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Month: August 2017

Duty Approach to Ethics Part 2

Duty Approach to Ethics Part 2

Critique of Duty Ethics

I will offer five initial observations about the duty approach to ethics and conclude by expressing my concern that “duties” can be defined in ways that actually lead us toward evil in the name of virtue.

  1. The principle that each human life has inherent value resonates with our Biblical faith traditions. We believe that each person was created in the image of God (Gen. 1.27). This doctrine asserts that each individual has the dignity of bearing the divine image regardless of differences in social position, gender, capacities, and race. In our time, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has challenged us to value and receive the gifts of women and men that live with intellectual disabilities. A foundational value of L’Arche is that each life is sacred. This fundamental doctrine has great meaning in facing the ethical challenges of our world.
  2. Duty ethics holds that people are responsible moral agents and accountable for their actions. Kant went as far as to propose that there is moral equality of all people based on the capacity to reason. The difficulty is that we do not always function based on intellectual reason. We can be swayed by emotion, passion, anxiety, and past experiences. In regard to the last factor, we know that children raised in physically abusive homes have a tendency to engage in domestic violence as adults. One might argue that moral equality fails to consider other important factors that may somewhat mitigate culpability.
  3. There are obvious challenges in creating an official list of universal categorical imperatives that are binding on all people. Who could be given this power? What would be the criteria? Are categorical imperatives really that self-evident? For example, one assumes that the prohibition against killing is a categorical imperatives. Would this duty apply to soldiers and police officers? Honesty would likely be another obligation. What if someone told a lie to save the life of another person? Does the fact that we qualify even these two basic duties mean that they are not universal and permanently binding?
  4. The emphasis on ethical motives seems to match the teaching of Jesus about the heart. “… it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come …. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk 7.21-23). However, the heart is always a project. Motives are seldom pure. We need regular gut checks, confession, and prayerful discernment to do “heart work.” Reflective and grounded people will recognize that they constantly struggle with mixed motivations.
  5. Different duties may sometimes enter into conflict with each other. There is seldom an accepted standard for addressing the issue of weight that should be accorded to distinct obligations. Last football season, quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in order to protest the treatment of people of color in the United States. He clearly gave greater weight to what he perceived to be a moral duty than he attributed to the civic duty of standing during the anthem. Many fans and team owners disagreed with Kaepernick and he now languishes without a contract for 2017. Was his action morally correct?


I find myself to be both attracted to duty ethics and to be resistant of it. As a follower of Jesus, there are certain categorical imperatives that are central to the faith. Jesus’ teaching instructs us to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors to the same extent that we care about ourselves (Mt. 22.37-40). The moral code of the Hebrew Scriptures hangs on these two great commandments. We might add other obligations such as bearing witness before hostile authorities (Mk. 13.9), serving the needs of others (Lk. 22.24-27), and loving enemies (Mt. 5.44). One could argue that these sayings represent categorical imperatives.

I have three hesitations. First, I am concerned about isolating “gospel duties” from the story of Jesus and the stories that Jesus told. The ethical teaching of Jesus comes to us embedded in a narrative that carries its meaning. We need the story to help us understand the duties. Second, I wonder how we might determine which people are authorized to make up the official list of duties and obligations for the global church.  The example of Kaepernick, cited above, illustrates how individual convictions about duty may clash with the majority opinion. Who sets the ethical standard?

Third, my greatest concern is that duties can be perverted and manipulated by people in positions of power and influence. The observance of the Sabbath in first century Palestine was a sacred obligation (Ex. 20.8) and a patriotic duty. Sabbath regulations created a boundary between Jewish people and other nations. In this way, Sabbath observance could be likened to a categorical imperative. Jesus challenged the prevailing Sabbath obligations by healing broken people and defending his hungry disciples who had plucked (harvested) grain. He held that mercy prevailed over rules and regulations that governed the day of rest. The gospel narratives reveal that Jesus believed that the purity regulations, including Sabbath, had become a tool of social control by people in power.

Duty or obligation can be manipulated by government and religious leaders to encourage evil actions. My wife is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Genocidaires killed 800,000 innocent people out of a perverted sense of duty to the government. German soldiers sent Jewish people to Auschwitz out of a sense of duty.  Allied soldiers killed German prisoners of war out of a sense of duty to their superiors. Priests, pastors, and chaplains were complicit in these immoral deeds. Currently, in the Middle East, ISIS promotes violence as a duty to Islam.  These examples, and countless others, make me hesitant about a deontological or duty approach to ethics. As a Christian, I want to be sure that Jesus, and not contemporary society, is shaping my understanding of my moral obligations in a broken and wounded world.


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Duty Approach to Ethics Part 1

Duty Approach to Ethics Part 1

The Duty Approach to Ethics[1]

There are two parts to my blog post this week. The first section provides a brief description of the duty approach to ethics. Part 2 offers a personal critique based on my understanding of following Jesus in the context of moral issues and ambiguities.

Part 1: Description of the Duty Approach to Ethics

Deontological ethics is the technical term for this approach to moral issues. The Greek noun deon can be translated as duty or obligation. Students of New Testament Greek will be familiar with the Greek verb dei which signifies a moral necessity or obligation. An example is found in Mt. 18.33. The unforgiving slave is brought before the ruler that previously had pardoned his massive debt. His master asks why he had thrown a colleague into prison who had not paid a much reduced debt. The ruler poses an ethical question: Was there not a moral obligation for you to have mercy on a fellow slave as I had mercy on you? These words point to an ethical duty that should have informed the actions of the unforgiving slave.

It may be helpful to contrast utilitarian and duty approaches to ethics. The utilitarian approach uses the criterion of end consequences to evaluate the moral nature of an action. Has the action resulted in happiness for affected people? Accordingly, something that seems immoral such as the assassination of a cruel dictator could be considered to be ethically sound if the murder resulted in greater happiness for the citizens of the country. One can sense the “moral quicksand” of disregarding laws and basic human rights to achieve certain ends related to the purported well-being of the general public.

The duty or deontological approach to ethics is different in that attention shifts from consequences of an action to its moral nature and accompanying motives. It is argued that often outcomes are beyond the control of a social agent. However, individuals are responsible for examining their motivations and using reason to analyze the ethical quality of their actions. The “happiness” goal of utilitarian ethics is critiqued and replaced by the concept that people experience happiness when they fulfill their duties and obligations. They become worthy of happiness or contentment. In this way, there is some alignment with virtue ethics. However, virtue ethics concentrates on character while the focus of duty ethics is social obligation.

Deontological or duty ethics is associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant lived during an age of optimism. The enlightenment emphasized human capacities, intellect, and the importance of freedom. New inventions such as the steam engine transformed transportation and industrial output. The American and the French revolutions seemed to herald a new form of national governance. The continued exploration of the world was accompanied by the growth of European colonialism. It was in this setting that Immanuel Kant emphasized the importance of universal moral obligations. He referred to these duties as categorical imperatives.

Our lives are separated from Immanuel Kant by more than two centuries. While most of us are not familiar with his work, we stand under his influence. The pondering of moral dilemmas frequently elicits a comment about “the right thing” to be done. This remark is “Kantian” in nature. The phrase “the right thing” expresses a conviction that there is a moral obligation or duty that can be discerned though reason and accomplished.

Kant’s ethical approach had a number of key principles that are rooted in enlightenment thought:

  1. People are rational in nature. They are responsible for both their motivations and their actions.
  2. Each human life has an inherent value. (This point is important for an appreciation of Kant’s ethics.) A person’s value is not instrumental — productive capacity or potential contribution to society). As a consequence, people are not to be used, abused, or oppressed in any manner. One can see the link between duty ethics and modern human rights discourse.
  3. A particular action is ethical in nature if done with the right intentions. Readers may remember an example I offered in an earlier blog. A man rescues five children that are held hostage by armed kidnappers. The question was posed: Is the “moral nature” of the act compromised by the fact that rescuer was motivated by a reward of one million dollars per child? The utilitarian approach maintains that the action should only be evaluated by the outcome. In contrast, according to Kant’s reasoning, the motive of reward taints the ethical value of the rescue.
  4. A particular action is moral in nature if an ethical imperative is accomplished regardless of the consequences.
  5. Ethical imperatives are universal in nature. They apply to all people in all circumstances.
  6. Duties play an important part in the formation of communities and nations. People are bound by mutual obligations and shared ethical imperatives.


I offer some observations on duty ethics in Part 2.

[1] I wish to signal at the outset that MacKinnon and Fiala (2016) offer a helpful introduction to deontological ethics. I have drawn on their work in writing this piece.


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