Major Ethical Perspectives

Read this description of Utilitarianism in relation to other ethical theories. After reading, be sure you are able to define deontology, describe social contract theory, and discuss the role of virtue in ethical matters.

Rules and Duty: Deontology

In contrast to the utilitarian perspective, the deontological view presented in the writings of Immanuel Kant purports that having a moral intent and following the right rules is a better path to ethical conduct than achieving the right results. A deontologist like Kant is likely to believe that ethical action arises from doing one's duty and that duties are defined by rational thought. Duties, according to Kant, are not specific to particular kinds of human beings but are owed universally to all human beings. Kant therefore uses "universalizing" as a form of rational thought that assumes the inherent equality of all human beings. It considers all humans as equal, not in the physical, social, or economic sense, but equal before God, whether they are male, female, Pygmy, Eskimoan, Islamic, Christian, gay, straight, healthy, sick, young, or old.

For Kantian thinkers, this basic principle of equality means that we should be able to universalize any particular law or action to determine whether it is ethical. For example, if you were to consider misrepresenting yourself on a resume for a particular job you really wanted and you were convinced that doing so would get you that job, you might be very tempted to do so. (What harm would it be? you might ask yourself. When I have the job, I can prove that I was perfect for it, and no one is hurt, while both the employer and I are clearly better off as a result!) Kantian ethicists would answer that your chosen course of action should be a universal one – a course of action that would be good for all persons at all times. There are two requirements for a rule of action to be universal: consistency and reversibility. Consider reversibility: if you make a decision as though you didn't know what role or position you would have after the decision, you would more likely make an impartial one – you would more likely choose a course of action that would be most fair to all concerned, not just you. Again, deontology requires that we put duty first, act rationally, and give moral weight to the inherent equality of all human beings.

In considering whether to lie on your resume, reversibility requires you to actively imagine both that you were the employer in this situation and that you were another well-qualified applicant who lost the job because someone else padded his resume with false accomplishments. If the consequences of such an exercise of the imagination are not appealing to you, your action is probably not ethical.

The second requirement for an action to be universal is the search for consistency. This is more abstract. A deontologist would say that since you know you are telling a lie, you must be willing to say that lying, as a general, universal phenomenon, is acceptable. But if everyone lied, then there would be no point to lying, since no one would believe anyone. It is only because honesty works well for society as a whole and is generally practiced that lying even becomes possible! That is, lying cannot be universalized, for it depends on the preexistence of honesty.

Similar demonstrations can be made for actions such as polluting, breaking promises, and committing most crimes, including rape, murder, and theft. But these are the easy cases for Kantian thinkers. In the gray areas of life as it is lived, the consistency test is often difficult to apply. If breaking a promise would save a life, then Kantian thought becomes difficult to apply. If some amount of pollution can allow employment and the harm is minimal or distant, Kantian thinking is not all that helpful. Finally, we should note that the well-known Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," emphasizes the easier of the two universalizing requirements: practicing reversibility ("How would I like it if someone did this to me?").