Deontology and Animal Rights
Deontology is a theory that evaluates moral actions based only on doing one’s duty, not on the consequences of the actions.
We are often faced with moral questions concerning animals. Deontology (or the more descriptive term duty ethics) can guide us about what kind of action to take concerning animal rights problems, and with many other moral problems too. The term deontology derives from the Greek deon
, for that which is necessary or binding, a duty, and logos
, meaning logic.
Deontology asserts that the right moral action is founded on an objective duty or obligation. When you do your duty you behave morally; when you fail to do your duty you behave immorally. Deontology asserts that you should do your duty even if you or others suffer as a consequence. 'For King and country, right or wrong'
, is a deontology dictum, and you could equally say 'for animal liberation, right or wrong'
Here are two examples of acting deontologically. A rancher might hate shooting predators but accepts that he has an obligation to protect his cattle regardless of his action's impact on wildlife. A researcher might keep an animal in pain because he believes he has a responsibility to find a cure for a disease. Alternatively, however, as your duty to animalkind you might devote yourself to saving wildlife from ranchers or might release laboratory animals used in experiments - moral thinking can work in more than one direction!
Deontology is one of three fundamental ethical theories that can guide our thinking about moral questions and how we might resolve them. The other two theories are consequentialism and virtue ethics. Deontology opposes consequentialism by which only the outcome or consequence of your action is important.
Deontology appeals to an apparently objective source of duty for its authenticity. Deontologists variously believe their duty comes from God, from intuition, from what is 'naturally' right, from the law of their country, from what their society holds as true, from what their leaders say, or from some other apparently 'objective' source.
An ostensible strength of deontology is that it applies equally to everyone. That is, if you have a duty to act in a certain situation then everyone else in the same situation has a duty to act likewise. Some criticisms of deontology are the following.
Where do duties and obligations come from? Duty ethicists say duties are determined objectively and absolutely, not subjectively. However, duties might really be behaviours demonstrated over long periods to give the best results and are now honoured in practice and law. In this case, deontology is really a form of Consequentialism, by which moral actions depend only on their consequences.
Emphasise duty and the greatest atrocities are possible, especially in time of war. You might do your duty for animals without regard for any pernicious consequences of your actions. But doing your duty without regard for consequences will at times harm others, perhaps irreparably.
Devotion to duty does not take into account the role of compassion and other emotions. Morality based on rational duty alone, without empathy or pity, could be a moral dead end.
As another criticism of deontology is how can you settle conflict between opposing moral duties? Two common moral duties are to save lives and to tell the truth. You may wish to save a lamb who escaped from a slaughterhouse but cannot lie to the authorities. One course of action is to choose the lesser evil (either save the lamb and lie, or not save the lamb and not lie). But then you will be considering consequences, whereas deontology aspires to be moral guidance resting on duty alone.
To expand on this entry, compare it with the entries on Consequentialism and on Virtue Ethics. Also see the entry Comparing Philosophies.
›› To Entries & Home