As I mentioned in W03 (Slide #11) I’m not introducing “Deontology” and “Consequentialism” as fully worked out theories, but only to help you appreciate a critical divide in the way we can think about the moral domain. The reason why this divide occurs is because our own intuitions are themselves divided, even within ourselves–think of the majority reactions to Trolley and Transplant (Slide #23). For the purposes of the class material, your job is to grasp that critical divide. Many of your questions are interesting and important in their own ways–don’t get me wrong–but make sure you don’t let them distract you from the main points I’m making.

Alright, Deontology first, introduced at Slide #13, the basic stance saying that the moral status of an action is all about how it relates to categorical norms. Remember that this is an action we are talking about–which means it’s always comes with an intention behind it; it’s not just “behavior”. And calling these categorical norms is to say that the norms prescribe what agents are obliged or prohibited to do “no matter the consequences”.

prof you mention, no matter the consequence but it would only matter to deontologist if the consequence is actually bad?

How if I do something moraly correct and fulfill the norm but the consequeces turn out to be bad?

I said no matter the consequence. That means no matter what the consequences are! Do note that by “consequences” we mean primarily the “objective consequences of our actions in the world”. Also, obviously, it is built into a doctrine like this that it is never morally bad for me to obey a true moral norm (setting aside issues of moral conflict), even if the consequences can be bad more generically, e.g., because it reduces well-being.

For deontology will we be focusing on Kantian ethics?

Are categorical norms mentions different from categorical imperatives?

are norms objective?

Only tangentially–in fact, you’ve already seen all the Kant connections. Remember that this class is deliberately not structured around figures and famous grand theories, but narrower topics.

does this mean all categorical norms are morally right?

All true categorical norms? Of course. But that’s trivial.

Where do categorical norms come from? Does deontology only say we should follow these norms or does it also try to justify why these norms shld exist?

Isnt one of the objections to deontology the same as the objection to PST? ie they tell us we should follow norms/preferences but doesn’t tell us why we ought to have those norms/preferences? And so dont we need another theory/subtheory to justify it

I think you mean to ask either: How do we know that these proposed norms are the true norms? What are the foundations grounding the true norms, which makes them the true norms? Strictly, speaking, these aren’t questions we will directly discuss in the module–because as I mentioned previously, they are not as easy to get into when we don’t have the philosophical chops to do so. But learning what the true norms would have to be like qua norms, that we can do.

since there is plurality, does that mean that all deontologists can subscribe to different norms and they can still be considered deontologists?

Typically, Deontological theories are pluralist–they include more than one norm. that aren’t reducible to each other.

If deontology is about the action-intention, isn’t it separate from reality? What about actions that the intended outcome was not achieved?

if I accidentally dropped my flower pot and killed someone, to a deontologist, is this wrong? does the intention matter?

so far what we discussed only concerns whether a behaviour/action is morally right/wrong. what about the intention alone? for example someone with bad intention but does not act on it / the consequent of the action is not violating any norms?

Whether you actually had that intention in your action isn’t something that you can just make up, so to speak. So there’s a hard reality there. If you aren’t sincere, you might be able to fool others, but that doesn’t mean there’s no truth to the matter.

Let me consider a concrete illustration. Suppose there’s a Deontological norm saying that intentionally deceiving others is morally wrong. Mindful of the norm, you were careful in expressing yourself when conveying a delicate matter to someone. You chose your words carefully, checking on whether he understood you. There’s a truth to the matter as to whether you really intended to not deceive. And there’s a truth to the matter as to whether you made a conscious effort to be careful. Unfortunately, the other guy is not very smart and blinded by his emotions. and so heard what he wanted to hear instead of what you were trying to say. Did you intentionally deceive him? No, you didn’t violate the norm. Did you succeed in telling him what you believe to be the truth, no–but it’s not your fault and your conscience is clear.

We can reverse the polarity too–suppose in a moment of hate you really wanted to punch the other person. You were ready to violate a norm against intentional harming, let’s say. But despite your best effort, your kungfu was just too lousy. All you did was to give the other person what–by all appearances–looked and felt like a friendly pat on the back. Or you were just unlucky and the person stepped away in a nick of time even though he was entirely unaware of what you were doing? So how? We can say that you didn’t intentionally harm and so you didn’t violate the norm, strictly speaking. But this doesn’t mean you didn’t “mean evil”, as we might say. And if your Deontology is very sophisticated (or fussy), you might even have norms about never intend to harm, not just intentionally harm, under which a violation has taken place. But otherwise, minus such norms, you haven’t actually violated a norm against intentional harming.

What happens if you are talking about someone who is inebriated?

Someone who is acting under the influence can’t really be said to be fully intentional in his or her actions. But this doesn’t mean he or she got into the mess unintentionally. If you knew jolly well that more than 2 cans of beer will basically tip you over and you drank nonetheless, you got drunk intentionally. Once you are drunk, your running over the puppy on the road isn’t intentional–you were in full control of your body and your mind wasn’t fully in operation. But guess what, we will still blame you for the puppy’s death–because you got into this situation intentionally!

but what if someone is causing harm to others intentionally to save someone else? is that still morally wrong under this idea since there is a good intention behind it?

is that to say that in the case of deontology, the ‘spirit of the law’ is important to consider?

The person caused harm to others, and per hypothesis, there’s a norm against intentionally harming–then, all things else being equal, he has done wrong! See discussion of “Warlord” in later Q/A.

No. Talk about the spirit of the law refers to the intention behind the law–we are talking about the intentions behind people’s actions.

How much does the person have to be aware of (the depth of) the consequences of the actions at the time, for it to be deemed “intentional”?

Really good questions! Not that easy to answer. Our general concepts tend to work ok for day to day occurrences but that doesn’t mean they will always withstand the deepest levels of scrutiny if we really want to give them that. My advice, for now, is to stay local in your judgments.

Imagine me (Prof Loy) typing on my keyboard. It’s a highly intentional activity–not in the sense that I’m consciously aiming every individual key stroke since part of what it means that I can touch type is to say that I don’t have to think about hitting “A”, hitting “B” and so on. But I’m definitely making words appear on the screen according to my intention. Conversely, those words appearing on my screen appear there because I intended them to. But of course, in order for the specific words to appear on the screen, what’s really happening is that my depressing each key on my keyboard connects electrical switches, a process which sends signals through the USB cable to my computer, signals that are then picked up by the USB controller on the motherboard and fed to the appropriate processors according to the relevant programming in the operating system, to generate other signals which are sent via the PCI-e port to the GPU for further processing to generate more signals to be sent via display port cable to my monitor, which then “displays” those signals as patterns of lights on the screen and so on. Now, since in order for those words to appear on the screen, all that must happen, there is a sense in which I do intend those signals to travel via the USB cable to the computer and so on. These are all things that are implied by my more general intention to make “W03 Q/A Part 2…” appear on the screen. So in one manner of speaking, all those things happened by my intention–at least derivatively. But surely I don’t need to know about them to have the more general intention to type so as to make “W03 Q/A Part 2…” appear on the screen, and for me to be doing something that counts as “intentionally typing ‘W03 Q/A Part 2′”?

Can we judge people and their intentions by some factor they could not possibly know?

If I see a drowning child and I don’t try to save him, is this action morally wrong? But what if I don’t know how to swim and I might drown if I try?

Most Deontologists will say no while actual outcome consequentialists will be less forgiving–this pretty much follows from the doctrines.

Homework–think of the smallest set of Categorical Norms under which you would be in the wrong for not trying to save the child, and the smallest set in which you wouldn’t be.

But prof what if my friends just so happen to have no common sense, and truly believe that throwing water on my face to wake me up is the best method. Is it still up to me to decide if their intentions are truly valid? Isn’t it subjective?

What if you lie about your intentions/actions?

In one sense, it’s never just up to either of you–just as you don’t get to declare “I’m in pain” and that alone making it true that you are in pain, likewise, with one interesting exception, your declarations about the intentions behind your actions don’t determine whether you really intended. There’s a truth to the matter of whether you intended–others may not know (directly), but you jolly well know (in your own heart)! And it’s that truth that determines whether you have violated a relevant norm. Whether people know, and whether you can successfully hide your true self from others is a separate matter. Of course you can lie. But the very idea of a lie about your own intentions is exactly dependent upon there being a truth to the matter in the first place.

What’s the interesting exception? (It’s not really a true exception but just a minor complication.) It’s when the action itself is done with words (or at least a class of such actions anyway). Imagine that you are at an expensive restaurant with friends and the waiter asks you whether you want to have the fillet mignon or the catch of the day or some vegetarian option, and you said “vegetarian, please”–to impress your date, who is vegetarian. But you are not only not vegetarian, you absolutely love a properly done medium rare fillet mignon. Even the fish is still preferable to you compared to the vegetarian alternative (“What’s on today? Portobello steak… sigh…”) But did you order the vegetarian option? Yeah, you did. You said the appropriate words at the appropriate time in the appropriate context… Sorry pal, your words have committed you! The fact that you don’t want the vegetarian option doesn’t change this fact. The fact that you ordered the vegetarian really only to impress your date didn’t change the fact that you did order the vegetarian, using your words. You can even change your mind and try to have the order changed–but that still doesn’t mean you didn’t order the vegetarian earlier! So in one interesting sense, your declaration fixed your intention! But a I said, this isn’t really a true exception but a complication–because even here, there’s a truth to the matter as to whether you really did say “vegetarian, please” as opposed to something else, like, “veterinarian, bliss”. But if you did say the former, you have ordered accordingly.

I wanted to say a bit about knowledge of other people’s intentions–but maybe another time. The thing to note is that, in case you haven’t noticed, we act on the basis of our beliefs regarding other people’s intentions all the time. We make mistakes too, but the very recognition that those were mistakes also presuppose our ability to distinguish between truth and falsehoods when it come to people’s intentions. As they say, this isn’t really rocket science. It only looks mysterious when we “do philosophy” in a very abstract way too quickly and forgot to stay connected to earth.

Would the will of the person after the action is performed affect the judgement of the action by deontology? For example if the person regrets doing the action.

I think it will and should affect your judgment of the person overall, and make you more forgiving, for instance. But that need not affect your judgment of the action itself.

Hypothetically, if we need to, say sacrifice a life, for the purpose of vaccine trials (if not there would be no cure), would that be violating the constraints set by deontology?

how extensive can threshold and constraints come into the scope of categorical norms?

All that will just depend on what categorical moral norms are included in Deontology… In principle, all possibilities,

Are we going to discuss patient-based and agent-based deontology theories?

Not directly. However, the issue of a moral patient will come up in Webinar 04.

Do deontologists factor consequence at all into their determination of moral right or wrong?

If you generated a list of categorical norms based on the consequences of those actions, where does that leave you?

The whole point about the Deontological stance is to say that the moral status of the action has to do with the quality of the action itself (don’t forget the intention bound up with it). What that action brings about out there can matter, but it’s not the main or only thing that does–it’s not the thing that determines if the action is morally right or wrong! Conversely, when what the action brings about out there is all that matters, you are now squarely in the domain of the Consequentialist.

the optional reading “Doing Harm” highlighted the difficulties drawing a line between deontology and consequentialism — do we need to understand and know the difficulties?

For the purposes of our class, you need to grasp what I called the critical divide, and the ramifications following for the two sides. This doesn’t mean that there cannot be highly sophisticated versions of the two that ultimately make they hard to distinguish, or that a lot more focused attention on the critical divide won’t reveal difficulties. But those things are there for your interest; they aren’t what we are targeting for the class. Optional really means optional. For the purposes of the class, focus on the simpler “pure” versions at the two ends of the critical divide.