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An Examination Of Deontology And Utilitarianism In Deeply Moral Situations

1305 words - 5 pages

An Examination of Deontology and Utilitarianism in Deeply Moral Situations

Samuel Adams (1722 - 1803), an American patriot and politician, once stated, "Mankind are governed more by their feelings than by reason"[1]. This statement is significant, as it undermines two of the primary ethical doctrines in philosophy - the deontological perspective defended by Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (634), and utilitarianism, supported by John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873) in his essay, Utilitarianism (667). Deontology and utilitarianism are contrasting theories. The former focuses on the intrinsic moral worth of our actions, whereas the latter argues that the consequences of our actions determine their moral value. Nevertheless, both perspectives substantiate Mill's claim that "our moral faculty.is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty" (678). Reason is an indispensable aspect of Kant's deontological view, as he believes the will is a capacity unique to rational beings. In Kant's opinion, the will is essential, as it facilitates our ability to act according to the universalizable maxims we establish for ourselves (653). Reason is also a crucial element of utilitarianism, as it is the intellectual faculty that enables us to distinguish the course of action with the best possible outcome (i.e., the choice that will ensure the greatest happiness or least amount of pain for as many people as possible) (688). However, since both deontology and utilitarianism are governed by the notion that moral judgements are established through reason, can either theory apply in circumstances in which rational thought is not feasible? For example, during World War II, a Nazi soldier offers a woman the following options: he will kill all three of her children, or she must kill one of her children and he will free her and the other two. In this situation, the prospect of losing one or more of her children will undoubtedly cause the woman tremendous emotional anguish. Her plight corroborates Adams' statement and implies that it is impossible to arrive at a rational decision in moral situations that elicit an emotional response.

If the woman approaches the situation from a deontological standpoint, her decision will be influenced by her desire to act from duty and uphold a maxim that encompasses moral worth. For example, could the woman act according to a maxim that supposes it is prudent (in dire circumstances such as those in which she finds herself) to sacrifice one person's life to save the lives of others? If this maxim can be proved valid (i.e., universalizable), it seems evident that she will choose to kill one child to preserve the lives of the other two. However, this maxim is clearly not universalizable, as it involves using someone as a means to an end. Kant emphasizes, "Man must always be regarded as an end in himself. Therefore I cannot dispose of man in my own person so as to...

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