Deontological ethics is an ethical lens that follows a universal code, law, or framework that does not change based upon context, environment, individuals, etc. The word, universal (meaning the same every time) refers to every given case without exceptions. Therefore, someone who believes in a deontological approach to ethics would argue that there is a set of rules that everyone in every situation must live by. Here is a short video to help explain this perspective.
The key to this deontological ethics is situated in the notion of having a universal guide for our actions. Neher and Sandin (2007) provide three examples of deontological frames: duty ethics, natural law, and divine command.
Duty Ethics – Immanuel Kant’s perspective of the duty ethic states that in every case, there is one action, regardless of the consequences and regardless of the context/situation, that is ethical.
Natural Law – This perspective asserts that whatever is consistent with the workings of natural order (biology for example) is the correct behavior. The measure in this case involves evaluating behavior based upon what is natural according to the biological condition, regardless of social constructions of appropriate behavior or context/situation. In other words, if the condition or behavior occurs naturally in nature, then the condition or behavior is ethical. An example of this is that scientists confirm that homosexual and bisexual activity is found in hundreds of other species in the animal kingdom. Since they are in the natural world, they should be deemed ethical behavior. You can do a Google search and see hundreds of examples.
Divine Command – This perspective judges and guides behavior based upon sacred/original/divine law set forth by a universal Being, such as God. This is often set forth under religious commands. The ten commandments is one example.
For deontology, we, instead, focus on duty ethics. Therefore, in determining appropriate behavior, we seek the universal behavior that we deem correct all of the time.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) situated our duty as: To act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law without contradiction (Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals). So your actions should not make or create any kind of contradiction and that the action can occur the same in every given situation.
Kant’s examples of his ethical system of categorical imperatives include:
- Lies or deception are always wrong. This is simply not permissible.
- Stealing is never acceptable. (the contradiction occurs when we realize that an individual (person A) would not give permission for another (person B) to take something that belongs to person A. A thief can never get permission.
- Suicide is always wrong (because it violates one’s duty to one’s self- it contradicts one’s life, which is to live, regardless of the circumstances).
- One should not be lazy. Being lazy contradicts the imperative that one must realize one’s talents—it is our duty.
- Charity should not be engaged for impure reasons. For example, if someone gives money to a charity because of fear of punishment by a system outside of the self, (instead of from a moral duty to do so imposed from within the individual), the motivation removes the moral quality of the action.
- Cruelty to animals is never permissible. This comes from the duty to one’s self. Kant said we have an imperfect duty to cultivate compassion for others. Therefore, if we engage in acts of cruelty to animals, any animal, we are engaging in cruelty toward others. This is a contradiction against the duty to ourselves.
The key to the Kantian categorical imperative (evaluating behavior through ethical reasoning) is to look for the universality of the law that which is associated with the behavior. If an action violates one of the duties, the action is never morally permissible.
Kant realized adhering to his universal code of duty ethics is actually impossible; it almost drove him crazy. Late in life he admitted that one can never achieve perfection in duty ethics.
Neher and Sandin (2007) suggest there are alternatives to Deontological Ethics:
Situational Ethics – this lens understands that CONTEXT is important in any given ethical situation AND that context is never the same in all cases. Therefore, a set of rules that never change and that are absolute simply cannot be applied to all situations because of the changing nature of context.
Cultural Relativism – this lens suggests that practices of one culture cannot be judged or compared to that of another culture. Therefore, just like context matters in Situational Ethics, so does Culture. Culture itself is relative for many reasons – therefore one absolute rule or set of rules cannot be universally applied across all cultures.