Deontological Ethics: Obligation and Intention

Immanuel Kant, an eighteenth-century German philosopher, believed that humans have certain duties regardless of the consequences they evoke. The deontological approach states that moral actions occur out of obligation and are judged based on the intention and motivation for the action. Duty is an expression of free will to do the right thing even if no one is paying attention. If a person performs his or her duty, the action is considered right because duties are morally binding obligations. Actions not motivated by duty are motivated by inclination, self-interest, or impulse. There are two primary levels of deontological theories. The first level is extreme or inconsequential, in which consequences are not considered at all; people believe that consequences have no relationship to morals (Kant, 1964). An example of this view is a person’s duty to tell the truth, no matter the potential consequences. A forensic scientist should state the facts and opinions regarding evidence even if the facts provide support for the opposing counsel’s case. Another common duty is to help other people. According to the extreme deontological theory, helping others is good even if the person is helping to do something wrong. For example, as a fellow crime scene investigator is swabbing bloodstain evidence, he or she contaminates the sample. In the spirit of deontological theory, the person’s coworker helps the investigator by omitting that particular swab from the evidence log. Although this is helpful to the investigator, it is noncompliant with proper procedure. The duty of helping is fulfilled without regard to the consequences.

The second level of deontological theory is moderate, in which consequences are applied in addition to other factors; this level is much closer to consequentialist theory. Kant believed that the consequentialists, those who follow the Utilitarian approach, are omitting a large part of ethics by neglecting their duty and the intention to do right. Kant (1964) demonstrated his feeling by stating, “It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except good will ”. The key to the deontological approach is human intention rather than consequences of given actions (e.g., “I intended to sign the chain of custody form before handing it over to the chemistry section”). Moral worth is based on the intention of the action; if the action taken is for the sake of duty, it is considered moral under the deontological approach. Suppose a robbery at a local store is called in at the end of a shift, Jim offers to respond to the scene because he knows this will give him overtime pay, whereas Bernie offers to respond to the scene because he is familiar with the store’s owners and wants to help. Although both actions have the same consequence—the scene is staffed and processed—Kant would argue that there is a moral difference. Bernie acted out of his sense of duty, whereas Jim was motivated by self-interest. Although neither person did anything wrong, one did not have the right motivation, which makes the act immoral according to Kant (1964). Although consequences may be considered in the deontological theory, they are not as important as intention.

One of the main differences between the deontological approach and other ethical models is that a person’s ideas do not change from one situation to another. While holding onto ideas eliminates some of the gray area that ethical issues often bring, the former relies on all people applying the same reasoning to all situations. Gray areas occur when there is more than one right answer or method and people must choose what is most right or most wrong in that particular situation. Kant was labeled ignorant, and his approach was highly criticized because of its vast difference from utilitarian views. Kant rejected happiness as a reward for good moral behavior because he felt that happiness is an ideal and cannot be fully comprehended. An example for demonstrating this perspective is drug dealers. The dealers typically have wealth and live in luxury, which one would presume leads them to happiness. If happiness is a virtue, would the drug dealers be considered virtuous despite their method of achieving happiness? According to Kant, instead of thinking, “Will an action make me happy?” the thought is, “Will the action make me worthy of happiness?” (Souryal, 2003).

The deontological theory is not problem free. The first problem that may arise is conflicting duties. A duty is anything a human must do; police officers have a duty to arrest people who drive under the influence; forensic scientists have a duty to state what evidence shows and provide expert opinions based on evidence; judges have a duty to qualify a subject-matter expert as an expert witness and to act as the gatekeeper in the courtroom. In all of these duties, the end result may not produce the greatest good or the most happiness; however, the duties are required. What if the duties conflict? For example, if a scientist knows that certain tests need to be completed, it is his or her duty to do so. What if the scientist’s supervisor states that the results are needed within the hour? Although the scientist has a duty to complete all necessary testing, he or she also has a duty to obey the supervisor. Which duty is more important and will provide the greatest moral worth? Unfortunately, Kant does not provide guidance as to the hierarchy of duties. Another problem with the deontological approach occurs when people begin to make exceptions regarding their own duties. To avoid this issue, it is essential to keep in mind that people, as individuals, are no different or more important than anyone else. People must respect the lives of others as much as their own, through fairness and equality, to truly use the deontological approach for an ethical life.

Moral actions are guided by duty and are based on dutiful principles or laws. The rules of conduct or laws to which Kant refers are maxims, such as “honesty is the best policy” or “innocent until proven guilty.” Maxims should be universally accepted and commanding so people cannot make up rules as they go and to ensure consistency in action without exception. There are two types of maxims: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical maxims are conditional instructions that stress what ought to be done, such as, “If I want to get a job in forensic science, then I ought to stay out of trouble.” Categorical maxims are unconditional orders to state the principles that need to be done, for example, “Tell the truth.” In comparison, the hypothetical maxim would state, “If you want to stay out of trouble, tell the truth” (Souryal, 2014). In the study of ethics, categorical maxims provide a foundation for ethical decision-making.

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