Having now briefly taken a look at deontologists' foil,consequentialist theories of right action, we turn now to examinedeontological theories. In contrast to consequentialist theories,deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteriadifferent from the states of affairs those choices bring about. Themost familiar forms of deontology, and also the forms presenting thegreatest contrast to consequentialism, hold that some choices cannotbe justified by their effects—that no matter how morally goodtheir consequences, some choices are morally forbidden. On suchfamiliar deontological accounts of morality, agents cannot makecertain wrongful choices even if by doing so the number of those exactkinds of wrongful choices will be minimized (because other agents willbe prevented from engaging in similar wrongful choices). For suchdeontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with amoral norm. Such norms are to be simply obeyed by each moral agent;such norm-keepings are not to be maximized by each agent. In thissense, for such deontologists, the Right is said to have priority overthe Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not beundertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce (including even aGood consisting of acts in accordance with the Right).
Analogously, deontologists typically supplement non-consequentialistobligations with non-consequentialist permissions (Scheffler 1982).That is, certain actions can be right even though not maximizing ofgood consequences, for the rightness of such actions consists in theirinstantiating certain norms (here, of permission and not ofobligation). Such actions are permitted, not just in the weak sensethat there is no obligation not to do them, but also in the strongsense that one is permitted to do them even though they are productiveof less good consequences than their alternatives (Moore 2008). Suchstrongly permitted actions include actions one is obligated to do, but(importantly) also included are actions one is not obligated to do. Itis this last feature of such actions that warrants their separatemention for deontologists.
A third kind of agent-centered deontology can be obtained by simplyconjoining the other two agent-centered views (Hurd 1994). This viewwould be that agency in the relevant sense requires both intending andcausing (i.e., acting) (Moore 2008). On this view, our agent-relativeobligations do not focus on causings or intentions separately; rather,the content of such obligations is focused on intendedcausings. For example, our deontological obligation with respectto human life is neither an obligation not to kill nor an obligationnot to intend to kill; rather, it is an obligation not tomurder, that is, to kill in execution of an intention tokill.
It is probably best to learn the definitions (as they are used in philosophy) of the following words: a priori, a posteriori, deontology, consequentialism, utilitarianism, empiricism, subjective, objective, espistemology, ontology, metaphysics, aesthetics, metaethics, analytic/synthetic.Below I've listed many of the major works of philosophy, from those that require a lot of context to understand, to those that require very little.
Such criticisms of the agent-centered view of deontology drive mostwho accept their force away from deontology entirely and to some formof consequentialism. Alternatively, some of such critics are driven topatient-centered deontology, which we discuss immediately below. Yetstill other of such critics attempt to articulate yet a fourth form ofagent-centered deontology. This might be called the “controltheory of agency.” On this view, our agency is invoked wheneverour choices could have made a difference. This cuts across theintention/foresight, act/omission, and doing/allowing distinctions,because in all cases we controlled what happened through ourchoices (Frey 1995). Yet as an account of deontology, this seemsworrisomely broad. It disallows consequentialist justificationswhenever: we foresee the death of an innocent; we omit to save, whereour saving would have made a difference and we knew it; where weremove a life-saving device, knowing the patient will die. Ifdeontological norms are so broad in content as to cover all theseforeseeings, omittings, and allowings, then good consequences (such asa net saving of innocent lives) are ineligible to justify them. Thismakes for a wildly counterintuitive deontology: surely I can, forexample, justify not throwing the rope to one (and thus omit to savehim) in order to save two others equally in need. This breadth ofobligation also makes for a conflict-ridden deontology: by refusing tocabin our categorical obligations by the distinctions of the Doctrineof Double Effect and the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing, situations ofconflict between our stringent obligations proliferate in atroublesome way (Anscombe 1962).
The mirror image of the pure deontologist just described is theindirect or two-level consequentialist. For this view too seeks toappropriate the strengths of both deontology and consequentialism, notby embracing both, but by showing that an appropriately definedversion of one can do for both. The indirect consequentialist, ofcourse, seeks to do this from the side of consequentialism alone.
The perceived weaknesses of deontological theories have led some toconsider how to eliminate or at least reduce those weaknesses whilepreserving deontology's advantages. One way to do this is to embraceboth consequentialism and deontology, combining them into some kind ofa mixed theory. Given the differing notions of rationality underlyingeach kind of theory, this is easier said than done. After all, onecannot simply weigh agent-relative reasons against agent-neutralreasons, without stripping the former sorts of reasons of theirdistinctive character.
The last possible strategy for the deontologist in order to deal withdire consequences, other than by denying their existence, as perTaurek, is to distinguish moral reasons from all-things-consideredreasons and to argue that whereas moral reasons dictate obedience todeontological norms even at the cost of catastrophic consequences,all-things-considered reasons dictate otherwise. (This is one readingof Bernard William's famous discussion of moral luck, where non-moralreasons seemingly can trump moral reasons (Williams 1975, 1981); thisis also a strategy some consequentialists (e.g., Portmore 2003) seizeas well in order to handle the demandingness and alienation problemsendemic to consequentialism.) But like the preceding strategy, thisone seems desperate. Why should one even care that moral reasons alignwith deontology if the important reasons, the all-things-consideredreasons that actually govern decisions, align withconsequentialism?
The second plausible response is for the deontologist to abandonKantian absolutism for what is usually called “thresholddeontology.” A threshold deontologist holds that deontologicalnorms govern up to a point despite adverse consequences; but when theconsequences become so dire that they cross the stipulated threshold,consequentialism takes over (Moore 1997, ch. 17). Amay not torture B to save the lives of two others, but he maydo so to save a thousand lives if the “threshold” ishigher than two lives but lower than a thousand.
This first response to “moral catastrophes,” which is toignore them, might be further justified by denying that moralcatastrophes, such as a million deaths, are really a million timesmore catastrophic than one death. This is the so-called“aggregation” problem, which we alluded to in in discussing the paradox of deontological constraints. John Taurekfamously argued that it is a mistake to assume harms to two personsare twice as bad as a comparable harm to one person. For each of thetwo suffers only his own harm and not the harm of the other (Taurek1977). Taurek's argument can be employed to deny the existence ofmoral catastrophes and thus the worry about them that deontologistswould otherwise have. Robert Nozick also stresses the separateness ofpersons and therefore urges that there is no entity that suffersdouble the harm when each of two persons is harmed (Nozick 1974). (Ofcourse, Nozick, perhaps inconsistently, also acknowledges theexistence of moral catastrophes.) Most deontologists reject Taurek'sradical conclusion that we need not be morally more obligated to avertharm to the many than to avert harm to the few; but they do accept thenotion that harms should not be aggregated. Deontologists' approachesto the nonaggregation problem when the choice is between saving themany and saving the few are: (1) save the many so as to acknowledgethe importance of each of the extra persons; (2) conduct a weightedcoin flip; (3) flip a coin; or (4) save anyone you want (a denial ofmoral catastrophes) (Broome 1998; Doggett 2013; Doucet 2013; Dougherty2013; Halstead 2016: Henning 2015; Hirose 2007, 2015; Hsieh et al.2006; Huseby 2011; Kamm 1993; Rasmussen 2012; Saunders 2009; Scanlon2003; Suikkanen 2004; Timmerman 2004; Wasserman and Strudler2003).
Deontologists have six possible ways of dealing with such “moralcatastrophes” (although only two of these are very plausible).First, they can just bite the bullet and declare that sometimes doingwhat is morally right will have tragic results but that allowing suchtragic results to occur is still the right thing to do. Complying withmoral norms will surely be difficult on those occasions, but the moralnorms apply nonetheless with full force, overriding all otherconsiderations. We might call this the Kantian response, after Kant'sfamous hyperbole: “Better the whole people should perish,”than that injustice be done (Kant 1780, p. 100). One might alsocall this the absolutist conception of deontology, because such a viewmaintains that conformity to norms has absolute force and not merelygreat weight.