Handout: An Introduction to ethics

Deontological / teleological theories

The word deon is Greek for duty. So deontological theories are theories of duty. In practice these theories create absolute rules to live by, deriving them from the nature of the act itself or the intention of the person.

ethics_cheating_cartoonConsider stealing as an example. A deontological theorist like Immanuel Kant argues that stealing is wrong absolutely because it is impossible to want a society where everyone steals. So if I universalise my action, and say "what if everyone does what I do and steals", I would never agree to this, because it means I have to agree that it's okay to steal from me. And that's something I would never want. So, says Kant we have a duty not to steal.

The word telos in Greek means end or purpose. So goodness here is linked to the consequences of an action. If my stealing the sausage in our film clip of Cinderella Man increases happiness, it is okay, if it doesn't, then it's wrong. One such theory which is teleological is utilitarianism, because it links goodness to the happiness which results. The purpose or end is maximising happiness.

We can set up a number of contrasts between these two approaches (this table is in fact an over-simplification, as we shall discover during the course - but it makes the point that we can examine issues in different ways).

                                 Deontological         Teleological

Knowledge                        A priori                         A posteriori

Goodness                          Intrinsic                         Extrinsic

Truth (nature)                   Absolute                        Relative

Truth (source)                  Objective                       Subjective (?)

Means/ends            Ends don't justify means    Ends justify means

These contrasts are important, because they show a very deep difference in outlook between deontological and teleological theorists. For example, Kant argued that moral knowledge can be grasped a priori meaning prior to experience, whereas Mill, a utilitarian, argues that we know a posteriori, after experience whether an action is right or wrong depending on the likely happiness produced (and we build up an understanding of likely consequences the more we experience life).

Exercise: can you name some goals that you have in life (be specific, don't just say "to be happy")?

Write down one duty you think you are obliged to perform to someone.

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