Moral choices entail a sense of obligation.  “One ought to tell the truth.”  “One ought to treat other people with respect.”   What are the foundations for this “ought?”  Can it be found in personal conscience, society, history, or religion?  Or, does one have a moral duty to make the right choices regardless of personal inclinations, situations, or needs?  Must the moral worth of my choices be determined regardless of whatever favorable or unfavorable outcomes or consequences they may entail?  This is the premise of a moral theory called “Deontology.”  Deontology is derived from the Greek words, deon, which means duty, and logos, meaning discourse or reason.  Deontology is the “discourse on,” or “the reason for” our moral duties.

Deontology is generally associated with the work of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), whose well known Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, at the height of the European Enlightenment, and the “Second Critique,” the Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1788, are key works.  The following comments are largely based on these texts.   

For Kant’s deontological moral system, moral obligation is rooted in the exercise of reason, not conscience, society, or religion.  It is an example of “practical reason,” as distinguished from “theoretical reason.”  Theoretical reason, physics, especially Newtonian physics, for example, has its object of investigation already given in intuition or sense experience.  The physicist studies nature, which is given in his/her experiments and observations.  But practical reason, moral choice, makes its object real in the sense that our moral choices bring about actions that may or may not have moral worth.  Basing morality on reason has advantages:  Morality is no longer grounded on the shifting sands of personal moral conscience, inclinations, or desires.  The moral worth of an action is not evaluated on the desirability of its outcomes or consequences.  Nor is it grounded on any generalizations from observations of what people general do or do not do.  It is not grounded on any particular religion.  Such concerns are rooted in changing particularities.  Reason alone makes claims to universality.  This is an ethic for all rational beings, not just human beings.  So this ethic is not even based on anthropology, or on any suppositions about “human nature.”  Kant’s grounding of morality on reason is its strong point, but, as we shall see, it is also its weak point.

What are some of the key ideas of deontology?  Let’s now itemize and discuss them.

1.)     Good Will:  Like Aristotle and Plato, Kant, too, answered the question, “what is the Good for moral life?”  Whereas for Aristotle, the Good was “happiness,” or “well-being,” (Eudaimonia), for Kant, the only Good “without qualification,” or without limitations, is a Good Will.  The opening lines of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals affirm this.  “Understanding, wit, judgement, and the like, whatever such talents of the mind may be called, or courage, resolution, and perseverance in one’s plans, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good for many purposes, but they can be also extremely evil and harmful if the will which is to make use of these gifts of nature, and whose distinctive constitution is therefore called character, is not good.”  (Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Mary J. Gregor, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy.  Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 49.)  Kant’s use of the term “Will” is not found in Aristotle.  For Kant, the will is a rational, practical exercise of reason that determines action, and so is distinguished from character and desire.  The will overrides desire; as practical reason, it commands action.

2.)     Duty:  We might have many duties: duty to our parents, to our country, or religious duties.  But Kant is speaking of moral duty as a highest duty.  Duty means respect for moral law.  A will is only good without qualification when the action commanded by the will springs from a respect for moral law. Respect for moral law, duty, is thus the necessary condition for determining the moral worth of an action.  An example:  Three persons encounter a homeless woman begging on the streets.  Each of these persons has the means to help the poor.  But each reasons differently in deciding whether or not to help.  The first person argues that this is a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world; each must fend for him/herself.  The first person’s cynical view of the world inspires him/her to look away and do nothing.  The second person decides to give money to help the beggar.  “Helping the poor makes me feel good,” he/she argues. “It is good for my Karma or the salvation of my soul, and perhaps I will receive honors or applause for my philanthropy.”  The second person is thus looking to the favorable consequences of helping the poor.  Her/his actions spring not from moral duty, but from a desire for favorable outcomes.  The third person also gives money to help the beggar.  But his/her action springs from a respect for a moral law that could be stated as follows: ”When one meets people in need and one has the means to help, it is one’s moral duty to help regardless of the outcome, whether one is rewarded, recognized, or even punished for doing so.”  Of the three moral choices, only the third one has any moral worth, Kant would argue, for it alone springs from respect for an objective, universal moral law.  “Respect” is thus a stronger term than mere “conformity” to moral law.  One’s actions may “conform” to moral law but unless they spring from respect for moral law, they would still lack ultimate moral worth.  A businessperson, for example, may treat her/his customers with respect, not lying to them or overcharging them.  Happy customers are good for the bottom line.  This is why they are treated with respect.  His/her actions, even though they spring from personal interest, would still conform to moral law. But should the businessperson also find ways to cheat his/her customers so long as they are not aware of it, he or she might well do so where the desire to boost profits overrides the desire to act in a way that conforms to business ethics.  Conformity can waver.  But acting from duty, from respect for moral law, commands immediately and without equivocation.

3.)     Categorical Imperative:  How does one determine the moral law?  Moral law is not handed down from some higher or transcendental source.  Rather, each person, each moral agent, is himself or herself the one who legislates the moral law. Kant argues that there is but one such imperative, although he formulates it in different ways.   Essentially, it states, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law,” even a “law of nature.”  (Ibid., p. 73.)  All particular moral duties can be determined by and from the “Categorical Imperative,” yet this imperative does not command any particular moral actions or laws.  Rather it is a way of testing the logical consistency of any particular, subjective moral maxim to see if it can be universalized and so objectified such that it would have the status of a moral law commanding the moral choices of all rational beings.  Using the Categorical Imperative allows us to think beyond personal interests and inclinations in making moral choices.  Thus, the categorical imperative contrasts sharply with “hypothetical imperatives,” which command if and only if certain conditions are met.  Consider, for example, the morality of telling the truth.  One might argue, “I will tell the truth if it is in my interest to do so.” Truth telling is here conditioned upon personal self-interest.  Equally, it may well be in one’s personal interest to make a lying promise.  For example, one might borrow money by lying to a banker, promising to repay when one knows that if there is a way to get out of repaying this loan, one will do so.  It may be in one’s interest to lie because one will get more money by doing so.  But can such subjective, conditional or hypothetical maxims be universalized such that they would apply to all persons?  The answer must be “No,” because, if objectified and universalized such that anyone and everyone could give a lying promise when it is in their interest to do so, contracts and business loans would be undermined, even the reliability of personal relations would collapse.  Personal self-interest would supplant moral life.  Furthermore, the Categorical Imperative is sometimes compared and contrasted with the Golden Rule, found in many different cultural and religious traditions:  “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”  Like the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative takes the other person into account.  But unlike the Golden Rule, it stems not from personal preferences about how one would like to be treated.  Rather, it commands “categorically,” applying to all rational beings without any weight given to personal preferences.   Nor does it stem from culture or religion, as such “rules” often do, but from reason alone.  It is thus stronger, more an “imperative” than a “rule.”  Agents “legislate” moral law, they do not simply conform to existing precepts. 

4.)     Respect for Persons:  Insofar as each person is a rational being and so a possible legislator of moral law, each person must be treated as an “end in themselves” and not a means.  Respect here means regarding each and every other person as having a worth beyond all exchange.  Each person must be regard as an end, not a means or an instrument.  This even demands that one treats oneself with such respect.  Hence, a subjective, personal maxim that might legitimize suicide is ruled out for Kant.  To argue that a person may have a personal duty to end one’s life when that life is no longer deemed to be worth living cannot be universalized such that it would become a moral law commanding all moral agents.  For Kant, such a personal maxim might spring from self-love or from regarding one’s life as nothing but a means for pleasure and enjoyment.  But such a maxim would contradict the universal system of nature that impels living beings toward the preservation, not the destruction of their lives.  Moral law must therefore have the same or a similar status regarding its consistency as a law of nature.

5.)     Freedom:  Each moral agent is a legislator of moral law and capable of acting out of respect for moral law and so having a sense of moral duty if and only if that agent is free to make such self determinations.  Freedom is necessary supposition for moral law.  Yet, freedom is not an objectively given reality, but an Idea of Reason, a postulate, in other words, of reason necessary for its practical, moral use.  Like the idea of God or the Immortality of the Soul, (two other Ideas of Reason Kant considers essential), Freedom can be neither scientifically proven nor disproven.  We must act as if all rational beings are free.  We might look around and see that many people are not free.  This does not undermine Kant’s notion of freedom because Kant’s rationalism does not begin from observations or treatments of “human nature’ or particular social conditions.  Moral life, the autonomy of moral choice, the determination of moral law requires that we proceed as if persons are free and so deserving of unequivocal respect. 

Critical questions for discussion:

1.)     Kant is a rationalist.  This assumes that reason plays a determining role in moral life.  But how strong or how effective is the role of reason in making moral choices? 

2.)     When one uses reason as a guide for moral life, is one trapped in the interior domain of pure thought such that the moral universe becomes whatever one thinks it should be?  Is a kind of moral solipsism, in other words, a consequence of this moral theory?

3.)     Can one think of instances when moral maxims might be each legitimately and logically consistent with an objective moral law, and yet be in conflict with one another, making moral choice problematic or impossible?  The maxim commanding truth telling for example, might entail that one tell the truth when it would result in harm.  Telling the truth to robbers about where one’s parents are hiding with their gold may result in harm to parents and to their treasure.  Telling the truth in this case would be in conflict with the moral law commanding that one protect human life.  Shouldn’t one lie instead?  How can such conflicts be resolved?

4.)     Doesn’t Kant have to take into account the consequences of actions?  Must he in some sense be concerned for the consequences of actions and not just the moral maxims from which actions spring?  His discussion of the morality of making a lying promise, for example, implies that I take into consideration the consequences of legislating a moral universe in which such lies would be acceptable.

5.)     Is there no place for happiness in Kant’s moral outlook?  He does say that one has a duty to be happy, so that one will be more likely to live a moral life.  The ideal for Kant might well be the coincidence of virtue and happiness.  But where he argues that I must show respect for moral law – that I must be virtuous -- even if it goes against my own inclinations, or my own desire to be happy, doesn’t Kant contradict his own proclaimed “duty to be happy?”  Does Kant overly limit the role of human happiness in his moral theory?

Charles Freeland has taught philosophy for 25 years at the Mahidol University International College, Bangkok.

Last modified: Thursday, 28 November 2019, 2:09 PM