Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College



A Brief Introduction to Formal Ethics

You've been thinking about and discussing two ethical situations in class, the torture situation and the attempted suicide situation. You've been asked to think about what course of action would be (or would have been) right or wrong in those situations.

You were not just asked, for example, what would be (or would have been) legally correct in those situations (which would be a purely legal question). You were not just asked what most people might do in that situation (a purely sociological question). You were not just asked what might feel more pleasant or unpleasant in those situations (a purely psychological question). You were instead asked what course of action you thought would be the best (or worst) one to take in those situations. That's the kind of question that ethics deals with.

How does one think about ethical questions? Do you just go on your gut feeling and follow whatever your feelings tell you? Do you just go on what people in authority have told you in the past? Do you just go with what the law and courts have to say? How does one go about deciding what course of action would be the best, or most right, course of action in a given situation? Or rather, how should one even start to think about questions like that? What methods of analyzing these questions would be most helpful and would be most likely to lead to the best answers?

In the history of thinking about ethical questions in the West, several methods for analyzing these questions have emerged. Many of those methods can be classified under two main headings: Teleological methods and Deontological methods. Below is a brief description of each of these two methods of thinking about ethical questions. In our discussions about ethical situations in class -- the torture situation and the attempted suicide situation, as well as some others we'll be discussing in the coming weeks -- you'll want to be able to identify which kind of thinking is being used to come to the conclusions people come to. Are they using a primarily teleological approach (TEE LEE uh LAWJ ih kul), or are they using primarily a deontological approach (DEE AWN tuh LAWJ ih kul)?

So here's what each kind of method is:

Teleological methods, sometimes called consequentialist methods, are based on estimating what the likely outcomes of a given course of action will be, and then choosing the method that has the most positive consequences and the fewest negative consequences. According to these methods, those actions should be chosen which lead to more positive and fewer negative consequences, and those actions should be rejected which lead to more negative consequences and fewer positive consequences.

In class, for example, some of you who said that it would be good to torture the person who had been arrested argued that the outcomes would be better if we did torture him (lives saved, etc) than if we did not (thousands killed, etc). That is using a teleological or consequentialist kind of thinking to determine which course of action would be best.

John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is usually seen as the classical expression of consequentialist ethical thinking, and so is Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics. Future lectures in the course will focus on Mill’s utilitarian method as the primary example of teleological ethical thinking. Mill's most famous book outlining this method is titled Utilitarianism. Fletcher's book on the subject, taking a somewhat different approach, is titled Situation Ethics.


Deontological, or duty-based, ethical systems, on the other hand, are those that simply claim, directly and simply, what the fundamental ethical duties are. The Ten Commandments (from Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Torah) would be examples of deontological ethical thinking. According to the Ten Commandments, these actions -- honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not commit adultery, keep holy the sabbath, etc -- are stated as simply right things to do or wrong things to do. They are said to be our clear moral duty. The Ten Commandments do not merely suggest, for example, that you look at the consequences of actions and then weigh the possible outcomes to determine if an action is right or wrong. Instead they say that some actions are just plain right and others are just plain wrong.

This is what characterizes deontological ethical methods: they simply state that some things are right or wrong. Some things are your duty to do (Greek deon: duty) and other things are your duty to avoid. Human Rights documents, for example, are instances of deontological thinking. When The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) says, for example, that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude" (article 4), or that "No one shall be subjected to torture" (article 5), it is saying these things are just plain wrong. When the UDHR says that "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country" (article 13), or that " Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association" (article 20), or that "Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work" (article 23), it is saying that these things are simply right and good.

Human Rights documents, therefore, exemplify deontological thinking. After all, rights and duties are just the mirror images of each other. When these documents say that person A has a certain right, that means that person B (or state B) has the duty to see that that right is fulfilled. If person A has the right to not be tortured, then person B has the duty to not torture them. Rights and duties are just two sides of the same coin.

How does deontological thinking figure out exactly which actions are right and which are wrong, though? Several different analytical methods have been developed for determining what our ethical duties are. Two of the more famous methods can be found in the writings of Natural Law ethics and in the writings of Immanuel Kant, particularly his books titled Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, and his Critique of Practical Reason. We will explore Immanuel Kant’s ethical system as the primary example of deontological thinking. The Human Rights documents we will be examining in the coming weeks will also be examples of deontological thinking.

Your assignment for this week will be to read selections from Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and from John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. Then you will write out answers to Study Questions for each reading, and post them into the SQs folder in our classroom.

And then, in the classroom folder for week one, you will discuss what you understand these Philosophers to be saying, and how you think their ideas apply to the situations we’ve been discussing.