Part 3: Deontology, Pragmatic Ethics, Discourse Ethics, Ethics of Care, Role Ethics, Anarchist Ethics and Postmodern Ethics


Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek, deon, “obligation, duty”; and -logia) is an approach to ethics that determines goodness or rightness from examining acts, or the rules and duties that the person doing the act strove to fulfill (, 2007).

This is in contrast to consequentialism, in which rightness is based on the consequences of an act, and not the act by itself.

Under deontology, an act may be considered right even if the act produces a bad consequence (Olson, 1967), if it follows the rule or moral law.

According to the deontological view, people have a duty to act in a way that does those things that are inherently good as acts (“truth-telling” for example), or follow an objectively obligatory rule (as in rule utilitarianism).

Immanuel Kant’s theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons (Orend, 2000; Kelly, 2006).

First, Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon) (Kant, 1780).

Second, Kant argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives (expressed as maxims) of the person who carries out the action.

Kant’s argument that to act in the morally right way, one must act from duty, begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself, and good without qualification (Kant, 1785).

Something is ‘good in itself’ when it is intrinsically good, and ‘good without qualification’ when the addition of that thing never makes a situation ethically worse.

Kant then argues that those things that are usually thought to be good, such as intelligence, perseverance and pleasure, fail to be either intrinsically good or good without qualification.

Pleasure, for example, appears to not be good without qualification, because when people take pleasure in watching someone suffer, they make the situation ethically worse.

He concludes that there is only one thing that is truly good:

Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will (Kant, 1785).

Pragmatic Ethics

Associated with the pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and especially John Dewey, pragmatic ethics holds that moral correctness evolves similarly to scientific knowledge: socially over the course of many lifetimes.

Thus, we should prioritise social reform over attempts to account for consequences, individual virtue or duty (although these may be worthwhile attempts, if social reform is provided for) (Lafollette, 2000).

Discourse Ethics

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has proposed a theory of discourse ethics that he claims is a descendant of Kantian ethics (Shabani, 2003).

He proposes that action should be based on communication between those involved, in which their interests and intentions are discussed so they can be understood by all.

Rejecting any form of coercion or manipulation, Habermas believes that agreement between the parties is crucial for a moral decision to be reached (Collin, 2007).

Like Kantian ethics, discourse ethics is a cognitive ethical theory, in that it supposes that truth and falsity can be attributed to ethical propositions.

It also formulates a rule by which ethical actions can be determined and proposes that ethical actions should be universalisable, in a similar way to Kant’s ethics (Shabani, 2003).

Habermas argues that his ethical theory is an improvement on Kant’s ethics (Shabani, 2003).

He rejects the dualistic framework of Kant’s ethics.

Kant distinguished between the phenomena world, which can be sensed and experienced by humans, and the noumena, or spiritual world, which is inaccessible to humans.

This dichotomy was necessary for Kant because it could explain the autonomy of a human agent: although a human is bound in the phenomenal world, their actions are free in the intelligible world.

For Habermas, morality arises from discourse, which is made necessary by their rationality and needs, rather than their freedom (Shabani, 2003).

Ethics of Care

Care ethics contrasts with more well-known ethical models, such as consequentialist theories (e.g. utilitarianism) and deontological theories (e.g., Kantian ethics) in that it seeks to incorporate traditionally feminised virtues and values that – proponents of care ethics contend – are absent in such traditional models of ethics.

These values include the importance of empathetic relationships and compassion.

Care-focused feminism is a branch of feminist thought, informed primarily by ethics of care as developed by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings (Tong and Williams, 2009).

This body of theory is critical of how caring is socially assigned to women, and consequently devalued.

They write, “Care-focused feminists regard women’s capacity for care as a human strength,” that should be taught to and expected of men as well as women. Noddings proposes that ethical caring has the potential to be a more concrete evaluative model of moral dilemma than an ethic of justice (Noddings, 1984).

Noddings’ care-focused feminism requires practical application of relational ethics, predicated on an ethic of care (Noddings, 1989).

Role Ethics

Role ethics is an ethical theory based on family roles (Ames, 2011).

Unlike virtue ethics, role ethics is not individualistic.

Morality is derived from a person’s relationship with their community (Fraser, Robbins and O’Leary, 2011).

Confucian ethics is an example of role ethics (Ames, 2011) though this is not straightforwardly uncontested (Sim and May, 2015).

Confucian roles center around the concept of filial piety or xiao, a respect for family members (Chang and Kalmanson, 2010).

According to Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, “Confucian normativity is defined by living one’s family roles to maximum effect.”

Morality is determined through a person’s fulfillment of a role, such as that of a parent or a child. Confucian roles are not rational, and originate through the xin, or human emotions (Fraser, Robins and O’Leary, 2011).

Anarchist Ethics

Anarchist ethics is an ethical theory based on the studies of anarchist thinkers.

The biggest contributor to the anarchist ethics is the Russian zoologist, geographer, economist, and political activist Peter Kropotkin.

Starting from the premise that the goal of ethical philosophy should be to help humans adapt and thrive in evolutionary terms, Kropotkin’s ethical framework uses biology and anthropology as a basis – in order to scientifically establish what will best enable a given social order to thrive biologically and socially – and advocates certain behavioural practices to enhance humanity’s capacity for freedom and well-being, namely practices which emphasise solidarity, equality, and justice.

Kropotkin argues that ethics itself is evolutionary, and is inherited as a sort of a social instinct through cultural history, and by so, he rejects any religious and transcendental explanation of morality.

The origin of ethical feeling in both animals and humans can be found, he claims, in the natural fact of “sociality” (mutualistic symbiosis), which humans can then combine with the instinct for justice (i.e. equality) and then with the practice of reason to construct a non-supernatural and anarchistic system of ethics (Kropotkin, 1922).

Kropotkin suggests that the principle of equality at the core of anarchism is the same as the Golden rule:

This principle of treating others as one wishes to be treated oneself, what is it but the very same principle as equality, the fundamental principle of anarchism?

  • And how can any one manage to believe himself an anarchist unless he practices it?
  • We do not wish to be ruled – and by this very fact, do we not declare that we ourselves wish to rule nobody?
  • We do not wish to be deceived, we wish always to be told nothing but the truth, and by this very fact, do we not declare that we ourselves do not wish to deceive anybody?
  • We promise to always tell the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth, we do not wish to have the fruits of our labour stolen from us, and by that very fact, do we not declare that we respect the fruits of other’s labour?
  • By what right indeed can we demand that we should be treated in one fashion, reserving it to ourselves to treat others in a fashion entirely different?

Our sense of equality revolts at such an idea (Kropotkin, n.d.).

Postmodern Ethics

The 20th century saw a remarkable expansion and evolution of critical theory, following on earlier Marxist Theory efforts to locate individuals within larger structural frameworks of ideology and action.

Anti Humanists such as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and structuralists such as Roland Barthes challenged the possibilities of individual agency and the coherence of the notion of the ‘individual’ itself.

This was on the basis that personal identity was, at least in part, a social construction.

As critical theory developed in the later 20th century, post-structuralism sought to problematise human relationships to knowledge and ‘objective’ reality.

Jacques Derrida argued that access to meaning and the ‘real’ was always deferred, and sought to demonstrate via recourse to the linguistic realm that “there is no outside-text/non-text” (“il n’y a pas de hors-texte” is often mistranslated as “there is nothing outside the text”); at the same time, Jean Baudrillard theorised that signs and symbols or simulacra mask reality (and eventually the absence of reality itself), particularly in the consumer world.

Post-structuralism and postmodernism argue that ethics must study the complex and relational conditions of actions.

A simple alignment of ideas of right and particular acts is not possible.

There will always be an ethical remainder that cannot be taken into account or often even recognised.

Such theorists find narrative (or, following Nietzsche and Foucault, genealogy) to be a helpful tool for understanding ethics because narrative is always about particular lived experiences in all their complexity rather than the assignment of an idea or norm to separate and individual actions.

Zygmunt Bauman says postmodernity is best described as modernity without illusion, the illusion being the belief that humanity can be repaired by some ethical principle.

Postmodernity can be seen in this light as accepting the messy nature of humanity as unchangeable.

David Couzens Hoy states that Emmanuel Levinas’s writings on the face of the Other and Derrida’s meditations on the relevance of death to ethics are signs of the “ethical turn” in Continental philosophy that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hoy describes post-critique ethics as the “obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable” (2004, p. 15).

Hoy’s post-critique model uses the term ethical resistance. Examples of this would be an individual’s resistance to consumerism in a retreat to a simpler but perhaps harder lifestyle, or an individual’s resistance to a terminal illness.

Hoy describes Levinas’s account as “not the attempt to use power against itself, or to mobilise sectors of the population to exert their political power; the ethical resistance is instead the resistance of the powerless”(2004, p. 8).

Hoy concludes that:

  • The ethical resistance of the powerless others to our capacity to exert power over them is therefore what imposes unenforceable obligations on us
  • The obligations are unenforceable precisely because of the other’s lack of power
  • That actions are at once obligatory and at the same time unenforceable is what put them in the category of the ethical
  • Obligations that were enforced would, by the virtue of the force behind them, not be freely undertaken and would not be in the realm of the ethical (2004, p. 184).

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