Deontological Ethical Philosophies

| September 17, 2018

Deontological Ethical Philosophies



Merriam-Webster defines “right” as “something to which one has a just claim.” That which he or she claims can be a tangible object, a privilege, the opportunity to behave in a certain way, or to have others behave towards him or her in a certain way. Some rights are legal and others are moral. If one’s rights are protected by law, we consider them to be legal rights. Boatright also points out a distinction between specific and general rights. General rights might be considered “human rights” as they apply to all people. Specific rights are those that particular people possess due to their circumstances, such as an employment contract.

Rights can also be described as positive or negative. Negative rights act as barriers that keep others from limiting our rights, while a positive right obligates others to support our right or position in some way. My right to life is a negative right that keeps others from taking my life. However, it does not require others (individual people, organizations, or governments) to do anything or give anything to give me life.

Immanuel Kant developed an approach to decision making that requires one to act in a certain way simply because it is the right thing to do. He calls the approach the “categorical imperative,” and communicates this imperative in various formulations. In addition to the categorical imperative, Kant wrote about hypothetical imperatives. These are conditional requirements, so that if a person wants something or believes he should do something, then he or she should take the necessary steps to fulfill that desire or that sense of obligation. The categorical imperative is not conditional in nature. There are two primary formulations of the categorical imperative.

First, Kant stated, “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” Do you think the decision makers who took Enron down the wrong road would recommend their decisions for all business people everywhere and at all times? Most likely not.

This formulation includes the concept of reversibility, which sounds like the Golden Rule. Basically, I must be willing for others to use my same rationale against me if the roles are reversed. Further, the concept also includes the element of universalizability. Every person at all times should be able to follow the rationale I use.

Kant’s second formulation says, “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as means, but always at the same time as an end.”

People should follow these formulations, according to Kant, even if breaking them seems to have more of a utilitarian benefit. Holding down one person or one class of persons might benefit society in general, but does not pass the test of reversibility or universalizability. For example, slavery is a very efficient means of increasing work productivity and keeping costs low. However, we do not accept slavery as a viable option because it does not treat people as free or equal. If the roles were reversed, the slave owner would not want to become a slave. Slavery cannot be accepted universally. Finally, slavery treats people as objects, or as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves.

Justice: Justice deals with the fair and equal distribution of benefits and burdens in society. We usually talk about three types of justice: distributive justice, retributive justice, and compensatory justice.

Distributive Justice: The equal distribution of justice is challenging to tackle and brings up many emotional issues. The problem lies in the multiple claims on society’s benefits and avoidance of burdens that a society must bear.

Retributive Justice: Retributive justice has to do with blame and punishment. When someone breaks a law (legal or moral), we expect that person to be punished in some way.

Compensatory Justice: You may have heard the term compensatory damages used in a court verdict. Compensatory justice deals with issues of restoration and restitution and how someone should be compensated when wronged by someone else.

Equality Approach: The egalitarian approach states that equals must be treated equally. For instance, no one would claim that men and women should be paid differently for doing the same job. Further, unequals should be treated unequally. What I mean here is that if your job requires you to work longer hours, take on more responsibilities, or produce more output than me, then you should be paid more than me. All seems pretty obvious so far. However, let’s take a closer look. All people may be created equally, but all people are not equal in every way. You may be smarter than me. I might be faster than you. We each have our strengths and weaknesses. If society values your intelligence more than my speed, should I get paid the same amount as you or have the same job opportunities available to me?

Second, equal does not always seem fair. If we consider jobs where we are measured by output, and if I am handicapped in some way that prevents me from producing as much as you, then I get paid less.,My handicap may cause me great expense, so I need the income more than you and perhaps work longer and harder than you. So, equality is a bit more challenging to accomplish than it first appears.

Contribution Approach: Others might say that benefits should go to the persons who contribute the most to society. Most companies in America use this approach in determining salaries and benefits. Interestingly, this approach fosters individualism and competition among employees, whereas Japanese and other Asian-based companies seek to foster cooperation and team building.

The challenge of this approach is in determining the measure of contribution. Do you measure a person’s efforts or do you measure his or her output? Focusing on effort can have the adverse effect of rewarding incompetence or inefficiency. On the other hand, rewarding output can overlook the need for training or compensation for other employees. Focusing on output as the measure can ignore the needs of various disadvantaged groups.

Fairness Approach: In an effort to establish a comprehensive theory of distributive justice, let’s take a look at the ideas established by John Rawls. Rawls has established several principles of justice.

1. Principle of equal liberty – Various freedoms, such as voting, owning property, speech, worship, and various civil liberties, must be protected and provided equally among all people. Rawls calls these “liberties” and suggests that one should not give up his own or others’ liberties simply for an improvement in “welfare.”

2. Difference principle – This second principle can only be considered once the first principle is established. However, when each person has been granted fundamental liberties, a person might not have to have an equal share of welfare with everyone in society if the inequality means that all society will be better off. I think we can agree that all people are better off (welfare) if we have access to capable medical doctors. I don’t mind getting paid less than a doctor (difference in welfare) if it means that we have access to their services. As long as those who are least off (in terms of welfare) are better off than they would be otherwise, then the difference in the distribution of benefits is not unethical.

3. Principle of equal opportunity – “Everyone should be given an equal opportunity to qualify for the more privileged positions in society’s institutions.” Everyone would agree that job qualifications should relate to job requirements. However, this principle also holds that each person should have access to the training and education necessary to qualify for good jobs. If this occurs, then all the issues we talked about so far (efforts, abilities, and contributions) work together to determine a fair distribution of benefits.

So, how do we determine what is a fair distribution of benefits and burdens? Rawls suggests that one way is to consider how you might make these distributions if you did not know what portion you would actually receive. I’m sure you’ve heard about the wise mother of two kids who was deciding on how to divide the cake. She let the first child cut the cake and the second child select which of the two pieces he wanted. Similarly, if we did not know which piece of cake we would receive, then we would be more likely to divide the cake more evenly at the outset. This does not advocate a socialist society where everyone gets paid the same amount of money regardless of their work. It does mean, however, that when we consider the ratio of benefits to burdens each person possesses, the ratios across each person should be fairly distributed. If I receive more benefits, then I should also carry more burdens of society.

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