Deontology For Deontologists

Attempting to take these possible consequences into account clearly makes the calculation much, much more complicated. Again, part of the problem is attempting to determine how far into the future we must predict relevant consequences. But the further problem is: where do I draw the line with regard to consequences affecting what group of persons / living beings / non-animate entities? As I hope is clear, where I draw that line can make an enormous difference in the possible consequences of an act – and, thereby, how I decide which of two (or more) competing choices I should pursue.

In particular, as digital media radically extend the range of the possible consequences of our actions, the question of “consequences for whom” becomes central. Unlike commanders in war, we cannot simply assume that the consequences of our actions are limited to the citizens of a given nation-state.

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In the face of these sorts of difficulties and limitations, many people find that they cannot rely on consequentialism alone. They may want to retain consequentialist approaches for certain sorts of decisions – for example, when it is possible to make reasonably reliable predictions about the possible outcomes of our choices or when it is reasonably clear who will be affected, and within a specified timeframe. But, especially when this sort of insight and information are not available, they may turn to one or more of the following ethical frameworks.

Deontology For deontologists, what stands out in our opening example is that you have made a promise. And promises – along with, say, notions of basic rights and duties – have a (near-)absolute quality to them: they cannot be overridden by considerations as to how much pleasure (or pain) might be gained (or avoided) by violating them.

Religiously grounded forms of deontology are perhaps most immediately familiar to contemporary Westerners. For example, if I am a Jew, Christian, or Muslim, I believe that God has given us specific commandments and laws which define right and wrong for me – no matter what the consequences. So, negatively, I am commanded not to murder, not to lie, not to covet my neighbor’s property, not to commit adultery, etc. Positively, I am commanded to love God and my neighbor – the Golden Rule that appears to be a universal, in fact. Hence, a religiously grounded deontologist would believe that it is wrong to lie – even if, by lying, he or she might be able to gain significant material reward.

As a still stronger example: religious pacifists – whether rooted in Judaism, Christianity, or some forms of Buddhism – take the sacredness of life (all life for the Buddhist, not just human life) as an absolute. Hence, for pacifists, killing other human beings (and, for many Buddhists, any living thing) is always wrong – no matter what the consequences. Such pacifists would not only reject the consequentialist thinking, for example, behind the decision to use atomic weapons in World War II; they would further reject the use of violence against others even in self-defense. For the religious pacifist, killing another is always wrong, no matter what the consequences – including the possible consequence of losing one’s own life.

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