Deontology and Moral Non-Absolutes

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I've had two encounters recently that have led me to want to put together a post on a basic ethical distinction that I wanted to use in my responses to those two different issues. In this discussion, Brian Trapp looks at two different approaches to what conservative pro-lifers should do if Rudy Giuliani gets the GOP nomination for president. James Dobson says he couldn't vote for Rudy against Hillary, and I argued that someone with Dobson's moral views has a moral obligation to vote for Rudy against Hillary. Brian's presentation classified Dobson's view as emphasizing duty and principles and mine as emphasizing consequences and utility. There's a sense in which that's true, but I don't think it's quite right.

Second, in a comment on this post, Alan gave an argument in favor of Ron Paul's candidacy for the GOP nomination for president. His portrayal of Paul is that he is principled rather than pragmatist, that he doesn't allow the ends to justify the means the way all the other candidates do. Again, I think there's a way to look at Paul that way, but I also think it's inaccurate to what's going on, particular to how other candidates would think about what they're up to. I think I can show that the kinds of views the other candidates hold in contrast to Paul are not, in fact, merely pragmatist as opposed to principled, and I think the reason is the same reason that I don't think my argument for supporting a Rudy Giuliani presidency over a Hillary Clinton presidency (should Giuliani get the GOP nod) is purely pragmatist or consequence-based. But my reasoning in both cases depends on an important ethical distinction that I want to spend some time developing first. I'll develop the ethical background in this post, and then I'll look at the two issues that brought me to this in separate posts.

The distinction raised by both Brian and Alan is between two kinds of ethical theories. Consequentialist views consider consequences to be the only thing of moral importance. The right action is the one that leads to the best consequences or that leads to good enough consequences, depending on how the view fleshes itself out. Deontological views are probably best captured as saying that there are moral constraints that go beyond consequences. Sometimes another factor can play a role to make an action wrong even if it leads to the best consequences or right even if it leads to less good consequences. Now if you follow the arguments of Alan or Brian, you might think that the views I would defend depend on consequentialism, and the views of Ron Paul and James Dobson rely on deontological considerations. But I am no consequentialist, and I don't think you need consequentialism to argue against either of the two views I would resist (i.e. Dobson's and Paul's).

Deontology is often thought of as having to do with absolute principles or duties. What I mean by that is that there are moral principles that are always wrong to violate. In Immanuel Kant's presentation, lying and breaking promises are always wrong, no matter what. I've written about the particular issue of lying before, defending the view that the prohibition on lying is not a moral absolute. There are some times when lying is in fact morally obligatory. It's just that there's normally a presumption against lying. I would say further that there are times when lying leads to the best consequences, and yet it's not the right thing to do. This means that I'm neither a moral absolutist nor a consequentialist. So what I am I? I would say that I'm still a deontologist but not of the absolutist sort. At least not every moral principle is an absolute.

Keep in mind how I defined deontology. It's a view that's in contrast to consequentialism. It means there are some considerations that count as important enough that consequences don't determine what we should do. Sometimes other things are morally more significant than consequences. But that doesn't mean that consequences can't ever play a role. For one thing, we need to decide what to do when the only difference between two actions has to do with consequences. The one with the better consequences is then the better action. But there are even times when it's wrong to seek better consequences, because it goes against a more important moral principle than consequences. For instance, it would be wrong to torture someone merely because enough people would be a little more happy for a long enough time that the amount of pleasure created by the torture (imagine some scifi scenario) would be more than the pain caused by the torture.

My view, however, is that the deontological constraints on morality are not absolutes. They mean that there is a much higher standard to meet in order to perform the given action than just that it leads to the best consequences. There is a constraint against lying. There is a constraint against killing. Merely leading to the best consequences is not a good enough reason for it to be ok to lie or to kill. Nevertheless, some consequences are so bad that it's ok to lie to avoid those consequences, and some consequences are so bad that it's ok to kill to avoid those consequences. I'm not prepared to defend much in the way of particulars here. I don't know if I would say that it's ever ok to rape someone in a situation when two people are left in the world, and one doesn't consent to sex to propagate the species. I do think some situations are bad enough that torturing someone might be ok to avoid that badness. I certainly think it was ok for people to lie to avoid turning Jews over to the Nazis.

Given this view, there is a certain threshold that determines when it's ok to discount the normal prohibition against the action, and it would be different for different actions. The prohibition against lying has a lower threshold than the prohibition against killing. The prohibition against breaking promises has a lower threshold than the prohibition against rape or the prohibition against torture.

So that's the ethical theory issue that I wanted to get clear on. I'll apply it to the two issues I started off with in further posts.


hmm.. just a thought. About the situation, of "rape to propagate the species" is that really anything could be right? Its seems to me that it is not so much important how long the human races survives, but what it does while it survives. Is the posterity of the human race really all that important?

Yeah, that's pretty much why I'm not going to go with that one. I give that example to my students sometimes, and I think maybe a few in the class (and probably all the women) might think it's ok, but no one usually wants to admit it.

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