Wednesday, April 05, 2006



Ethics lesson

Deontological ethics (from the Greek Deon meaning obligation) or Deontology is an ethical theory holding that decisions should be made solely or primarily by considering one's duties and the rights of others. Deontology posits the existence of a priori moral obligations, further suggesting that people ought to live by a set of permanently defined principles that do not change merely as a result of a change in circumstances. One of the most important implications of deontology is that praiseworthy goals can never justify the immoral actions; ends do not justify the means. Deontology is directly in opposition to consequentialism, an ethical theory in which the ends can justify the means because decisions are judged primarily in terms of their consequences.

Consequentialism refers to those moral theories that hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgement about that action. Thus, on a consequentialist account, a morally right action is an action which produces good consequences. As its name suggests, consequentialism focuses on the outcomes of actions, emphasizing the results rather than the kinds of acts involved.

In general, consequentialist theories focus on actions, however, this need not be the case. Rule consequentialism is a theory that is sometimes seen as an attempt to reconcile deontology and consequentialism. Like deontology, rule consequentialism holds that moral behavior involves following certain rules. However, rule consequentialism chooses rules based on the consequences that the selection of those rules have.

Various theorists are split as to whether the rules are the only the only determinant of moral behavior or not. For example, Robert Nozick holds that a certain set of minimal rules, which he calls "side-constraints", are necessary to ensure appropriate actions. There are also differences as to how absolute these moral rules are. Thus, while Nozick's side-constraints are absolute restrictions on behavior, Amartya Sen proposes a theory which recognizes the importance of certain rules, but these rules are not absolute [8]. That is, they may be violated if strict adherence to the rule would lead to much more undesirable consequences.


Consequentialism is often contrasted with deontological ethics. Deontological theories focus on types of actions rather than the particular consequences of those actions. Thus, deontological theories hold that certain actions are wrong simply because of the nature of that action. Consequently, a deontologist might argue that we should stick to our duty regardless of the consequences. For example, Kant famously argued that we had a moral duty to always tell the truth, even to a murderer asking where their would-be victim is.

However, consequentialist and deontological theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, T.M. Scanlon advances the idea that human rights, which are commonly considered a "deontological" concept, can only be justified with reference to the consequences of having those rights. Similarly, Robert Nozick argues for a theory that is mostly consequentialist, but incorporates inviolable "side-constraints" which restrict the sort of actions agents are permitted to do.

For more, check out Wiki.

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