All people operate from the foundation of one or a combination of ethical philosophies, whether or not they are aware of it. Understanding ethical philosophies and identifying which one feels most “true” helps individuals understand why they view issues as they do and why they may seem unable to understand others who have opposing viewpoints. Understanding ethical philosophies also helps a person understand why she analyzes ethical dilemmas as she does. Two of the most common types of ethical philosophies are deontological and teleological.
Deontological philosophies operate from the belief that all human beings are of equal worth. This type of philosophy focuses on individual behaviors, rights, and duties.According to deontological philosophies, ethical principles are absolute and exceptions are rarely, if ever, justified. Thus, some actions are considered intrinsically immoral or wrong, regardless of any good or useful consequences that might result from them. For example, a person who believes it is wrong to kill and views that doctrine in a deontological way will not tolerate exceptions to that rule. So, for example, if a person adheres to this doctrine, he may be opposed to capital punishment, military action, and abortion because each of these can be considered a mode of killing. A person with such a deontological view believes that violating the doctrine in any way will cause greater harm to humanity than any immediate harm that may be caused by adhering to it. On the other hand, some persons may use their deontological perspective to override their usual beliefs about appropriate behavior. For example, they may feel a great obligation to serve their country by joining the military, regardless of their feelings about killing others, or may feel compelled to commit a crime, such as bombing an abortion clinic.
Teleological philosophies focus more on the consequences of actions, rather than actions themselves. Utilitarianism is one of the most common teleological philosophies. The name of this philosophy is taken from the idea of utility or usefulness. Developed by two English philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, this philosophy interprets the rightness or wrongness of actions according to their consequences. Similar to deontology, utilitarianism also values duty and obligation and regards all human beings of equal value. However, utilitarianism rarely views particular issues or behaviors as strictly right or wrong; rather, it allows for ambiguity, or a state of uncertainty or vagueness. This emphasis on the “shades of gray” in a particular issue steers a person to consider the consequences or end result of an action as an integral component in determining its ethical rightness. Examining the end result, then, demands that the needs of many people supersede the needs of a few, and values highly the greater good for humankind as a whole. For example, a person who adheres to utilitarianism may believe that a pregnant woman’s right to autonomy supersedes whatever rights her unborn fetus may have. For the legal system to rob the woman of her autonomy, even temporarily, may be viewed by some as a greater harm to her and to society as well, for in this country the right to self-determination (autonomy) is prized above nearly everything else.
No one ethical philosophy is right or wrong. Each person operates from a philosophical foundation consistent with her own religious beliefs, personal values, and life experiences. Individual actions may be supported or rejected by others based on their different philosophical foundation. If two persons are operating from different ethical philosophies, they may never agree on issues as controversial as abortion or capital punishment and will probably never understand one another’s viewpoints. Sadly, without such understanding social debate commonly deteriorates into name-calling and other unproductive argumentation. Learning about ethical philosophies such as utilitarianism and deontology promotes understanding of why people tend to disagree so heatedly about some issues and may further explain why some social debates never see resolution. Regardless of the ethical philosophy used and the specific decisions made, some situations have the potential for profound, long-term consequences.