SECTION SIX. DEONTOLOGY.
Utilitarianism is a consquentialist theory of moral obligation. It is necessary and sufficient to assess the non-moral good in the consequences of an action to determine the action's rightness or wrongness. However, as we have seen, utilitarianism has its troubles.
A major problem, pointed out by a philosopher named Immanuel Kant, is that utilitarian commands or duties are hypothetical in nature. A kind of action commanded, such as the duty "Be honest!" is determined to be right because it produces the most amount of good. When a utilitarian says that we should be honest in a situation, he is saying we should do so because being honest produces the best consequences. The logical form of what the utilitarian is saying is: "If you want the most amount of good to occur in this situation or overall, then be honest." The imperative or command is hypothetical in form; if you want p, then do q; if p then q. At the base of the utilitarian's moral theory is a hypothetical imperative. The rightness of the action is conditional upon the production of good. If being honest does not produce the most amount of good, then we ought not to tell the truth. Being honest, as a duty, derives its rightness from the consequences involved with it. If the consequences of being honest in a particular situation are bad, then we should not be honest.
There's more to it. The non-moral good is good as the object of our desires. Remember that the imperative derives its force from our desire for the non-moral good. We are honest because and only because we want the non-moral good, say it is pleasure. If we want pleasure, then be honest. Being honest turns out to be the best way to get what we desire, pleasure. But, what if our desire for pleasure wanes and we have less of a desire for it. Suppose that one day, we do not want pleasure at all. What happens to the force of the imperative to "Be honest!"? The answer is that it disappears. Why should we be honest if it doesn't get what we want any longer?
The answer is that there is no motive force to be honest in the case where there is no non-moral good desired. What gets us what we want are our imperatives. The driving force of the imperatives is the desire for the non-moral good. No driving force or desire for a non-moral good such as pleasure, no force to drive the imperatives.
Two problems. One with the selection of what is desired. The second with the fact that the desire may fluctuate.
First, a "bad" non-moral good may be chosen. Suppose we did not want pleasure, but instead chose pain as a non-moral good --strange as that may seem. Then, all our actions would be geared to producing the most amount of pain in the world. Not a happy thought. The theory that purports this thesis is called asceticism. It is a fact that people may desire all kinds of things, some of which are out of the ordinary. Yet, they are still desired as intrinsic goods. The second problem is not that "bad" non-moral goods are chosen, but that there can be "off-days" for the good ones. We may on Friday be in a good mood and want pleasure for everyone. Accordingly, we are honest to our friends and buddies who will party with us Friday night. Monday comes along and we are still hung over from the weekend. We don't want pleasure for everyone; we want them to be like us, miserable. Accordingly, we are less honest with the customers at our work, certainly less helpful, for our desire for pleasure is on the wane. It is affected by our mood that we want everyone to feel as miserable as we do.
What Kant doesn't like is that if something is said to be a duty or imperative, it should not depend upon its strength on our mood swings, our desires for some non-moral good such as pleasure, or the vicissitudes of our lives. We should be honest not because it produces a non-moral good, but simply because being honest is the right action to do. Kant holds that moral imperatives are categorical, not hypothetical. There are no ifs connected to the duty. It is not the case that we should be honest if we want pleasure. We should be honest, period. Our desires that change all the time should not be the basis for moral commands. A true moral command should be categorical not hypothetical; the command is absolute and does not derive from an assessment of non-moral goods which are desired.
But, then, what should be the basis for moral commands?
Deontology (deriving from the Greek world deon which means duty) is what Kant puts his money on. Here's his line of thought. We know that we want an ethics based on reason. The utilitarian came close, but no cigar. With utilitarianism, we reasoned about the desired consequences; we rationally assessed the consequences to see if they produced what we wanted, the most amount of some desired non-moral good such as pleasure. But, that type of reasoning was flawed, flawed by desires that could fluctuate. So, let's get rid of desires, right off the bat. Since they fluctuate and are not rational, they cannot serve for an ethics that will have absolute or "pure" rational foundations. Any worthwhile ethical theory cannot be contaminated with desires for non-moral goods. Getting rid of desires gets rid of the consequentialist type of thinking done by utilitarians; no more hypothetical coulds. Recall that an action for a utilitarian was morally neutral until its consequences were assessed. We cannot determined whether being honest is right or wrong until we have assessed the consequences of the being honest -whether in the particular case considered, being honest produces the most amount of the desired good. Kant will differ with the utilitarian on this point about actions being morally neutral. Kant will take the other side of the coin and say that actions considered in themselves are not morally neutral, they are at rock bottom either right or wrong.
We want an ethical theory which is rational, which has categorical duties (duties which do not fluctuate with desires) and is as straightforward or easy to use as utilitarianism. Kant goes for an ethics based on pure reason alone.
What is this pure reason alone? Let's take an analogy for help in understanding what Kant is after. Suppose I were to say to you that, "We ought to think that 2+2=5." You ask, "Why?" I say, "Because 2+2=5 make me feel better. Further, 2+2=5 is true for me." You reply, "Nonsense. It is a mathematical fact that 2+2=4. Try subtracting 4 from each side of your equation. The result is 0=1, which is impossible. At the bottom of what makes your equation wrong is a contradiction; nothing is equal to something. No rational thinker would or could think a contradiction. Believing that 2+2=5 may make you feel better in some way, but it's still wrong no matter how you feel about it. 2+2 can only equal 4."
The key is contradiction. Kant will show that actions are not morally neutral in themselves. In fact, if we put on the eyeglasses of reason, we will see that there is a characteristic in all wrong actions. What is that characteristic? It is that all wrong actions at bottom contain a contradiction, an irrationality. We should never base our actions on a contradiction, for from a contradiction, anything follows.
But, how are we to determine that an action is irrational, that it contains a contradiction. Utilitarian non-moral consequences may be hard to evaluate, but they are, in a fundamental way, easy to assess on a gross scale. Pleasure and pain are sensations that are hard to miss. If being honest makes us much more pleasurable than lying, then it is apparent that we should be honest. But, a contradiction. How do we spot that?
Kant gives us two formulations of the method for determining right actions. He calls his method, "the categorical imperative."
The following is a "quick version" of the first formulation of the categorical imperative. "I ought never to do that action that I could not will as a maxim to be a universal law for all persons to obey for all times." What this formula will do is to spot internal contradictions in kinds of actions that are self-defeating. A self-defeating action is one that cannot be commanded to be practiced and, in fact, practiced at the same time. Sounds confusing, but let's iron out the issue. Let's take an example to show how the formula works.
Suppose you are weary of taking notes. You think to yourself, "Why should I take notes when there are others who take excellent notes. They are good-hearted students or suckers. All I have to do is before the exam, ask to borrow their notes, copy them, and I'm in great shape. So, I just sit back enjoy the lectures or skip class for that matter, then borrow their notes. I'm a winner."
Now let's convert your individual proposed action to a maxim (a general rule of behavior). The maxim is, "Never take notes, always borrow another student's notes." Universalize that maxim to be practiced by all persons for all times and what happens? No student takes any notes, and, consequently, there are no notes to borrow. So, were everyone to obey the maxim, it would not work. It is irrational to command a maxim which cannot work (remember, the saying ought implies can. If something is claimed to be a duty, it is at least possible that it can be done). But, there would be no notes to borrow if every student failed to take notes and obeyed the maxim. Self-defeating maxims involve internal contradictions in that they are impossible to perform when universalized.
OK. But, what about more complicated cases. Consider that I borrowed money from you. You have forgotten to whom you lent the money. I know that you have forgotten. I think to myself, "This person has forgotten the promise that I made to pay back the money I borrowed. I am certain that he will never remember that it was I who borrowed the money. Since I think that I need money more than you the lender, I will just break my promise." The maxim involved is, "Break promises when it is expedient."
If we apply the first formulation of the categorical imperative, it is easy to see that the maxim is self-defeating. Were everyone to obey the rule, "Break promises when it is expedient," there would be no more promises made. Who would accept a promise knowing that the other person could break it for any or even no reason at all?
But, there is a second way to determine that the maxim is wrong. The second way involves Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative. It goes something like this: "Always treat persons as ends in themselves, never merely as a means to an end." Again, this formulation sounds unclear, but when we apply it to the above case, we can see how it works.
The person from whom I borrowed the money has unconditional value as a person. That is, his value in the world does not depend upon anyone's giving him a value as a person. His value as a person, as a rational moral agent, is unconditional or absolute. Just consider. You do not regard your value in the world conditional upon what others think of you as a person. You have as much value as they do. All of us may have radically different characteristics, but as a person, we have "one" absolute value or identical absolute values, which do not derive from social opinion or anything else, save that we are rational moral agents. To regard something of unconditional value to have conditional value is the same as regarding a square to have the properties of a circle. There are just no square-circles. Likewise, there are no conditional-unconditional persons. To treat a person as if he were something of conditional value is to involve in that very treatment a contradiction. Here's how.
When I break my promise, I am treating the lender merely as a means to my desired ends; I am using him and his money merely as a means to obtain the things I want. But, suppose I were the lender. Would I be willing to be treated in such a manner? Not on your life. So, the contradiction is revealed when we see that we are willing to do something to another person, which action we would not be willing to have done to us. If the rule is to be universalized, then it has to apply to us. But, if we are not willing to be governed by the rule, although we are willing to apply the rule to others, universalization does not occur. What happens is that we use other persons merely as means. And that involves a flat-out contradiction.
We can usually tell when we have been used merely as a means. Think of the times when you have said to yourself, "Oh, man, I've been had! That person used me as if I were a tool in his toolbox." If you put yourself in the other person's place when you are contemplating an action and realize that you would not want the action done to you, then you know it's wrong. The second formulation is straightforward and works. A version of it has been around for a long time, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The categorical imperative operates a bit more clearly than the "Golden Rule" because it does not fall into the trap of someone's saying, "Why yes, I would will that to happen to me. I would will that you not pay me back." For example, what the categorical imperative would require of the person who borrowed the money is this. To respect the unconditional value of the lender, the borrower should go to the lender and say, "I borrowed some money from you a while back. You seem to have forgotten about it. However, I am bad off financially, and hope that you will not ask for the money back. If you do, I will find a way to repay you, but I hope that you will not ask for it back. The choice is yours."
In the above, the lender's unconditional value as a person is respected. You have given him the complete information necessary for him to make a decision. You are not coercing his autonomy, but are leaving the decision entirely up to him. He is not "being had," but is being respected, no matter what his decision may be. He is not being treated merely as a means. Most importantly, were you in his shoes, this is precisely the way you would think a rational agent would handle the situation.
A note here. It is not wrong to use a person as a means when his/her unconditional value is respected. I go to my dentist and use him to maintain my teeth. I go to my doctor and use him to take care of my health. But, I pay them for their services. I respect the promise of reciprocity involved, and carry out my side of the bargain. Were I to skip town and leave them with a huge list of unpaid services, then I would be using them merely as a means.
We see that a deontologist reasons about actions differently from the utilitarian. While the utilitarian concentrates on the consequences and the good in them, the deontologist concentrates on the nature of the action itself. If, in the nature of action, a contradiction is found, then that is the rational evidence, the sufficient condition, to determine that the action is wrong. An appeal to good making consequences is neither necessary nor sufficient. In fact, were we souls in a place waiting to be put on a world, we could determine a priori whether or not a certain kind of action would be wrong on any world. The kind of action involved in the maxim, "Break promises when it is expedient" would be wrong in any world, for it involves a contradiction in its very nature. It would be wrong on earth in the year 3001 or any year, for that matter.
Deontology is a slick moral theory, but as with utilitarianism, it has its drawbacks.
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