“Kantian Deontology, Utilitarianism and Ethics of Care:
A Comparison of Theories, and How They Defend Human Dignity”
Michael Phelan O’Toole
Mass Bay Community College
Ethics / PH 102
Professor Robert Tarutis
December 17th, 2008
In an effort to better understand what is considered “good,” it is necessary to compare what the ethical theories of utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, and the ethics of care conclude about how one acts morally, and how these different approaches exist as a defense to the concept of our having natural human rights.
Deontology is an ethical approach wherein the morality of actions is based on the motives or intentions behind the action, rather than its actual consequences. This philosophy is based around duty and principle, dealing with human rights. Immanuel Kant believed that, as human beings, we have an obligation to adhere to “the good,” in an unconditional sense. For an action to be deemed right, it must be intrinsically good, and thus should not be altered due to someone perceiving it as otherwise, or the consequence of that good act causing harm to someone or something unintentionally. Kantian deontology says that the intent to do right is what matters, as, in acting according, one is upholding the values of good. Kant argues that the effect of a well-intended action in itself cannot be the motivator for the act, as just as a right choice can lead to tangible positive consequences, there is nothing to stop a wrongfully minded act from somehow paving the way for something good. Kant’s philosophy asks one to consider the potential outcome if every action they took became a universal law. This is his categorical imperative.
The practice of good intention becomes an unwavering thing, as the obligation to always act within reason needs to be applied equally and without prejudice to be effective. The actual outcome of decisions should not be a question, as human beings embracement of “the good” should be constant, and they should see their own actions, and other people as an “end” in themselves, rather than a “means” through consequence. Conversely, with this sense of absolute moral code, Kant endorses scenarios such as a person, with the knowledge that to lie is wrong, giving away the location of a potential victim to a murderer.
This is in contrast with the theory of utilitarianism, which bases moral worth not on intentions, but exclusively the consequences. Specifically, utilitarianism is the idea that, so long as an action amounts to the greatest possible happiness, and thus, harmony among the most people, it is good. Happiness, or pleasure remains it’s main focus, and acting righteously, in order to feel good, make others feel good, and provide the basis for a flourishing society are means to this end. From this approach, in order to determine what is ultimately right, one must foresee what will happen as a result of their decisions and actions. This concludes that, whether intentions are just or foolhardy, the amount of good, or mutually beneficial effects, is what matters. While Kantian deontology grounds itself in dedication to “the good,” deriving from an internal, personal sense of unyielding virtue, regardless of result, utilitarianism is concerned with the good that is actually crafted out of action. While Kant’s theory suggests that you are obligated to do the right thing only, no matter possible pain it causes, utilitarianism is directly linked to making choices that support the functioning satisfaction of others.
Looking at the ethics of care, rather than an approach grounded in universal standard, or the pursuit of higher reasoning, human relationships are put at the forefront. This philosophy is based on nurturance, and recognizes interdependency between human beings, and thus a responsibility to protect and care for others based on real connections, and a general sense of value for human life. From this perspective, “the good” is rooted in positive treatment of our fellow human beings, without prejudice, and going out of one’s way to support the needs of those less fortunate than others. The theory puts a focus on reaching out to, and adequately addressing the individual needs of people who we recognize as important to us in relationships. The cultivation and support of our needs as humans, through unity is what matters here.
All these theories are applicable in defending the idea of human dignity, as, despite their differences in approach, regarding their placement of “the good,” they are primarily focused on constructing a way in which the well-being of all people is encouraged. When applied collectively, they illustrate that we must both govern ourselves through principles of rationality, so as to maintain overall understanding of “the good,” and act on good intention, in order to not succumb to selfishness or expect reward, as well as practice empathy, as it is necessary to put yourself in someone else’s position in realizing we are all worthy of the same things.
Kantian deontology’s intention based concept keeps in mind that we must truly desire to do good, not only for ourselves, but others as well. The application of reason allows us to decide if an action is consistent with what is truly good, and will be most beneficial to all parties. Though consequences remain out of our control, Kant’s idea that we consider what would result if all our own moral actions became universal occurrences, allows us to realize the potential impact of our decisions, and put them in the context of co-existing with other human beings, and subsequently how others actions would affect us.
While a system of standards of reason is helpful, bearing in mind that moral absolutes leave open the possibility of other people being harmed, empathy must be considered as well, as, in practice; there is always an exception to a rule. Ethics of care defend the concept of human dignity not through duty to principle, but through expressly the care and consideration of all people, simply because they are fellow humans, whom we respect. From this perspective, being that we are all similar in being born and charged with living our lives, empathy in itself is only reasonable. We all have the capacity to do right as well as wrong, but it is the ability to overlook discrimination and value another person and their unique potential and personality that is most moral. A principle of good alone should not take precedence over the uniqueness of a person or scenario, given that our existence entitles us to all encompassing rights. With that, Kantian deontology, in the absence of something like the abstract of religion governing the motivations for action, establishes that, being valuable in ourselves, it is simply our duty to not exploit each other.
From a utilitarian stance, by recognizing each person’s immediate value, we respect them enough to address their need for happiness, and thus work to come to the
best compromise which meets all of our preferences for a pleasurable life. Here, promoting the suffering or harm of another human being is wholly wrong, as there is no happiness being gained. Punishment that does not literally help to stop greater negativity does no good, as, a person, being entitled to a good life, is being shamed. If disrespect for the unconditional human rights is being employed, it ultimately advocates the growth of misery in the world. Utilitarianism defends dignity by advocating our right and desire for a pleasurable existence and by focusing on what will be most beneficial to the most people. With this, our human rights are collectively understood and attempted to be met most efficiently.
Through the idea of universal dignity, we, as humans, all deserve to be treated well, and live in a world free from chaos. These theories center on mapping out a way in which we can achieve satisfaction for ourselves, and reach our own goals while being equally considerate of others, or by setting a proper example of the duty we have to operate in favor of what is right. Ideally, one must not impend on another’s wellness, so long as it is congruent with “the good.” This should allow for a prosperous society and, the opportunity for a satisfying existence. The understanding that human life is intrinsically of great worth remains the one bond in defining and motivating the universal grasp of “the good,” regardless of which ethical theory is applied. Indeed, without it the theories of Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, and ethics of care would lose much of their meaning and purpose.