A Moral Caricature: Deontology

How do you make your moral decisions? I’m not asking which things you think are good and which things you think are bad. I’m asking what factors do you consider, and what is the process by which you consider them, when you are trying to figure  out what is right or wrong, good or bad?

The online comic Strong Female Protagonist stars a superhero like many others in a story unlike many others. For those who remember Concrete, SFP reminds me more of that book than any other super hero comic I know. Recently, the main character had to make some decisions that any real person would spend some time second guessing. She wondered if she made the right choices. She wondered if she could even be called a hero. And yet, she wasn’t certain that choosing anything else would have been any better. All this is good. All this is appropriate characterization. But these thoughts are thoughts that in other comics would have been dealt with, if at all, in a dramatic moment. Either the hero would mull ethics immediately after a battle while in the midst of unignorable devastation caused by the battle, or the ethics would be glossed over until the middle of the next big battle, when suddenly the hero would seize up and the drama wouldn’t be so much about the goodness of the character as the timing of the character breaking free of the paralysis.

But Strong Female Protagonist is not a typical super hero story. Our Hero ends up wrestling with these questions in the park, speaking to an old professor she ran into by happenstance. One of the themes you’ll see explored here on Pervert Justice will be meta-ethics: how do we make decisions about what is good and what is bad? The creators of SFP did an excellent job with the hero/professor conversation and so I thought I’d take the opportunity afforded by this story to begin a discussion on meta-ethics.

We’ll start just with this one story-page to get a glimpse of a number of major considerations one encounters when attempting to consciously craft a meta-ethics that works with one’s own values and perspectives and experiences. On this page, the hero’s old professor (black hair) is drawn coat-on to represent one side of an ethical debate while the professor is drawn coat-off to represent the other side of the same debate. Our Hero is drawn in the middle of this debate, focussed on listening:

A Page from Strong Female Protagonist where our hero listens to one professor play-act both sides of the Deontology vs Consequentialism debate.

This is one of the first questions we must solve in meta-ethics: will we consider results alone? Or will we consider other factors? Note that consequentialism and especially Utilitarianism (one instance of consequentialism) are not the only systems of ethical decision making that consider the results (or the ends) of an action. Deontology, which is made up of those ethical systems that prioritize following rules or adhering to duties, is frequently asserted to be a system of following rules instead of considering consequences. This, however, is a caricature. Not only are consequences considered at various points in deontic reasoning, but an appeal to consequences is frequently a justification for imposing duties in the first place.

How else would you describe the first argument on the page?

CoatOn: If the ends justify the means, then all is permitted! In the name of the Greater Good we may commit any atrocity we like.

CoatOn is arguing for considering factors other than results, but the argument is that if we fail to examine the means and not merely the results, then we will end up with bad results. This is a Deontic position, a position that ethics is best described as a set of duties and the relationship of individual decisions/actions to those duties. Yet it is not blind to consequences. Rather it asserts that we will get better consequences if we begin our ethical decision making already constrained by certain duties. These duties are different in different deontic systems. In some an important duty/value (often the most important duty/value) is obedience to some authority, typically a god. But not all deontic ethical systems are religious and not all religious ethical systems are deontic.

Consequentialism is typically seen in contrast to deontology. There are other ethical decision making systems to consider, but the most frequently debated today reside in one of these two camps. For now, it’s enough to distinguish deontology from consequentialism and to understand that deontologists don’t ignore consequences, but rather have a belief (sometimes presuppositional) that the best ethical decision making is a process that considers more than consequences alone.