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Deontology Versus Utilitarianism in Terms of Morality in One’s Actions

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The knowledge about morality that we possess today is a culmination of years of philosophical debate and the development of rigorous theoretical concepts that help us delve further into the different aspects of the same. Such theoretical concepts include utilitarianism and Kantian deontology, which explore the aspects of morality in the actions of one, helping us determine whether one’s actions are to be deemed moral or immoral. In this essay, I will try to thoroughly examine the implementation of said theories in certain areas of knowledge and I shall highlight key differences between them by showing how the implementation of said theories affects one’s ability to act upon a situation. Furthermore, through this comparison, I shall conclude as to whether a middle ground between the influence of the said theories exists.

Formulated by the well-known philosopher Immanuel Kant, Kantian deontology deems that ethicality is to be examined by close inspection to whether a deed itself is right or wrong, regardless of the consequences/outcome of the deed and hence it deems the most ethical choice is the one which strictly abides by a set of rules. The theory establishes that one ought to do the right thing no matter the circumstances and avoid wrongdoing as that is what it considers to be a moral act.

Deontology is appreciated for certain aspects of it that help us assess a situation and deem what is the moral thing to do such as the emphasis on the value of every being. Deontology focuses on giving equal respect to every being and forces due attention to be given to the interests of a single being even when those are at odds with the interests of the masses. This means that deontology takes into consideration how a situation uniquely affects every single entity that is involved in it and then defines what action is to be considered moral without being influenced by the number of entities that are affected similarly. Furthermore, since deontology focuses on the intention of an action, it provides a sense of certainty and universality when judging a situation based on morality. This reduces the ambiguity in making judgments because one only needs to abide by the set of rules that are defined under this theory, to make a moral judgment.However, just like a coin, deontology too has a second side to it. With the strong emphasis on abiding a certain set of rules, deontology expects all situations to be absolute in nature which, as can be observed in the real world, is not possible and hence, the only option available is to create exceptions for the cases that aren’t absolute in nature. This itself weakens the base of the theory, rendering it impossible to judge any situation based on a set of rules as one could easily introduce multiple exceptions to mask an action as moral which would’ve been considered immoral under Kantian deontology. Furthermore, another anomaly that lurks around when considering deontology is the internal conflict between the different sets of rules that are established under it. Since deontology doesn’t explicitly define what one must do when such occurs, it is difficult to make a decision on what action to take.

Contrasting perspectives provide us with further insight on a particular topic and hence, utilitarianism is an apt example to explore against Kantian deontology. Formulated by a duo of well-known philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism determines the right from wrong through emphasizing the consequential aspect of deeds and hence it holds the most ethical choice being the one that produces the greatest amount of good for the greatest number. Due to its consequential nature, utilitarianism regards the intentions of an action to be of less importance and hence it doesn’t consider them when judging a situation on morality. Utilitarianism is further classified into two concepts, act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism focuses on individual actions and their potential to cause the greatest amount of happiness while rule utilitarianism focuses on the average amount of happiness created by many people conducting the same actions/ following the same rule. Utilitarianism is appreciated for the influence that it has on our regular and rather small judgments of morality that we make on a day to day basis. It is regarded as a well-meaning theory since it prioritizes a good outcome/consequence in any situation, which is the basis of our day to day decision-making construct. Utilitarianism also introduces rationality into the judging of the morality of an action. By considering the sum of all the good outcomes of an action and weighing them against the bad consequences of the same, utilitarianism helps in making a rational judgment about an action that one is ought to do. Furthermore, utilitarianism also makes an apt choice in judging situations where deontology fails to provide appropriate insight. Due to its consequential nature, utilitarianism allows us to judge any situation in a bespoke manner and helps in doing moral actions through rational thinking. However, utilitarianism too is riddled with flaws of its own which render it difficult to make a judgment on whether an act is moral or immoral. With the ability to make judgments on morality uniquely for each situation, utilitarianism introduces too much ambiguity and as a result, loses the certainty in the arguments that it makes, which is completely opposite to Kantian deontology. Furthermore, utilitarianism is not apt for making judgments regarding long term consequences since it is very difficult to predict the long term consequences of an action and hence utilitarianism is not useful when assessing the morality of an action that spans over the long term. Moreover, utilitarianism may justify distinctly immoral actions as moral under certain circumstances. Such actions being the ones that we would never approve of on their own. This introduces a paradox in morality as we need to decide whether we should do an immoral act to generate a moral outcome or not.

Since Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism both have their strengths and weaknesses, hence I think it is important to see how both of these theories affect our moral judgment over a given situation to understand how they are different and/or similar in nature. One of the examples where we could test both of these theories is the well-known Trolley problem. With a wide variety of variations, the general theme of the problem states that there is a rampant trolley rushing towards 5 people and you have access to a switch that will divert the trolley from their path but will put another bystander into harm’s way. In this given situation, the utilitarian aspect suggests that we pull the switch so that the trolley is diverted, because according to utilitarianism, saving the lives of 5 people results in a greater outcome than saving a single life. On the other hand, Deontology states that it is universally deemed immoral to take a life and hence the deontological aspect suggests not to pull the switch since killing the single person is considered immoral because it was your intention to do so while the death of the 5 people was not intended by you. Here, it can be seen that both the theories have their reasons to state which approach is moral and a conceptual stalemate is reached. Another example where we can test both the theories is a well-known thought experiment where you are a doctor at a hospital and have four patients who are in dire need of vital organ replacements otherwise their lives would be at risk. The experiment also states that you have a healthy patient who has all the organs that the other four require which miraculously matches the patients and hence the dilemma is whether you should let the four people die or kill the healthy patient and harvest their organs for transplantation. The utilitarian approach suggests that we should kill the healthy patient and take their organs to save the four dying patients because according to utilitarianism, saving the four dying patients is a greater outcome than letting the healthy patient live. However, as discussed above, utilitarianism is not appropriate when making judgments about situations that span over the long term and if we think about it in a broader timeframe, the hospital looks more like a slaughterhouse which is not a greater outcome. On the other hand, the deontological approach suggests that one ought not to kill anyone and hence we should let the healthy patient stay alive because according to deontology, killing a person is against the universal set of rules and by letting the healthy patient live, you are following the rule and as a result, you are acting morally. 

However, as discussed above, Kantian deontology doesn’t state what one must do when two or more sets of rules conflict with each other. Since we are in the role of a doctor, we are also bound by the rules of the Hippocratic oath that doctors take when they start practicing and hence we must abide by the rule that says that we must do everything to save a patient’s life. This creates a paradox in our morality because the same theory that suggests we let the healthy patient stay alive also suggests we kill a healthy patient for the organs. Hence, here we can see how both the theories are applicable to this situation but their flaws don’t allow them to be used on their own.

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