The term ‘deontology’ originates from the Greek deon, which means ’duty’. According to the deontological theory, people have a moral obligation to act according to certain rules and principles regardless of the consequences. In other words, people have the duty to do morally right things to avoid immoral actions. Immanuel Kant should surely be considered as a central theorist of the deontological moral theory. That is why it is his point of view on deontology that will be discussed in this paper.
The Basis of Deontological Theory
It should be mentioned that most deontological theories distinguish two categories of duties. The first consists of general duties. Prohibitions are the major component of these duties. For example, one should not be lazy and should not lie. Nevertheless, some positive duties can also belong to this class, e.g. help your relatives. The second class combines the duties people have because of their social or personal relationships. For example, if a person promises something, it is their duty to keep the promise; or, if they are parents, they have a moral duty to care about their children. Every person has duties regarding their actions. Deontology states that all people should be worried about fulfilling their duties without any attempts to cause the most good.
Nevertheless, one question stays unsolved – how does one distinguish the wrong and right types of actions? For example, a murder as an action. This action is naturally thought to be wrong, but if one were to consider the moral aspects, not all ‘killings’ are the same type of actions. There may be cases when a person kills someone intentionally and cases when the killing is accidental. Additionally, sometimes people only want to protect themselves against the attacks of moralists. In fact, all the actions of a person are the result of the possibility of choice; that is why actions should be evaluated in terms of choices. Besides, choices are the results of reasons and people do them with a purpose in mind (Harsanyi, 1973). Such definition determines the meaning of the action itself. In other words, deontology argues that it is possible to evaluate the type of action only after comprehending the original intention.
Kantian Point of View on Deontology
Immanuel Kant is a central philosopher and developer of deontological moral theories. In fact, all branches of deontological ethics are considered to be Kantian.
Kant was born in the city of Konigsberg in 1724. He devoted his life to working in academia. He stopped his work there only a couple of years before dying. Kant never traveled or left his city. He specialized in different areas - mathematics, geography, astrophysics, and anthropology. Kant is the author of several difficult and influential texts on metaphysics, metaethics, science, practical morality, politics, and history.
In 1788, Immanuel Kant developed the most authoritative form of moral theory of a secular type. In contradistinction to religious deontological theories, the concepts of Kant’s theory come from human motives (Harsanyi, 1973).
A Theory of Duty
Kant is the creator of the most prominent type of deontological philosophy. The basic concepts of the theory are the following: a human being is a living organism with a unique capability for rationality. He claimed that no other animals can show an ability to think or act reasonably. This ability requires people to consider actions as results of moral duties. According to Kant, human emotions and possible consequences should not play a distinguishing role in moral actions. Consequently, an obligation is the basis for the action, even thought it takes place in limited time situations. According to the theory, morality is a universal framework of rules for human beings. It provides guidance and prevents certain actions in order to provide the independence of personal desires (Harsanyi, 1973).
Kant states that only humans can evaluate the worth of their actions from a moral point of view. According to Kant, people follow good will and act according to universal moral duty. Moral duty consists of a number of rules (or maxims) categorical by their nature; people are limited by their duties to act according to these categorical imperatives. The imperatives will be discussed further.
Kant formulated three categorical imperatives.
The first one is as following: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction” (Kant, 1964).
Kant (1964) says that a right (true/correct) moral proposition and particular conditions should not be closely linked to the concept of recognition of the person who makes the decision. Any moral rule must ignore different physical items linked to its proposition. Moreover, it must be fitting for every rational being. Besides, Kant states that people have an original distinctive duty to avoid actions following the rules that can lead to logical or moral contradictions.
Moreover, the existence of imperfect duties based on pure reasons can be interpreted in various ways depending on the forms of performance. These duties are linked to the humans' subjective preferences; that is why they are weaker than perfect (distinctive) duties. Nevertheless, they are considered morally binding. Being imperfect, duties can be considered circumstantial. The difference between imperfect and perfect duties lies in the incompleteness of imperfect duties.
To sum it up, it can be said that the first definition of the universal categorical imperative is the paraphrased Golden Rule: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself” (Harsanyi, 1973).
The second formulation of the imperative sounds as following: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, 1964).
According to Kant's theory (1964), every rational activity should be considered as a principle and the end of an action. He claims that most ends have follow ups if they are based on a hypothetical concept that became an inquiry of conditional reasons. It shows a person what to do to achieve specific goals. For example, a person has to drink/eat when they need to slake their thirst/hunger.
According to Kant (1964), personal will is the only source of true moral actions. However, such position denies the first definition of the imperative, claiming that a human being is simply a means to some other end, instead of a person's own end.
Hence, Kant created this formulation based on the concepts of the first one. He explains that one of perfect duties of humans is to avoid using other people as a means to an end. As an example, slavery would assert a true moral right to own other people as property by maintaining their own right over the rights of all other humans. Nevertheless, these reasons neglect the categorical imperative to deny free rational actions and disregard people as an end.
The third formulation of the imperative is as following:“Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends” (Kant, 1964).
No interest can subordinate an autonomous will. However, the will should be the main and only basis for all the laws and regulations. Nevertheless, it should also be regard these laws as if they link and limit other people. In case such laws are not considered universal or applicable for the current case, they can not be true laws. The theorist claims that a person always treats themselves and other people as particular ends and never as means. He states that all people should act only in accordance with laws that are in harmony with a potential ‘kingdom’ of ends. People’s perfect duty is to avoid following laws that create contradictory conditions of natural affairs aiming to make them universal. Moreover, the imperfect duty of everyone is to avoid the laws that lead to undesirable or unstable states of affairs for every involved party.
Some acts are considered generally forbidden. For example, lying negatively affects relationships between two or more people and the value and meaning of truth itself (Harsanyi, 1973). It is a negative item even if it has morally remarkable consequences. For example, if a psychotic criminal is going to kill someone’s colleague, the person is allowed to lie about some facts of this colleague's life. Such lie can save an innocent life. However, people think that moral duty can forbid a person from lying regardless of circumstances. Nevertheless, a person who lies neglects a higher duty to tell the truth. Another example the duties that are always forbidden is the prohibition to kill or be involved in killing, which are higher moral duties that people should follow.
Finally, it should be stated that there are some criticisms of Kantian deontology. One of the most noticeable criticisms is that it does not consider outcomes as an essential factor in denoting the moral degree of an action. There is no doubt that it is false to rely on outcomes only. Nevertheless, to ignore the outcomes completely is a wrong position. According to the formula of humanity developed by Kant, the lives of humans are sacred. This means that one person can not enslave any other person even if it positively affects the well-being of some people. At the same time, Kantian deontology considers killing for the safety of millions impermissible (Kant, 1964).
Sometimes the concepts of Kantian theory of moral duty contradict people’s common sense. People who follow the moral laws more than their intuition act in accordance with high morality and moral duty. It seems that Kantian deontology is weaker when it informs people about the better ways of living and develops people’s character.