An Analysis of "Rightness" from Deontological and Teleological Perspectives
Deontological ethics stems from the notion that one is obliged by duty to behave in a "moral" manner. There are a number of theories that range from moral absolutism to Divine Command theory that may be described as deontological, but each differs in its approach to "morality" even though each recognizes an "obligation" to attend to a set of rules. In contrast to deontological ethics are teleological ethics, which gauge the morality of one's actions by their consequences. A number of theories may be classified as teleological, such as utilitarianism, pragmatism and consequentialism. This paper will explore the ideas behind deontological and teleological ethics and show how an approach to "morality" must observe at least some objective standard, and that it is the objective standard that makes an action "right," and not the dutiful adherence to the standard or the "right" consequence of an action.
Jacob Ross argues from the standpoint of the classical intuitionist, who values the notion that moral truths are as real as mathematical truths: he asserts that both objectively exist and that neither can be changed simply because one's subjective will desires it to change. While this notion serves as a framework for the question of what makes actions "right," there are other considerations that must be observed before "rightness" can truly be gauged. While a mathematical equation such as 2+2=4 is simple enough to understand, it is nothing compared to a complex mathematical equation. Similarly, moral law contains truths that might be simply stated, but to understand them, one needs to understand the simple laws that surround them. Just as one cannot understand 2+2=4 without having a concept of addition, one cannot understand "rightness" without having a concept of transcendence. For this reason, Ross makes an appropriate starting point, since his school of thought stretches back to such classical intuitionists as Plato.
Ross argues that deontological theories provide more and better reasons for what constitutes "rightness" than teleological theories do. He asserts that consequentialism, for example, is simply a product of deontological ethics, and that without deontology, consequentialism simply cannot exist. Ross' point is rooted in an objective standpoint of ethics and morality. Ross views morality as an unchangeable law, something that is "imprinted" on the world, just as much as the law of gravity is.
Essentially, Ross asserts that "rightness" has an intrinsic value all its own. Such a notion would agree, conversely, with the idea that other actions can be intrinsically evil, meaning that they are evil in and of themselves. Furthermore, it is Ross' contention that these views of morality can be intuited. However, there is no narrowness to his argument, for he also asserts that an action's moral status depends upon a number of considerations, such as an action's consequences (its teleological ethics) as well as prior circumstances (its deontological ethics). In a sense, Ross reconciles deontological theory with teleological theory.
Ross suggests that without such deontological theories as Divine Command theory, in other words, a law of morality placed on human action from a law-giver, there can be no objectively real system of morality, much less a system that can be subjectively altered. If Divine Command theory, which judges "right" actions according to an objective standard stipulated by God, and a consequentialist judges "rightness" based on results, Ross asks the question: How does the consequentialist form an idea of "rightness" in the first place?
Does it appear that much of modern ethical theory approaches the question "rightness" without appeal to a higher, or universal, or transcendental, or objective notion of "rightness"? Not necessarily. The question of ideal "rightness" is still debated, as can be seen for example in the differences expressed by generalists and particularists, or in the hybrid theory of Scheffler. Still, what characterizes much of the debate is a lack of certainty, a reluctance to separate the subjective and objective and insist that the objective is knowable by the intellect. This lack of certainty may be a result of the Hegelian dialectic, in historical terms. Whatever its causes in individual cases, however, this paper can make no claims. The point of the matter is that an objective essence appears to exist but that subjective perception of that essence seems to make it impossible to know what it is. The conclusion of such a point is that "rightness" is forever to be debated and cannot be known anymore than pragmatism or absolutism permits. But is this the case?
Intuition and Agent-Centred Restrictions
Plato explores the idea of "rightness" in Phaedo and Meno, and so it seems does Scheffler in "The Defense of Agent-Centred Restrictions." Essentially, Scheffler asks whether there is "a principled rationale for agent-centred restrictions" (83). Without entering into a discussion about what absolutists and non-absolutists suggest about agent-centred restrictions, one can at least assert that if Scheffler, and Socrates, are correct in asserting that intuition, or "recollection," as Plato calls it, then truth and "rightness" can objectively exist and must not be merely the result of subjective perceptions.
The agent-centred restrictionist, for instance, could argue as Plato does that the understanding or recognition of truth in reality is derived from the "recollection" of truth in the soul, upon which is imprinted a moral code, which in turn points to the existence of a code-giver or God. It can be argued, in other words, that the recognition of truth, points to the objective existence of "rightness." A teleological theorist, on the other hand, may reject this proposition by arguing that the recognition of truth is not dependent on "recollection," which is cause merely for subjective analysis, but is rather "self-evident," as Locke illustrated in his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" during the Age of Enlightenment, a time and culture from which flowed much of modern ethical theory, from Kant to Scheffler today.
The modern question of "rightness" may therefore be approached from the rather ancient perspective of "intuition." The ability to intuit agent-centred restrictions, as Scheffler suggests, can be taken as a rationale for the existence of "rightness" beyond the subjective faculty of the mind. Such a conclusion is not irrational, as consequentialists might argue, but actually quite rational -- when considered in the light of first causes.
Here, it is possible to suggest that for cultures to develop and progress, humanity must operate for the "common good," which is in direct contrast to the idea of operation for the Self, which underpins the subjectivist ethical theories of teleological systems. The "common good" points to the acceptance of virtue ethics, but barring an exploration of that particular system of ethics at this moment, it can be asserted that "rightness" is a universal concept that applies to all mankind. Such an assertion is not to suggest that there are no exceptions to the universal "rule," for experience shows that there are exceptions to quite possibly every "rule." What is needed in this discussion is a sense of moderation and reluctance to fly from one extreme, like absolutism, for example, to another, like Kantianism.
The Subjective Problem
For an ethical theorist like Susan Wolf, the idea of universal "rightness" is repellant. As she herself states, "I believe that moral perfection, in the sense of moral saintliness, does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive" (419). Her dissatisfaction for universal "rightness" or "moral perfection" as she calls it seems to stem from a personal dislike of the "moral saints" she believes best represent such "rightness." Her subjective preference does not match the so-called universal standard for rightness that they project; either they are wrong or she is wrong, and she asserts that they are wrong.
Wolf essentially argues for a more subjective morality, a less universal "rightness." She is not arguing for the "exceptions" to the "rule," but rather for the idea that there is no "rule" and need not be one. She is arguing out of the long modern tradition of liberty, which is indeed a cultural development in the West that finds expression in the Age of Humanism, Protestantism, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Capitalism, Socialism, etc. Liberty from universals, from universal "rightness" moreover serves as the basis for Wolf's ethical system. Her basis is different from Plato's, which was situated in intelligent observation. Socrates admires "rightness" because he perceives it to exist. He does not try to "justify" rightness because it "works" for him. It appears that there is a difference in outlook. The ability to intuit an agent-centred restriction, as Scheffler observes, is the key to identifying the universal "rightness" impressed upon the soul. The agent-centred restriction, in other words, is a sign of a universal moral law. That Wolf dismisses such a law because it does not appeal to her subjective tastes is irrelevant. If a law of "rightness" exists, the deontological theorist can rightly say that it is one's duty to observe the law and that…