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Basic Features Of Deontological Bioethics Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1774 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Deontological basis of bioethics is characterized primarily by an emphasis upon adherence to independent moral rules or duties. Hence in order to have correct moral choices, one has to understand simply what our moral duties are and what precise principles exist to regulate those duties. Deontological comes from the Greek root “deon” which means “Obligatory” or “Duty” so deontology is concerned with the study of duty1.

Within deontological ethics,” What makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm,” but there are differences among different school of thoughts about which moral code people should follow.

An action is correct if it is in accordance with a moral rule or principle. A moral rule is one that is (a) laid on us by God, (b) required by natural law, (c) laid on us by reason, (d) required by rationality, (e) would command universal rational acceptance, or (f) would be the object of choice of all rational beings. What is essential is the link between right action, moral rule, & rationality.

Basic Features of Deontological Bioethics

It stresses the worth of every human being and gives equal respect to all.

It forces due regard to be given to the interests of a single person even when those are at odds with the interests of a larger group and there by provides the basis for human rights.

Some acts are always wrong and some things should never be done, no matter what good outcomes they produce.

provides ‘certainty’

Consequentialist ethical theories bring a degree of uncertainty to ethical decision-making, in that no-one can be certain about what consequences will result from a particular action, because the future is unpredictable.

Duty-based ethics don’t suffer from this problem because they are concerned with the action itself – if an action is a right action, then a person should do it, if it’s a wrong action they shouldn’t do it – and providing there is a clear set of moral rules to follow then a person faced with a moral choice should be able to take decisions with reasonable certainty.

Of course things aren’t that clear cut. Sometimes consequentialist theories can provide a fair degree of certainty, if the consequences are easily predictable.

Furthermore, rule-based consequentialism provides people with a set of rules that enable them to take moral decisions based on the sort of act they are contemplating.

deals with intentions and motives

Consequentialist theories don’t pay direct attention to whether an act is carried out with good or bad intentions; most people think these are highly relevant to moral judgements.

Duty-based ethics can include intention in at least 2 ways…

If a person didn’t intend to do a particular wrong act – it was an accident perhaps – then from a deontological point of view we might think that they hadn’t done anything deserving of criticism. This seems to fit with ordinary thinking about ethical issues.

Ethical rules can be framed narrowly so as to include intention.


Deontologists typically believes that we must not harm people in any ways. We should not lie, kill innocent people, or torture anyone. These prohibitions constrain us in what we may do, even with intention of bringing maximum happiness or in quest of good ends. Deontologists differ in how stringent these constraints are. Some think them absolute. Roman Catholic moral theology has traditionally held that one may never intentionally kill an innocent person. Kant infamously argued that it would be wrong to lie, even to prevent murder. Other deontologists have held that, though constraints are always a significant consideration, they may be overridden, especially if that is the only way to avoid catastrophe. Either way, deontology sometimes requires agents not to maximize the good. While, of course, any moral requirement restricts us in what we are permitted to do, we shall use the term constraint to refer .to moral restrictions that may require one not to maximize1 I the good, where these restrictions do not stem from our special relationships to others. The latter restrictions fall under a separate category: duties of special relationship.

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Most deontological theories recognise two classes of duties. First, there are general duties we have towards anyone. These are mostly prohibitions, e.g. do not lie, do not murder. But some may be positive, e.g. help people in need. Second, there are duties we have because of our particular personal or social relationships. If you have made a promise, you have a duty to keep it. If you are a parent, you have a duty to provide for your children. And so on.

We each have duties regarding our own actions. I have a duty to keep my promises, but I don’t have a duty to make sure promises are kept. Deontology claims that we should each be most concerned with complying with our duties, not attempting to bring about the most good. In fact, all deontologists agree that there are times when we should not maximize the good, because doing so would be to violate a duty. Most deontologists also argue that we do not have a duty to maximize the good, only a duty to do something for people in need. As this illustrates, many deontologists think our duties are quite limited. While there are a number of things we may not do, we are otherwise free to act as we please.

Discovering our duties

If we need to consider our duties when making moral decisions, how do we find out what our duties are? Deontologists tend to appeal to moral reasoning and insight. For example, W. D. Ross argued that it was self-evident that certain types of actions, which he named prima facie duties, were right (The Right and the Good). He listed seven classes of prima facie duties: duties of fidelity (such as keeping a promise), reparation (when we have done something wrong), gratitude, justice, beneficence (helping others), self-improvement, and non-maleficence (not harming others).

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Aquinas started from insight into what is good and the nature of human flourishing. We have direct rational insight into what is good; and this informs our idea of what human nature is. It lays down that what is good is truly desirable, and what is bad is truly undesirable. Aquinas then argued that certain things, such as life, marriage, living in friendship and harmony with others, and practical reasonableness, are truly desirable, and that this is self-evident.

By contrast, contractarians believe that morality derives, in some way, from what people would agree to if making a contract with each about how to behave. Different theorists give different accounts of what the conditions for making the contract should be, and of how morality derives from this contract. One version, defended by Thomas Scanlon, argues that moral principles are principles of behaviour which no one can reasonably reject (What We Owe to Each Other). If an act is permitted by a principle that could be reasonably rejected, then it is wrong. How do we know what is ‘reasonable’? Scanlon develops an intuitionist theory of moral reasoning.

Conflicts of duties

A duty is absolute if it permits no exceptions. This causes problems in cases where it seems that two absolute duties conflict with each other: anything we can do will be wrong. Should I break a promise or tell a lie? Should I betray a friend to save a life? One response is to say that a real conflict of duties can never occur. If there appears to be a conflict, we have misunderstood what at least one duty requires of us. If duties are absolute, we must formulate our duties very, very carefully to avoid them conflicting. Another response is that (most) duties are not absolute. For instance, there is a duty not to lie, but it may be permissible to lie in order to save someone’s life. Duties can ‘give way’ – Ross argues that our usual duties are not absolute, but ‘prima facie duties’ – they are duties ‘at first sight’. In cases of conflict, one will give way and no longer be a duty in that situation.

But how do we know how to resolve an apparent conflict of duties? Ross argued that there are no hard and fast rules about this; we have to use our judgment in the situation in which we find ourselves. But if we have no criteria for making these decisions, won’t disagreements about what to do be irresolvable? Deontologists may reply that this lack of guidance is a strength of the theory. Choices in life are difficult and unclear, a moral theory should not pretend to provide all the answers. A moral life calls for insight and judgment, not knowledge of some Philosophical theory.

We may object that this is an unsatisfactory answer for a deontologist to give, because one of the two acts is wrong in itself while the other is not. If one act was good, but the other act better, the issue of not being able to tell which was which might not be so pressing.

Types of Deontological Philosophies

Deontological theories are not goal oriented: – rightness or wrongness of an act not explained in terms of its consequences, but its own features.

Divine Command theory: the most common forms of deontological moral theories are those which derive their set of moral obligations from a god. According to many Christians, for example, an action is morally correct whenever it is in agreement with the rules and duties established by God. 

Duty Theories: an action is morally right if it is in accord with some list of duties and obligations. 

Rights Theories: an action is morally right if it adequately respects the rights of all humans (or at least all members of society). This is also sometimes referred to as Libertarianism, the political philosophy that people should be legally free to do whatever they wish so long as their actions do not impinge upon the rights of others. 

Contractarianism: an action is morally right if it is in accordance with the rules that rational moral agents would agree to observe upon entering into a social relationship (contract) for mutual benefit. This is also sometimes referred to as Contractualism. 

Monistic Deontology: an action is morally right if it agrees with some single deontological principle which guides all other subsidiary principles.


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