Deontological ethics is a moral philosophy where the usual ethical definition of right or wrong is based on a series of rules to follow instead of the consequences which occur from such a decision. It is a concept which is based on a person’s obligation or duty to treat others with respect.
Because the definition of morality through deontological ethics focuses on actions instead of outcomes, then a decision to not take action still becomes a moral choice. You’re not focusing on the outcome with this philosophy. The emphasis is placed on the journey that you take in order to get to your destination.
It is a system which works on a foundation of absolutes. There is no room for negotiation with the choice. You will either make an ethically correct decision or one that is not. If that element of “truth” applies to religious circumstances, then the spiritual definition of salvation can depend on your ability to determine how to go through life without harming anyone else well still following divine truths.
The duty-based circumstances found in deontological ethics create distinctive pros and cons to consider when looking at this moral philosophy. Here are the key points to review.
List of the Pros of Deontological Ethics
1. Deontological ethics create a foundation for human conduct.
Different versions of what we would call the “Golden Rule” are found throughout the history of human societies. They can be summed up in this phrase: do you want to others as you would have them do unto you. It was a concept that follows us in our spiritual lives, our professional careers, and even in our relationships that we form.
Deontological ethics require someone to be treating others with respect without receiving it in return to be in a position that is ethically correct. This process applies even to individual thoughts, as you must act in a way where any action would have the capability of becoming a universal law because of its goodness.
2. Deontological ethics create higher levels of personal responsibility.
The processes of deontological ethics requirement individuals to act as if they are the ones who are responsible for creating the expectations and legislation that are followed in society. Any actions taken by each person must be done in such a way that a harmonic effect occurs with every decision. Any outcome which created this harmony would not be ethically correct in the structure, which means it would become the responsibility of the individual to avoid such actions at any cost.
3. Deontological ethics create moral absolutes.
The structure of deontological ethics is black-and-white. There are never any gray areas as to what is right or what is wrong with me and society. No exceptions to any moral rules are permitted within this concept. Even if situations arise to extreme or unforeseen levels, these guidelines do not allow for another course of action. The outcome of this theory would be that every person within the society could aspire to be morally perfect because there is always an understanding of what would be expected of them from an ethical standpoint.
4. Deontological ethics emphasize the value of every person.
Duty-based systems focus on providing equal respect to all human beings, no matter where they are from or what they might choose to do. This set of ethics provides a foundation for all human rights. It forces each of us to offer due regard to the given interests of each person even if those ideas are at odds with the needs of a larger group. Although some versions of this theory suggest that some acts are always wrong, the outcome is dictated by the governing perception of “rightness.”
5. Deontological ethics provide certainty.
If someone bases their morality from the consequences of the decision, then there is uncertainty until that information develops. That means every choice someone makes offers the potential of being right or wrong until the outcomes become apparent. Deontological ethics take a different approach. This moral theory offers certainty because it stays concerned with the action itself.
The action is correct and right, then an individual should do it. If it is wrong, then they should not. All those things or not this clear cut in real life, we do understand that certain actions have a high probability of bringing specific results. We then choose those actions because we want those results. Deontological ethics ask us to look at the situation from the other direction.
List of the Cons of Deontological Ethics
1. Deontological ethics create a paradox.
There are times when the maximum welfare of a society is forbidden when following deontological ethics. This structure tasks an individual with saving lives, but you cannot do this at the expense of your own life. No act of self-sacrifice is ever listed as being a morally correct decision what is this idea. You could not harm another person, even if you knew it would save thousands of lives if you did. At the same time, allowing people to die because you failed to take action is also not permitted.
Imagine you walk into a building, and there is an active shooter situation. Now let’s say that you have a gun, and you are trained to use it correctly. It doesn’t matter what the shooter is doing in that building. Deontological ethics dictate how you react to the situation. You would not be able to shoot the person to stop down because it would cause them harm. It would not be permissible to let others die either. You would need to find a third solution to stay ethically correct.
2. Deontological ethics become useful as supernatural excuses.
Deontological ethics involved more than the human experience. They also include supernatural events. Divine commands create moral commandments within this structure. If society believes that God (and whatever name someone chooses to call him or her) dictates moral commands to them, then it is their ethical duty to follow them in every circumstance. That is why some people choose to harm others in the name of their spiritual deity. Their deontological ethics from a supernatural source override the morality that they have on a personal level.
3. Deontological ethics are a matter of subjective opinion.
How do you define right and wrong from my deontological perspective depends on the skills and insights of the individuals involved in the situation. Let’s go back to that active shooter situation. If someone were to yell in the building that everyone should get out to protect themselves, they would be in a position of ethical correctness compared to someone who pulled a weapon and ended the situation once and for all.
Even the act of pushing someone through a door to help them leave is morally inferior with deontological ethics then yelling about a dangerous situation.
4. Deontological ethics do not incorporate self-defense ideas.
Deontological ethics dictate that all forms of violence are wrong. There are no justifiable actions which allow you to encourage or participate in the harm of another person, even if that individual is trying to hurt you at that time. You are never permitted to respond in kind if someone commits an act of violence against you.
The only permitted action you can take when following this philosophy would be to find a means of escape. Even as you are leaving the situation, to stay in a position of moral correctness, you would not be permitted to allow anyone else to experience harm either. There are no exceptions. You cannot hurt yourself, and you cannot permit others to be hurt, no matter what might be happening.
5. Deontological ethics are based on the actions that we take.
Let’s revisit the active shooter example one more time. You walk into the building. Then you lie to the shooter, telling that person the police are about to arrive. That action is not permitted because the statement you make is false. The argument that deontological ethics makes is that the ethics of any situation are based on the actions a person decides to take. The better choice in any situation that is questionable from a moral standpoint would be to do nothing because then there would be no action to judge your morality from at that point.
6. Deontological ethics suggest that you should always do the right thing, no matter what.
The moral philosophy behind deontological ethics suggests that each person has a duty to always do the right thing. Your focus must be on the actions taken instead of the results achieved. You will always be in a morally correct position, even if the results you produce are poor, because of the desire to pursue a duty which follows the universal rules of morality. You first consider what actions are correct, and then you proceed from there.
7. Deontological ethics are absolutist.
This moral philosophy follows an absolute set of rules. The only way that an individual can deal with situations that don’t seem to fit the mold is to build in a list of exceptions to the rules. Then you encounter the paradox once again. You’re not permitted to take actions that could harm someone else, including yourself, which is what an exceptions list would do to you. That is why the constant answer with deontological ethics is to avoid a situation if there isn’t a clear course of action that someone should take.
These deontological ethics pros and cons look at theoretical concepts if they were applied in real life today. The reality of this philosophical idea is flawed because truth is not universal. How one person expresses love can be very different when compared to other expressions. What works for one person may not work for someone else. That is why our personal focus must come back to the Golden Rule. If we treat others in a way that we would want to be treated, then the world would start to become a better place to live.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.