points in their journey. In both cases, the old men appear weak and ill-suited to survival in the harsh world of the novel. In the first instance the father refuses to help the old man (49-52), but in the second instance the father agrees to help the old man (161-174), suggesting uncertainty and inconsistency in his moral reasoning. But how might the father have responded if he had followed a specific branch of moral philosophy in approaching these situations?
If the father had approached these situations as a deontologist he would have helped both old men, but if he had approached the situations as a utilitarian he would have refused to help both men.
In staying true to the path of most deontologists, we could say that had the father been a practitioner of the said philosophy, he would have helped both old men in their respective scenarios of need. As generally defined, deontology is the ethical judgment of a certain act which founds itself on the intent of the act itself to serve as the basis for which to determine the morality of the said act.
It is also accepted that deontologists believe in the existence of universal moral norms that transcend boundaries, applying to everyone; the individual helping out another individual being one of them. To deontologists, one is duty-bound to help his fellow man; doing so would allow one to adhere to what they deem as the categorical imperative, and would therefore be a fulfillment of responsibility.
Had the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road been a follower of this approach on ethics, he would have helped both old men who were in need, and should anyone else turn up requiring any manner of assistance, then he would have turned to help them out too. The foundation of deontology requires that one should always fulfill the moral obligation of the individual, which lies in accordance with the said norms that apply to everyone.
Should any evil or unpleasant consequence surface from the said action, one would remain morally pure as one had only done what was dictated by the obligations of the individual; a dying criminal nursed to health who would continue to practice crime would be responsible for his own actions and the healer would remain pure as he had only acted upon this said moral norm: this is the basis of deontology.
Had the father been a practitioner of utilitarianism, however, then he would have gone and ignored both men. Helping out any of them would only hamper them in their goal of finding lasting safety and refuge for the boy. We must keep in mind that the journey was brought about by the need for a secure future for the boy as his father is weakening as well. The pilgrimage is led by the father with no specific destination, and therefore no specific timeframe. To take on other matters such as aiding old men who would have nothing to contribute to the group and should be taken with them would only serve as a liability would only delay and possibly cost the success of the expedition.
Utilitarianism is the concept of analyzing an action’s moral worth by basing it on the outcome or consequences of the aforementioned action, therefore the perfect representation of the maxim “The end justifies the means.” Utilitarians often keep in mind what they deem to be “the greater good” and anything less than that is to be considered expendable.
As opposed to deontologistic belief of a “universal moral norm”, utilitarians believe the pinnacle of ethics to be to spread happiness, maximizing it to the most number of people, no matter what. This means that they are willing to sacrifice the happiness of the few for that of the many. Therefore, applying this into Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, had the father in the story acted out in a utilitarian manner, he would not have helped both old men, seeing as they would have nothing to offer to aid them in their journey.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage Books, 2007.