. Unnatural acts, for example, might be attributed to our failure to subject our free will to other natural constraints such as reason or conscience. However, once we become engaged in the theological debate over freedom of the will, the prospects for arriving at a consensus on a specific moral issue becomes much less likely.
We might also argue that just because human beings are naturally prone to perform certain acts, it does not necessarily imply that those acts are morally good. That is, there may be a difference between a descriptive "is" and a prescriptive "ought." Philosophers call it the "is/ought gap." To confuse the two, they argue is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. For example, if it is true that human beings are, in fact, naturally selfish, does that fact necessarily imply that selfishness is morally good? If human beings are, in fact, naturally selfish, does that suggest that prescriptive egoism is true? Again, what happens when natural selfishness conflicts with other natural human attributes such as: our natural propensity to live in communities, or possess private property?
Despite its inherent vagaries moral philosophy probably cannot altogether avoid naturalism in the sense that we surely must take into account natural human behavior in deciding what we can reasonably expect in our treatment of one another. Indeed, the history of human moral codes testifies that it possible to conceive of absolutely binding moral rules, based on natural law, that ordinary individuals, because of their biological or social nature, simply cannot live up to. A moral rule is called superogative or idealistic if it calls for a level of moral turpitude beyond the reach of us ordinary individuals. Many philosophers argue, for example, that it is simply overly idealist to expect teenagers to refrain from engaging in sexual activity: its natural behavior. However, many deontologists would argue that, just because teenagers find sexual activity pleasurable and pre-marital celibacy to be difficult, if not impossible to live up to, that doesn't mean that the moral rules pertaining to pre-marital sex are invalid. The rule is right. It's their acts are simply wrong.
In the Western philosophy deontological ethical theory has been dominated by two alternative theories: divine command theory and Kantian theory. Immanuel Kant‟s major theoretical work, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, is probably representative of the most palatable form of secular deontology. It is also rooted in natural law theory.
First of all, Kant argued that morality is only possible in a community of beings that possess the natural attributes of rationality and free will. Thus, we cannot justly hold someone responsible for his/her actions unless that person is capable of knowing right from wrong; and unless that person is capable doing right and avoiding wrong. Knowing what‟s right or wrong is different from doing what‟s right or wrong. Kant is not sure whether or not human beings do, as a matter of fact, possess the attributes of rationality and free will, but he is certain that morality is impossible without those attributes. I think he‟s right. Attempts to reconstruct morality by avoiding rationality and/or free will are, at least in my view, woefully incoherent. But I digress…
Recall that deontological theories avoid both consequentialist reasoning and hedonism, in favor of a duty-based system of rules. Now Kant acknowledged that human beings do, as a matter of descriptive fact, pursue pleasurable consequences in their life. And he also observed the fact that, through personal and collective experience we can discover general rules that maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Recall my earlier discussion of rules of prudence: "Look both ways before you cross the street." It's certainly a valid prescription that you ought to follow. But just because you look both ways doesn't mean that you are a good person. Abeyance to the rules of prudence that govern the distribution of pain and pleasure has nothing to do with morality. Hence, Kant distinguishes between the rules that govern pleasure, which are relative to the tastes and inclinations of particular individuals; and the rules that govern morality.
Rules of prudence take the form of hypothetical imperatives. If A then B: "If you like chocolate ice cream, go to Graeters and buy it." Moral rules, however, are not contingent upon our individual interests, wants, or taste. The hallmark of Kantian morality is its alleged universality. But how does one go about identifying these universal rules of morality? Well, Kant argued that we need to apply a rule, which he called the categorical imperative. Categorical imperatives take the form "Do A." You do it not because of any pleasurable consequence, but because it's the right thing to do. It is your moral duty to abide by any particular rule that is consistent with the categorical imperative. In the Groundwork Kant offers us several different formulations, including: "always act on universal principles" and "always treat persons as ends and never as means."
Now what does Kant mean when he says that we ought to act on universal principles, or rules? Well, a good way to start would be to ask the following question. "Could I rationally prescribe that rule to apply to all persons, in all times, and in all places?" Take for example the rule: "Look both ways before crossing the street?" Now clearly, in our automobile-based society the highways would be very unsafe if no one "looked both ways." But, note that what makes this a valid rule is the presence of automobiles and the potential for being struck by them, and the painful consequences that flow from all that. Therefore, this is really a hypothetical imperative, "If there are cars around, look both ways." If you live in a society of pedestrians, the rule makes no sense.
Let's try another rule. How about the rule: "Always keep your promises." First of all, we know that human beings have always made promises. We also know if everyone makes promises, but they never keep promises, the whole concept of a promise is derailed. Or suppose you know that human beings only follow the rule: "I keep my promises, if and only if, keeping that promise increases my own personal pleasure, or the pleasure of most persons." If I ask you for a loan, and if you knew that promises are subject to hypothetical conditions, would you lend me $20 based on my promise to repay you? If you knew that no one ever keeps their promises, would you still float me that loan? The basic idea here is that the idea of a promise carries with it duty to fulfill it. But what happens if I simply cannot repay that loan, even though I promised to pay you back today? Am I a bad person?
For Kant, and all deontological theorists, the morality of human action cannot be separated from intent. Morally good actions arise out of good intentions and morally bad actions arise out of bad intentions. Deontologists say that morally good actions are brought about by a good will. For Kant, a good will is a will that molds itself in conformity to these absolute universal moral rules. So if I make a promise that I intend to keep, but circumstances impede my ability to keep that promise: say I get hit by a car and cannot afford to pay back the loan. If I intended to pay back that loan, and later regretted that I could not do it, then I might be morally "off the hook." Suppose that you I do, in fact, pay back that loan, but not because it's the right thing to do, but because I knew that if I didn't pay you back, you would stop by my house and beat the crap out of me? Morality cannot be based on fear of getting caught!
Hence, this gives rise to another useful Kantian distinction. He argues that there is difference between a "good person" and a "good citizen." A good person follows the dictates of the categorical imperative, and therefore, acts in conformity to universal moral rules that hold true at all times in all places. A good person does not worry about pain or pleasure, and does not engage in
cost/benefit analysis. He/she acts out of a good will. You do not have to threaten good persons to do the right thing.
In contrast, a good citizen does the right thing purely out of fear of getting caught. I chose to pay you back only because I wanted to avoid the pain associated with getting beaten up. Note that if I believed that I could effectively defend myself, or hide from you, I might choose not to pay you back. A society comprised entirely of good citizens requires clear laws, monitoring for compliance, and the effective enforcement of those rules. But a society of good persons would not require monitoring and enforcement. No one would break promises, steal, or murder. We wouldn‟t need a police force, judiciary, or prisons. Sounds great!
The problem here is how does one go about creating a society comprised of good persons? I think at any given time and place, a certain percentage of human beings are "good persons," that do what's right without having to be threatened. I will never murder a student. But it's not the punishment that deters me from killing. If it was legal, I still wouldn't do it. If the law required me to kill students caught cheating, I sill wouldn't do it. Killing students is just wrong. On the other hand, I am prone to violate local speed limits when I suspect that there are no policemen around to exact a fine. Interesting, the last five times I've been caught speeding the policemen gave me warnings and not tickets. Why? Prudence, I try to be extraordinarily respectful and friendly to policemen, and they usually reciprocate by not ticketing me. Try it out!
Another formulation of the categorical imperative says to "always treat persons as ends and never as means." What does that mean? Recall that all teleological theorists distinguish between means and ends. In general, good ends justify the means by which those ends can be realized. Of course, rationality of action depends on weighing the quantity of pleasure derived from achieving the end against the cost of pleasures sacrificed as means. Kant argued that this cost-benefit analysis works well enough for the amoral world of pleasure, but it fails miserably as a foundation for morality. That‟s because all human beings are rational agents in possession of free will, which bestows upon us infinite value. Therefore, it turns out to be irrational to sacrifice the happiness of a single individual or a minority group in order to make a majority happier. In other words, we cannot treat human beings as if they are things or property to be sacrificed in pursuit of pleasure.
The easiest way to understand what Kant has in mind is to focus on the Kantian imperative stating that we must "always treat persons as ends and never as means." He suggested that it's best to think of humanity as if it were a "kingdom" composed of "ends;" that is a kingdom of ends. When we treat persons as means to our own ends we essentially de-humanize them and devalue them to the level of mere things or property.
Actually, I think most philosophers respect Kant, but find his philosophy to be other-worldly and impractical. It's easy to talk about universal moral rules in the abstract, but it's hard to find many of them in the real world. But many libertarians do rely on that deontological rights-based framework.
The concept of a right is an outgrowth of eighteenth-century Western Liberalism, which is based on natural law. Most historians look to John Locke and Immanuel Kant for the foundations of right-based morality. The idea back then was to buttress moral, political, and social arguments by insisting that at least some moral claims naturally demand the unquestioned recognition of others. Hence, rights are contrasted with privileges, personal ideals, and optional acts of charity, which do not require universal and absolute conformity. As you may have noticed, many contemporary issues in the United States focus upon purported rights: the right to life, right to die, right to privacy, right to bear arms etc.
To deontologists, a moral right implies an inviolably universal claim. However, rights cannot be construed as exceptionless unless we can also establish a corresponding universal exceptionless duty on the part of others. The absolute right to life, for example, is meaningless unless we can also affirm an absolute duty on the part of others to refrain from killing. However, that duty is often suspended, especially in cases of self-defense. Moreover, rights often conflict with other rights: as in the case of abortion where the fetuses‟ right to life may conflict with the mother's right to life, or right to privacy. Therefore, some deontological philosophers conclude that rights are best construed as prima facie universals, in the sense that they are to be treated as universals unless they conflict with other universals. Hence, it is a universal moral rule to tell the truth, but sometimes telling the truth might result in harm to innocent persons. Since we cannot always be completely truthful and protect innocent lives at the same time, we must choose which moral rule to uphold. Intuitively, we would probably agree that protecting innocent lives is more important. But I'm not sure why. Are you?
So when deontologists invoke the language of rights, they necessarily also invoke duties (or obligations) on the part of others. A positive right is a right to actually "possess" something or achieve some worthwhile goal. A positive right, therefore, asserts an obligation on the part of others to actively assist. For example, in the United States, the right to an education implies the duty to provide for pubic schools. In contrast, a negative right is a right to "pursue" something or do something. A negative right merely entails an obligation on the part of others to refrain from interfering in that pursuit, but it does not necessarily oblige us to assist. If a person has a positive right to say medical care, then health care professionals and/or society have a positive obligation to fulfill that that right. If a person has only a negative right to health care, health care professionals and/or society merely have an obligation not to interfere in an individual's pursuit of health care in a competitive economic environment. In general, libertarians are exclusively devoted to negative rights and egalitarians are committed to at least some positive rights.
Most philosophers argue that rights and their corresponding duties must somehow be grounded. That is to say that, there must be some sanction or enforcement associated with that right. Divine command theorists ground human rights in the word of God, and threaten noncompliance with the wrath of God. (Unfortunately, God doesn't always punish evildoers on earth, although he may
have something in mind for later on!) Natural rights theorists ground human rights in natural processes and warn of impending natural consequences for rights violations. Hence, if we do not take care of the earth, nature will retaliate with ecological disaster. (Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn't always punish wrongdoers in a timely fashion.)
Philosophers have also attempted to ground rights in either a legal system or in a moral system. Legal rights are enforced by the power and authority of the government, and therefore, violation of a legal right usually carries with it a legal sanction or punishment. If you steal my guitar and get caught the government will throw you in jail! Of course, enforcement of legal rights depend on the state's ability to find the wrongdoers and punish them
Moral rights are usually enforced by publicly invoking praise and blame. We praise individuals for morally good acts and blame them for transgressions. We identify models of moral behavior and encourage others to emulate that behavior. Conversely, if you steal my guitar, and get caught the community will blame you and perhaps ostracize you. Moral rights enforced only through moral sanctions are, obviously, rather precariously perched since many unsavory individuals are impervious to public condemnation. Not everyone has a conscience and corresponding feelings of guilt. That's why many of the most important moral rights, such as the right to private property, and the right to life are also protected by legal sanctions. On the other hand, there are also many laws on the books that violate widely held moral beliefs. After all, slavery was once legal in the United States. It is now legal for politicians to accept campaign donations from major corporations. Is that morally acceptable? The relationship between legality and morality is philosophically intriguing.
In summary so far, moral theories are highly generalized beliefs that explain why some of our actions are good, while others are bad. Moral principles are lower level beliefs that are more or less universal. These principles can be justified based on either teleological theories, deontological theories, or both. There are five moral principles that all human societies, in all times, and in all places, employ in their moral decision-making, they are: liberty, beneficence, non-maleficence, utility, and justice. Moral dilemmas arise out of the fact that it is often the case that fulfilling one moral principle often conflicts with one or more other principles.
TERMS TO REMEMBER: Deontological, Divine Command Theory, Kantian Theory, The Categorical Imperative, Positive Rights, Negative Rights, Positive Duties, Negative Duties, Legal Rights, Moral Rights.