This brief analysis will address one of the most enduring and popular debates in ethics – the difference between deontological and teleological ethical systems. The reason is that modern research on ethics is deeply divided between the tradition of teleological ethics, the main figure of which is Immanuel Kant, and teleological ethics, which is mostly utilitarian thought. While utilitarianism focuses on the outcomes of certain actions to evaluate them, deontology postulates some rules that can stop individuals from committing immoral actions.
Deontological ethics consider some actions as good because of their intrinsic value and not because they will bring positive outcomes. Österberg (2019) characterizes deontology by the fact that “it considers morally relevant certain properties of action, the relevance of which cannot be explained by reference to the value of the outcomes of actions” (pp. 40-41). To understand the nature of deontological theories, it makes sense to discuss the ethical pyramid, which has three fundamental parts from bottom to top: intent, means, and end. Deontological ethics will force individuals to stop at the very first stage, for example, even if killing one person will save five lives.
Utilitarianism looks at the consequences of the actions instead of evaluating their intent. Therefore, utilitarians argue against maximizing people’s overall good and happiness instead of focusing on some deontological side constraints (Caviola et al., 2021). Continuing the metaphor of the ethical pyramid, utilitarians can stop at the second or third stage. There can be means that harm many other people (Stalin’s repressions) or ends that do not result in the happiness of the majority.
To sum up, deontological and teleological ethics discuss the same issue of the restrictions that can be imposed on one’s action but proceed from entirely different justifications. Deontological theories see people as ends rather than any means for some actions. Teleological ethics, which take root in the utilitarian tradition of Jeremy Bentham, encourage people to consider the ultimate result and assess its value in comparison with harm.
Caviola, L., Kahane, G., Everett, J. A., Teperman, E., Savulescu, J., & Faber, N. S. (2021). Utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people? Harming animals and humans for the greater good. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 150(5), 1-97.
Österberg, J. (2019). Deontological ethics: Exposition. In J. Österberg, E. Carson & R. Sliwinski (Eds.), Towards reunion in ethics (pp. 27-59). Springer.