A2 Deontology

1. Korsgaard says that there is a HUGE distinction between ethical questions about individual action and political questions about state action.


Christine Korsgaard [“Christine M. Korsgaard: Internalism  nd the Sources of Normativity” Interview with Herlinde Pauer-Studer. Stanford university Press 2002. www.people.fas.harvard.edu/.../CPR.CMK.Interview.pdf]

I do agree with Kant’s partition between The Doctrine of Virtue and The Doctrine of Right. To explain why I’d like to go back to the ideas we were discussing at first about seeing philosophy as solving problems. You could see The Doctrine of Virtue, or ethics, and The Doctrine of Right, or politics, as being addressed to two different problems. The problem of ethics is how we are to act given that we have free wills and therefore must choose our own principles of action; the problem of politics is how we can be free in a world in which we interact with others. Kant sees these two problems as arising from two different domains of freedom: inner freedom of the will and outer freedom or liberty of action. The need to find principles that express your inner freedom is the problem addressed in the doctrine of virtue; the need to coordinate everybody’s outer freedom in a way that maintains that freedom is the problem addressed in the doctrine of right. These two problems exist side by side, and have related but different solutions. Although the two domains need to be systematically related, neither of them has to be dependent on or be a branch of the other. I think there is one way in which The Doctrine of Right does not cover everything we want to say about political life. We want to say something not only about the laws that formally govern our relations but about the kind of community that a political unit forms. But I think there is room for this in a Kantian account. I see Kant as deeply indebted to Rousseau in his political philosophy and also in his account of personal relationships. And I see this indebtedness to Rousseau as relate,md to what I said a moment ago about the possible role of the idea of the plural subject in Kant’s philosophy. A state is a kind of plural subject: the idea of the general will, which Kant borrows from Rousseau, is the idea of a shared will among a number of people. In Kant’s account of personal relations we also find an emphasis on the idea of forming a shared will with someone, of having a bond of love or friendship. One way to look at it is this— morality involves the will we share with anyone just in virtue of our common human nature; politics involves the will we share with those with whom we live together on a shared territory; and personal relations involve the wills we share with those to whom we have particular connections. All of those things exist side by side and are separate domains of normative problems, and solutions, and resulting obligations.

2. Deontology is a flawed moral system because it relies on the flawed assumption of a just initial distribution. Only utilitarianism creates outcomes that can escape this conservative bias.


Richard Chappell [Philosophy Department Princeton University.  “The Conservatism of Deontology.” April 8, 2006. Philosophy, et cetera. http://www.philosophyetc.net/2006/04/conservatism-of-deontology.html]

Opponents of consequentialism seem implicitly committed to the idea that the status quo is a morally privileged state of affairs. They abhor the idea of "utilitarian sacrifice", i.e. harming one person to help another more. But why? (It's not a failure to treat people as ends in themselves.) The resulting state of affairs is a better one. If deciding from a neutral position or "God's eye view" whether to actualize the former or the latter state of affairs, we should (ceteris paribus) prefer the latter. Why should things suddenly change merely because we're in the world, with the former state as the status quo? (I argue here that such a shift in context should make no difference.) People simply assume that the status quo involves a just distribution. (Witness the absurd cries that redistributive taxation is "theft".) But this is often not the case. It is sheer luck what circumstances one is born into, and even later in life we never manage to wrest full control back from the whimsies of fortune. So it will often happen that someone is better off than another without especially deserving this to be so. So why not benefit another at a lesser cost to him? He has no special entitlement to the extra welfare fortune has granted him. It's good that a person be well-off, of course. We certainly wouldn't want to harm him unnecessarily. But it is even better for someone to receive a greater benefit. We shouldn't refrain from shifting to a better state of affairs merely due to a prejudice in favour of the existing distribution. Of course, it's easy to see why traditional elites would want to promote a "morality" which favours their entrenched interests and the status-quo. It's less clear why we should support such a bias. Such concerns are bolstered once we recognize how hollow the so-called "doing/allowing distinction" is. There isn't any significant difference between harming someone to benefit another, and deliberately refraining from preventing such a harm. To prefer passivity is again to idolize "the natural way of things", what's historically "given", the world as it is rather than as it could be. It is, that is, to exhibit an unthinking deference to the status quo. Conservatism at its worst. Finally, those of a more egalitarian bent might balk at the idea of imposing significant harms on one person in order to provide a vast number of individually smaller (but larger in aggregate) benefits to others. But if we are to be unbiased about this, we must consider the situation from a neutral perspective, i.e. without privileging the arbitrary historical distribution. So consider the situation in reverse: would you recommend imposing vastly many small harms in order to greatly benefit one person? If not, then the initial judgment rests on a conservative bias.

3. Deontology can only evaluate actions; it cannot evaluate acts.

Christine Korsgaard [Prof. Stanford “Christine M. Korsgaard: Internalism  nd the Sources of Normativity” Interview with Herlinde Pauer-Studer. Stanford university Press 2002. www.people.fas.harvard.edu/.../CPR.CMK.Interview.pdf]

Both of them also acknowledge a distinction I have been thinking about a lot lately, which is the distinction between (as I put it) an action and a mere act. The idea is that an actionwhat I mean is something that is captured by Kant’s idea of a maxim—is an act for the sake of a certain end. To use a Kantian example, ‘telling a lie’ would be an act; ‘telling a lie in order to get some money from a would-be lender’ would be an action. According to both Aristotle and Kant it is the whole thing—this act for the sake of that end—that is the object of choice. And both of them think that actions in that sense are the units of moral assessment and the bearers of moral value.2 This sets them apart from many other moral philosophers. In the case of consequentialism, it is obvious that the unit of moral value is the act—and this is why it seems so obvious to consequentialists that it is productive force, effects, which constitute moral value. But even in eighteenth-century forms of deontology, where the question was about intrinsic rightness, the emphasis was often on the acts rather than on actions. So I see the focus on actions, in this sense, and the view that they are the bearers of moral value as a deep affinity between Aristotle and Kant.

Korsgaard Continues:

Certainly I do not think that a moral theory has to have a consequentialist structure. Earlier I mentioned, as a common point between Kant and Aristotle, the view that the unit of moral assessment is the action, the act undertaken for the sake of a certain end, rather than merely the act by itself. Acts may be assessed primarily in terms of their consequential value, but actions, the units of moral value, should not be. Of course I do not think that it is correct to say that Kantian agents do not care about or are not interested either in the consequences of their acts. It would be impossible even to formulate a maxim without attention to the intended consequences of an act. So, I think, there is in a way a very deep disagreement here about what the unit of assessment is.

The resolution is a mere act because no end is specified. This means the only moral system that can evaluate the resolution is consequentialism.

4. Minimizing harm is the purpose of morality.

Dan Barker. [PR Driector Freedom From Religion Foundation “How Can an Atheist Be Moral?” Freedom From Religion Foundation: FFRF. Madison. 2008.]

However, most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences are objective. Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that "Morality" exists in the universe, a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word "morality" is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds. If no minds existed, no morality would exist. Morality is simply the intention to act in ways that minimize harm. Since harm is natural, its avoidance is a material exercise. Organisms suffer as they bump into their environment, and as rational animals, we humans have some choice about how this happens. If we minimize harm and enhance the quality of life, we are moral. If we don't, we are immoral or amoral, depending on our intentions. To be moral, atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no Cosmic Code Book directing our actions. Of course, relative to humanity, certain general actions can be deemed almost uniformly right or wrong. Without the Ten Commandments, would it never have dawned on the human race that there is a problem with killing? The prohibitions against homicide and theft existed millennia before the Israelites claimed the copyright. The way to be moral is to learn what causes harm and how to avoid it. This means investigating nature--especially human nature: who we are, what we need, where we live, how we function, and why we behave the way we do. Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to whom we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering. By nature, those of us who are mentally healthy recoil from pain and wish to see it ended.

5. The Trombone problem.  Deontology is not a complete ethical system because it only offers constraints on action, but does not tell us what to do after we are done not violating anything, so cant guide action.  For example, deontology can't tell us what to do with objects or resources.  Ethical conflicts often center around problems of distribution.  If we were asked how to distribute trombones, we wouldn’t know according to their framework when the answer is obvious, we should just give the trombones to the best trombonists because the telos of the trombone is music.

6. The Batman paradox. Deontology violates core moral intuition by justifying inaction in the face of clearly preventable evils if doing so would cause even a minimal violation. Any system of morality, a concept meant to be a guide to doing what is right, that can do nothing in the face of unspeakable evil is non-sensical. As a result if actually followed, deontology results in nihilism. If individuals are continually forced to violate fundamental moral intuition in the service of abstract principles they will certainly lose confidence in morality as a tool for good, meaning deontology is ultimately self defeating.

7. Deontology takes as its premise that all individuals have inherent and initially equal moral value. However, in any hard moral situation in which deontology and utilitarianism reach different conclusions deontology necessarily gives more weight to some individuals than others by treating a smaller numbers interests as more important than the larger numbers. Also, the moral value of individuals in deontology is entirely arbitrary because it assumes initial distributions just.  However, because of the lottery of birth initial distributions are entirely random and undeserved and thus, should not be the basis of privileging the interests of some over a greater number of others who were not lucky. 

8. Deontology can't weigh between competing violations.  If deontology were exhaustive of morality it would require a different maxim to govern a potentially infinite set of circumstances. The evaluation of morally interesting situations will depend on more than one rights claim and often minor changes to a factual situation alter the normative evaluation of that situation.  If am running late for a meeting that I must be on time for and an obligation not to speed, I would violate some, which means its an unworkable system. This also makes deontology epistemologically implausible because in order to be a workable system agents would have to learn a separate injunction for each situation they could face.

9. In situations where rights conflict deontology becomes useless. Conflict between rights is inevitable because of the zero-sum nature of some distributions and relationships, often the interests of individuals trades off with the wellbeing of others. Deontological maxims are categorical prohibitions against certain actions but in situations of conflict some hierarchy of principles must be created or else deontology would be functionally useless in making any hard moral choice. Such a hierarchy would require a set of supplementary principles that would end up doing the majority of the moral work, rendering the original rights claims irrelevant.