The Duty Approach to Ethics
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:
- People are rational in nature. They are responsible for both their motivations and their actions.
- 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.
- 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.
- A particular action is moral in nature if an ethical imperative is accomplished regardless of the consequences.
- Ethical imperatives are universal in nature. They apply to all people in all circumstances.
- 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.
 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.