Ethics (1/3): Deontological Ethics

The first ethical system I wish to address is the Deontological position, or what we might call “rules” morality. (I am using ethics and morality interchangeably in these posts, although there are those who make a sometimes-useful distinction between them.)

Those who subscribe to this moral system devise a system of rules, deriving their powers from some authority (gods, God, pure reason) that will define their duties and prohibitions. The prototypical example is, of course, the Ten Commandments, which offer ten basic rules for how to live: each is quite specific, and tries to be as clear as it can, as if they were legal contracts. For example:

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Clear as a bell. Of course, we run into a slight issue here: define your terms. Is it adultery if my spouse knows about it and condones it? It is adultery if my spouse abuses and degrades me? Is it adultery if my spouse leaves me but won’t grant me a divorce? And so on. You can find vast reams of scholarship about what is and is not acceptable according to such laws. A huge slice of Muslim and Judaic philosophy is just that: defining terms in order to make the commandments clear. Christianity rather less so, but Christianity is no less deontological: it just has a rather simpler rule.

36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

And yet, look at the hither and thither that goes into defining who your neighbor is or isn’t, what it means to love the Lord with all your heart, and so on. People claim to uphold this rule who picket funerals: there’s clearly a heck of a lot of wiggle room. (A lot more people uphold this rule who are kind, generous, and Christlike, so — it’s not a bad rule.)

We run into another problem when we try to define rules. For one thing, how many do we need? For another, how can we define a rule that covers all possible situations? We can’t. A favorite technique of philosophy professors is to give their students situations, scenarios, in which these rules come into conflict, so that in trying to resolve that conflict students will find the underlying rules that govern their unexamined moral intuitions. This can be a very disorienting exercise. I remember in college, one young woman started crying when she realized that two of her moral rules were in direct conflict.

There’s another, logical problem. Where does the authority that defines these rules come from? Many religions Deontologists say “God.” Then we can ask, “If God breaks His own rule, is he then morally bad?” If they say “yes,” then that implies that moral rule comes from a higher authority than God. If they say “no,” that means that the moral rule is essentially arbitrary: God could just as well have said “Thou shalt commit adultery” as “thou shalt not.” Neither is a palatable position for most theists.

Not all deontologists are theists, though. Kant tries to establish a set of moral rules based on reason. You can go look up the results if you like reading translated German. The boiled-down version is this commandment: An act is moral if you could rationally will it to become a general rule. So, if I give someone twenty bucks, I could rationally will that everyone give money to the poor, so that act is right. If I stab someone in the nose, I could not rationally will that everyone start stabbing people in the nose, or I’d get stabbed in the nose! We run into a situation, though, where defining the act determines its morality. If I define homosexuality as having sex with only the same sex, then that act is wrong by this rule, because I cannot rationally will that everyone engage only in homosexual activity, or the species would die out. On the other hand, I cannot rationally will that we make homosexuality illegal or even think ill of it, because in doing so society will miss out on many contributions (think Allen Turing, Walt Whitman, um, me). And heterosexuality is also wrong, because I can’t rationally will that everyone only have sex with the opposite gender, ’cause I don’t want to be forced into what would essentially be a coercive relationship!

We see Deontology in magic when we see prohibitions. “Never curse anyone!” Okay, that’s good advice, especially for a beginner in magic, because curses are difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant to do — but never? What about if they’re hurting someone and it’s the only way to stop them? Can we curse a serial killer so that they get caught faster? Or we see a rule like “Never evoke a Goetic demon!” Again, good advice: dangerous, almost always overkill, and almost always unnecessary because just as powerful and less dangerous options are available. But . . . never? I have to confess that Buer did me a solid. Never work with the dead; it’s necromancy! Um, there are a lot of Tantric practitioners and other traditional paths that would disagree with that.

We also see it when we see “always.” “Always banish!” “Always work in a circle!” My favorite: “always move clockwise in the circle!” Well — why? If I invoke a God, I should end by telling it to bugger off please. How does that work? And I know quite a few successful root doctors who never step into a magical circle.

Often these magical rules assert the authority of tradition, even if that tradition is just sort of made up out of nothing.

Obviously, I am not sympathetic to this ethical approach, even though it dominates a lot of our culture’s thinking about morality. The logical problems with it are just too dire for me to leap over, and while it appeals to think that there is a set formula of rules that we can cling to, I just don’t think there are. I think there are reasons, whys, and hows, and whens. But “always” and “never” make me look for loopholes.


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