Sunday, 24 January 2010


It's a commonplace in discussions of Kant's moral philosophy to characterise it as "deontological" where the term "deontological" is meant to indicate that Kant places a priority of the right over the good. However, I have long been troubled by the assumption that in terming Kant's moral philosophy "deontological" that there is a basic and simple rationale for describing him as not allowing teleological considerations into his ethics when it has seemed to me that there are a lot of pretty good reasons for seeing his ethics as being teleological. In fact the suggestion to the effect that Kant's ethics are teleological was a prime motive when I wrote my book Kant's Practical Philosophy: From Critique to Doctrine. However, when this work was reviewed in Mind by Oliver Sensen the objection to this argument followed the lines I have suggested, namely, it pitted against the book's line concerning teleology the view that Kant asserts the priority of the right over the good and is hence committed to a form of deontological ethics. Sensen's review in Mind was very fair (unlike some that appear there) and took a considerable amount of time to make a lot of my argument explicit so I am far from complaining about it. But in making this stock response to the work he reiterated a distinction which I had been trying to unsettle. It has recently struck me that, in responding to the view that Sensen was orthodoxly presenting, it is necessary to attempt a very nuanced set of distinctions and I'm going to use a few postings to attempt to draw them out. After doing so, I will then return to the question of the view that I was attributing to Kant in my book when I presented an argument for understanding his ethics as teleological.

So: I think the following distinctions need to be made. First of all, the difference between "deontology" and the priority of the right over the good. Secondly, the difference between a teleological view of ethics and a consequentialist one. Thirdly, the prospects for constructing a picture of Kant's ethics that views it as teleological whilst also allowing for the point that Kant does articulate a reason for viewing the right as prior to the good. In order to arrive at the picture suggested here though it will first be necessary, for these three points to be convincingly made, to articulate what, in any event, the real meaning is of such expressions as "deontology", "teleology", "the priority of the right over the good" and "consequentialism", each of which are more challenging than is often thought.

In this post I will begin with a focus on "deontology" looking at what is specific to it. The problem with doing with this is that those who specifically try to focus on it in order to discuss the nature of it, by contradistinction to any other view, hold very conflicting and contrary views as to what it consists in. So, Barbara Herman, for example, in a piece articulating a reason why Kantians should bid farewell to deontology, views it as primarily a thesis about value where deontology is understood to be asserting that, in some sense, ethics is "independent" of value. By contrast, Samuel Freeman articulates what is distinctive to deontology by asserting that on such a view there is not a single rational good or, put positively, that there is a plurality of rational goods. So, on one of these views deontology is a thesis concerning value, whilst on the other, it is a pluralist theory of what is good.

These quite different views of the nature of deontology indicate a reason to look more carefully at how it has been characterised in previous works, works that may well be at the back of contemporary definitions but whose implications may have been forgotten or only remotely remembered, hence indicating a basis for the divergent conceptions of deontology. So, if we look back at William Frankena's 1963 volume Ethics we will find ways in which the divergent characterisations of Herman and Freeman can be brought together. In relation to Herman's conception, to begin with, we should note that Frankena describes the deontological view as concerned with "certain features of the act itself other than the value it brings into existence" and in making this point Frankena suggests that taking account of the "value" in moral considerations is to bring in reference to something that is, in some way, distinct from the moral nature of the act, something, that is, that has non-moral force. Since the deontologist is committed to understanding acts in this way it would appear that there is an independence from "value" thus understood in their considerations.

However, Frankena makes a further set of claims concerning deontology that appear to make more sense of the view of it proclaimed by Freeman. So, on further examination of deontology, Frankena claims that it can be distinguished into two separate forms, one that is termed act-deontology and another that he labels rule-deontology. Starting with act-deontology we get quickly moved towards a view of ethics very similar to situation ethics though this is slightly complicated by Frankena's suggestions of a distinction between moderate and extreme views of act-deontology. On the moderate view of act-deontology, Frankena claims, general rules can be built up on the basis of particular cases but a general rule cannot ever supersede a particular judgment concerning what should be done. By contrast, extreme act-deontologists assert "we can and must see in or somehow decide separately in each particular situation what is the right or obligatory thing to do" in a way that is independent of general rules which gives us a form of particularism that effectively converges with situation ethics. Either form of act-deontology clearly amounts to a suspicion of general principles with attention focusing on specifics of situations and does imply, as Freeman suggested, a form of pluralism.

Frankena subsequently distinguishes both forms of act-deontology from the view that he calls rule-deontology. The latter does embrace some sense of rules where these rules establish the nature of what is right or wrong and do so independently of considerations of production of the type of non-moral "value" that Frankena had earlier mentioned. So it would appear that there are grounds for accepting that both Herman and Freeman have captured part of the point of a deontological view though both are also partially misleading. In the next posting I'll set out how, by contrast, the question of the claim of the priority of the right over the good should be understood.


Ettore Grillo said...

In the field of the moral philosophy two fundamental schools try to indicate the right path to follow. There is the deontological school and the teleological school. The former teaches the individual must follow the moral rule all the way, the latter says what does it matter is the aim (telos) of the action. Personally in my life I follow the teleological criterion and I act looking at the goal of my action not at the rule. If I foresee for my action a good issue I act without caring of the moral precept.
The book I have recently written deepens many moral issues. I want to draw it to your attention, as you may be interested in it. The title is “Travels of the Mind” and it is available at
If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.
Ettore Grillo

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for the comment. I am aware that usual contrast is between teleology and deontology and that when the contrast is put like this it appears that the former involves aims and the latter rules. However, I am opening a discussion that will complicate this distinction as this posting on which you have commented already begins to do by talking about the distinction between different kinds of deontology. More postings will later follow including one specifically addressing the question of teleological views of ethics.