Duty or obligation as the foundation for moral decision-making is the basis for deontological ethics.
This approach, which focused on the morality of actions and motives apart from results, was popularized by Immanuel Kant and continues to have significant influence today.
I’ll offer five observations about the duty approach to ethics and then conclude by expressing my concerns 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 (Genesis 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 imperative. 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” (Mark 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 (Matthew 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 (Mark 13:9), serving the needs of others (Luke 22:24-27) and loving enemies (Matthew 5:44). One could argue that these sayings represent categorical imperatives.
However, I have three hesitations regarding an ethics of duty or obligation.
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 (Exodus 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.
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 second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.