Duty or obligation as the foundation for moral decision-making is the basis for deontological ethics.
The term derives from the Greek noun “deon,” which 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 Matthew 18:33 where 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.
Before proceeding further, I need to acknowledge Barbara MacKinnon’s and Andrew Fiala’s “Ethics Theory and Contemporary Issues” for helping me understand and formulate my views on this approach to ethics.
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, asking: 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) who lived during the Enlightenment – an age of optimism emphasizing human capacities, intellect and the importance of freedom.
Kant emphasized the importance of universal moral obligations, which he called categorical imperatives.
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.
For example, if a person rescues five children that are held hostage by armed kidnappers and a $1 million award is given for each child, is the “moral nature” of the act compromised by the fact that rescuer was motivated by a reward of $1 million 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.
While many are no longer familiar with Kant’s 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 through reason and accomplished. Such thinking lies at the heart of an ethical system based on duty or obligation.
Gordon King serves as Canadian Baptist Ministries’ resource specialist and is the author of “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” His writings can also be found on his website.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
A sessional professor of Christian ethics at Ambrose Seminary, Calgary, Canada. Before retirement, he worked internationally for Canadian Baptist Ministries.