Deontology is a moral philosophy that states that the morality of an individual’s actions should be based on whether the action is right or wrong, based on an existent moral code. The ethics system proposed by deontology is rigid, as consequences of an action are not considered, and instead, the following of proper rules is encouraged. In deontology, also known as rule-based ethics, the action is more important than the consequences of an action since this is the only way to promote fairness and equality. On the other hand, utilitarianism as a moral approach proclaims that no act is fundamentally right or wrong. According to John Stuart Mill, a major proponent for utilitarianism, what is moral should be what creates the greatest level of good for the highest number of people. For utilitarians, the consequences, rather than the actions are considered as the basis of morality. Ultimately, morality should serve the purposes of pleasure and happiness, by maximizing good results while reducing the negative ones.
One difference between utilitarianism and deontology is that in the former, the end usually justifies the means while in the latter, the means must be ethical by known codes. In utilitarianism, which was proposed by Mills and Bentham, the actor should make decisions that create greater value compared to the alternatives. Utilitarianism, therefore, is consequentialist-oriented, as it advises the actor that the act that creates the best outcomes should be the one that creates the most happiness. However, in deontology, morality is determined by the moral rules available to the actor’s society, for example, religion. Essentially, the actions and consequences alike should be ethical, which means the actor should consider both sides of the case.
For example, under utilitarianism, an action such as lying or stealing can be considered moral if it creates the best possible outcome. For instance, if a dishonest businessman is hoarding food and refusing to sell it to hungry people in the hopes that the prices will go up, Robin Hood should steal the food. For the people who will get the food to satisfy their hunger, the action is moral and even heroic since it created the best possible outcomes. However, under deontology, the act of stealing itself is immoral since the act treats the store owner as a means to an end. Therefore, under this ideology, Robin Hood’s actions are immoral. The example reveals that while deontology is attractive, in that it appeals to human action, it is hard to apply to real life. For example, what happens when one has to choose between two evils, such as stealing and dying from starvation? When situations are not black and white, deontology becomes a complicated ideology to follow.
Despite criticisms, deontology asserts that consequences do not make an action right, as proposed by utilitarianism. The important features of deontology include that right or wrong depends on the individual’s duty to themselves and others. By stealing, for instance, one violates laws against theft. Kant, whose categorical imperative features dominantly in deontology stated that moral actions are those that have universability, or which are applicable to everyone in the same position. Deontologists advocate that an action should be done only if everyone else in the world would do it, and not because it’s consequences maximize pleasure. For example, if Robin Hood steals from the rich merchant, should everyone, is it right for everyone else to steal from rich merchants? If the act cannot be right when everyone else does it, deontology suggests, then one should not do it in the first place.
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