What is the difference between right and wrong? Our society is generally agreed that there is a difference, and that it is very important. But from that point onwards controversy begins. There are three main ways of discerning this difference: deontology, which sets out by “rule” that certain actions are permitted, and others forbidden; utilitarianism, which employs a judgment about the balance of consequences from an action; and virtue ethics, which focuses not on the action but on the quality of the actor. The three approaches may often, but not by any means always, arrive at the same conclusions, and there are many overlaps; nevertheless they are fundamentally different.
In this column I want to look at deontology because, by whatever name you call it, it is the approach which comes most naturally to Catholics. On later occasions I will look at the other two.
In our terms, the principle is based on the law of God as mediated to us through Scripture and the moral teaching of the Church. This, of course, is not arbitrary since God made us, and it is through his law that we conform to his will and so reach our fullness in being joined to him in heaven. Scripture is not a comprehensive guide because, as the theologian, Fr Josef Fuchs, pointed out, the Bible is not a manual of moral theology.
Nevertheless, it contains the Ten Commandments and it is conventional (as indeed the layout of the Catechism shows) to set out the moral law, and its broad application, under the headings of the Decalogue. In this expansion, the teaching Church makes considerable use of the Natural Law, about which I wrote at some length in my column of July 4.
In this scheme, we find a division between those actions which are wrong by their own intrinsic nature, which means that the consequences – bad or good – are irrelevant, and those which may in certain circumstances be modified. The first category is derived from observation or understanding of our fundamental nature as created by God. Examples might be the wrongness of depriving someone of an organ or a physical faculty – except for the sake of the health of that person, or using the genital, sexual, faculty for purposes which are contrary to its innate structure. There are some who question the adequacy of this uncompromising approach where it seems to rest only on physicality rather than on the whole human being, or does not give full weight to the complexity of a human act.
The second, and much commoner, category requires the application of judgment. For example, we accept the principle that we are bound to keep our promises. Yet were we to discover that some money we had promised was to be used in the furtherance of terrorism, we would not regard it as binding. Clearly consequences can be a factor here. Into this category would come questions like torture or slavery. We find it hard to conceive of circumstances in which these would be justified, yet we can so conceive if we take sufficiently extreme examples.
However, the law is not legalistic since its purpose is only to define the boundaries of the territory within which the love of God is to be found. It is love which saves, and not the law as such. The meaning of the law is ultimately to be found, and comprehended, in love of God and love of neighbour.
But a deontological, or rule-based, approach is not confined to religion. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that it could be discovered by practical reason alone. Kant believed in God, but did not attribute his moral principles to this. His “categorical imperative” was: “Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Taking again the example of promises, Kant argues that we cannot wish that disregarding promises should be a universal law since we cannot rationally wish that people should not keep promises made to us. (And, incidentally, if there were no obligation to keep promises, the concept of “promise” would be meaningless.) And, as another example, he argues that we are obliged to assist another who is in dire straits, since we cannot rationally wish that others should not help us similarly.
He sums up his moral principle as “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” This summary, which I hope we would all applaud, brings Kant’s system to conclusions which are very similar to those to which Catholics would subscribe. But it is important to notice that love itself has no place in the system, only the claimed objectivity of reason. So moral motive or obligation, as we understand it, does not apply.
Yet, as Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out in an influential 1958 paper, modern moral philosophy, in which Kant was a pioneer, assumes the idea of moral obligation, and thus – unconsciously perhaps – maintains a law while omitting a lawgiver. Indeed Kant, in his notes published after his death, accepted that his system required the concept of God to be complete. We would, to borrow Fr Copleston’s example, wish to condemn the Commandant of Belsen because he was wicked and not merely because he was irrational.
I am conscious that I have only given the barest outline of deontology, and I am sure that many readers would want to criticise or elaborate on what I have been able to fit into such short compass. Indeed, I would have wanted to do so myself. But that is what Secondsight Blog is for. We can continue the discussion here.