The deontological and utilitarian ethical theories are the most commonly practiced moral approaches. Both of these theories have one element in common. That is, their ideas of moral guidance rely on abstract, yet universal principles. Although both schools of thought are different in content and details, they both constitute the same dynamic in thinking – one universalized premise that dictates all actions one should or one should not do. Their entire framework of morality is derived from single abstract principles.
For the deontologist, pure reason dictates the code of action – without regard for the outcomes and for the utilitarian, the most ethical choice is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But is the reliance of both these moral approaches on a single abstract principle as the source of all moral guidance the right approach? The objective of this essay is to investigate this question and I would argue: such dynamics in thinking, to take one abstract and universal principle as the sole dictator of moral guidance is fundamentally flawed.
Must Read: Utilitarianism vs Deontology: A Comparison of Two Ethical Theories
Consequence Based Ethics
To disregard the many variables that constitute human nature, the factor of chance, and uncertainty in the general disposition of existence when ascertaining a moral theory would result in logically inconsistent theses and ultimately unpredictable actions. Here, we can establish that ethical principles are based on the idea that one supposed outcome has higher moral value than another. This is true even for the deontological approach. Although the deontological approach does not take the immediate outcomes into consideration when making moral decisions, it does take into consideration the overall impact of an action on the fabric of society.
One must not lie, even if that means blowing the whistle on Anne Frank. Why? Because if you tell one lie, you open the door for another which could start a chain reaction of lies. So to avoid setting this precedent – which is the outcome – deontological ethics categorically makes it imperative to always tell the truth and always do the right thing. Hence, we can infer that even the deontological theory is influenced by the outcomes of actions though not exactly as the utilitarian. Now that we have established that moral theories, including the deontological, are based on their supposed outcome, if the outcomes were to be entirely unpredictable, they would not hold true.
Pain Avoiding Ethics
When we look around, most of our actions are axiomatically based on our desire to avoid pain.
For instance, X proposes that action Y is immoral because it produces the experience of suffering. In this proposition, there are two claims. One, action Y creates the experience of suffering. And two, the claim that the experience of suffering is to be avoided. The second claim is a call for action which is based on the first one.
Now, unless otherwise proven by empirical evidence, the claim that euthanasia produces suffering cannot be held as a plausible proposition.
This problem can be extended to explain the flaws in the deontological approach taken by Kant. For instance, to set a categorical imperative that applies to all actions, without regarding all the variables involved in the execution of a certain action, would entail unpredicted results and most likely be farther from what the original condition of taking the action in question.
Must Read: Mystical Tendencies in Philosophical Evolution
Another argument against a single abstract principle as the sole source of moral guidance is this: If the truth is in the whole, as Hegel puts it, we cannot be sure of any moral theory to hold true without allowing history to take its course until the end.
Now, here the obvious question is when and where does history stop its development? It does not. The phases between different eras in history are interwoven and it does not have distinct ends.
Since history being the infinite series of events is never a complete phenomenon, truth, in this case, moral truth, is hidden within its continuous nature.
The Problem Of Variables
When we say X ought to be done in such a situation, we are saying so on account of the belief that Y would be the outcome. However, here we are not taking into consideration all the variables that could alter our anticipated result. Nor can we ever take all of the variables into consideration.
The reason being the unpredictable nature of phenomena. Further, if action X is morally right because it results in the outcome Y, then if the result is not going to be Y, X must not be morally right. Hence, we cannot set a universal moral principle as the sole source of ethics. Because a universal principle is applied in all events, regardless of the variables.
The more variables there are, the more unpredictable the results of the actions would be.
Here, an objection to this argument would be that duty ethics do not base moral guidance on anticipated outcomes. Instead, duty ethics dictates action based on a code that is derived from pure reasons which come much before the anticipation of outcomes. However, as we have established already, duty ethics also take into consideration the outcomes of certain actions, though it does so at a universal scale rather than particular.
Further Reading: How Do I Know I Exist?
Difference between moral knowledge and moral understanding
Carol Gilligan in the book “In a Different Voice” argues that when morality is based on abstract principles, men prioritize an ethics of justice. This prioritization is essentially their understanding of morality. She further argues that women prioritize an ethics of care, which is their moral understanding.
Now both male and females can have the knowledge of different ethical theories simultaneously. That is to say, a person who knows all the available options while making a moral choice can be said to have moral knowledge. However, the theory that dictates their actions can be said to be their moral understanding.
In other words, the moral belief of a person is their moral understanding whereas their moral knowledge constitutes their knowledge of all the moral options available while making a decision.
An abstract universal principle as the sole dictator of moral guidance is flawed. Ethical theories are based on their consequences. But the consequences are unpredictable and even if they were, we have no pure reason to avoid those which we try to avoid.