I recently discussed my take on the difference between morals and ethics. As a quick recap, morals are deeply held beliefs that are personal truths to each one of us, whereas ethics are codes behavior and the way in which we present our actions to the world. Because morality is so personal, it’s very easy to find difference and often very hard to find commonality. But ethics as an expression of morality are a subject of much debate, and popular among philosophers down through the ages.
Today I would like to discuss the concept of deontological ethics. Remember, there are two generally accepted areas of ethical frameworks; aretaic and deontological. Aretaic deals with values and virtues; one needs to ask what would a virtuous person do in this case, and that will inform what action they should take. Deontological ethics is focused more around the study of what is right. The root of the word deontology comes from duty and study; and so deontological ethics is quite literally the study of one’s duty.
The general categories that deontological ethical frameworks fall into are either agent-centered or patient-centered. Agent center theories tend to focus purely on the actor, or the moral agent. The easiest way to conceptualize the idea of a moral agent is simply the person who is making the choice or is presented with the dilemma. A rock cannot be a moral agent; nor can a dog because neither of them have a sense of self or are capable of conceptualizing right or wrong. There is some debate as to when a child becomes a moral actor as well; one would hardly condemn a newborn as having committed a “wrong” act should they bite their mother. This has some interesting implications when it comes to organizational ethics as well.
Those that are affected by this choice are considered the patients in the realm of ethics. These theories usually center around the concept of rights. From here it’s relatively easy to see that we can focus the study of deontology on either the person making the choice, or we can look at how their actions might impact other people and use that to inform our decisions.
It’s worth mentioning here that the field of deontological ethics has an opposite, or a foil; consequentialism. Consequentialism is a many-faceted concept but ultimately it’s making the argument that the ends justify the means. So, if I were to drop an asteroid on a city and kill a few million people, but that kept us all from going to global nuclear war, then by killing those people I have saved even more. My favorite example here comes from Marvel, of course. Thanos wants to eliminate half of all people in the universe. What an atrocity, worst criminal in the history of said universe, etc. But his argument, that the remaining people will have untold riches in resources and will enjoy a significantly higher quality of life is logically sound. Thanos is the ultimate utilitarian, and would have good company in John Stewart Mills. So his framing of his goal in terms of overall suffering is a good one and justified under the ethical framework of consequentialism. (Note: I am not advocating for the murder of half of all living people.)
Captain America is having none of this. He’s willing to actually ensure that the total suffering in the universe continues to increase, because he is opposed to killing. His values include a value on human life, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness incidentally. We can easily empathize with these values because most people in the United States share them. (But not globally; there is always room for disagreement.) Captain America is definitely a deontologist, and feels a strong duty to protect. I mean, look at how duty bound he is in that tight leather suit. If you want to dive more into this (the ethics of Thanos’ decision making, not Captain America’s tight leather outfit), I can highly recommend this excellent breakdown over on Philosimplicity.
Understanding which ethical framework somebody is using to justify their actions is important. Whether writing a character and a story or trying to understand the motivations of someone you work or live with, being able to empathize with their point of view is essential. now, the hard part of course comes when you disagree with them. and that’s fine; we don’t always have to agree all of the time. In fact in the realm of storytelling if I were to write only characters that I agreed with things would get rather boring, very quickly. So whether you are a storyteller or a leader, understanding how people frame ideas of duty and consequences will make you better at what you do. If you want to dive into some thinking on the grounding for these concepts, I can point you down the rabbit hole. For the third part in this series, read on. Is there actually a difference between leaders and storytellers? What do you think about duty and consequences? Let me know in the comments!