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‘Deon’ means duty in ancient Greek and a deontological theory is concerned with the morality of an act rather than its consequences (or the ‘motive/intention’ behind the act). Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives (I ought to do X rather than a hypothetical; if I want to achieve X then I should do Y) consists of three main principles. The first of these is the universal law which states that you must only act on the maxim (principle) when you can at the same time will it to become a universal law. This means that you must be content that if everybody took the same action as you chose in similar situations, it would remain a moral action. The second of his principles asks you to act in a way that treats others as an end in themselves rather than a means to an end. This relates to Jesus’ teaching to ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12) and says humans should not use other humans to gain something for themselves, as we would not like to be treated in this way.
The final categorical imperative is the ‘Kingdom of Morals’ which says that we should always act as though we were the legislators for the kingdom of morals – we are in charge of what is fair and just. Kant placed great faith on human beings as being able to work rationally to such a conclusion and act according to principles. This contrasts with the Natural Moral Law theory which claims that we must find the purpose God has set for us and follow this path accordingly; our own personal beliefs are irrelevant. ‘Natural Moral Law’ was coined by Thomas Aquinas (influenced by Aristotle’s idea of the ‘final cause’) and the theory states that every action must work to fulfil its purpose; every action against it is immoral. According to the theory natural law is accessible through the natural order of the world and is unchanging. It is arguable that part of the theory is teleological as it is concerned with our ‘end’ by trying to fulfil our ‘God-given purpose’.
Both Aquinas and Kant agree that our morals are absolute, a priori truths, however Kant believes that our reason will lead us to these truths whilst Aquinas has set primary and secondary precepts which he believes humans should follow. His primary precepts are to self-preserve and preserve the innocent, reproduce, learn, order society and worship God. These are absolutist as he believes all societies should share these values. He believes that these are universal and so he is fulfilling Kant’s first imperative. However the theories, when applied work very differently.
An example of this is the case of abortion, a girl that is thirteen years old gets raped and becomes pregnant; she cannot care for the child and feels like she would be wrong in keeping it. According to Kant’s theory she would not be able to abort as she could not will every woman who became pregnant to abort their child, if they did then the human race would not survive, making this a contradiction of the ‘Laws of Nature’. Kant also argued that all humans have intrinsic worth and therefore by aborting so that she has an easier life the girl is treating the foetus as a means to an end. As for natural law, abortion goes against two of Aquinas’ primary precepts, largely the precept of ‘reproduction’.
But also ‘preservation of the innocent’ suggests that issues such as euthanasia and abortion would not be permitted. The only acceptance to abortion in the natural law theory would be if the mother’s womb had to be removed to save her life – consequently aborting the foetus (this is the doctrine of the double effect). Both Aquinas and Kant assume God, Kant says that we must presuppose God, immortality and freedom in order for his theory to function whilst Aquinas believes that God gave us the ability to reason to find our morals – which God set. Whilst on surface level they appear similar theories, both being absolutist and deontological, when applied to ethical decisions they usually counteract each other with the viewpoint given.
Assess the strengths & weaknesses of one of these theories (9 Marks)
An obvious problem for the natural moral law theory is that it provides us with legalistic morality, because it is absolutist it means that it does not accommodate for individual circumstances. An example of this is a homosexual couple. According to the theory, the purpose of all sexual acts is to reproduce; any sexual act which does not fulfil this purpose is immoral. We can see that we are biologically ‘set up’ to reproduce in this way, and so Aquinas believes that masturbation, contraception and homosexual intercourse are all immoral because they do not perform the function that they are destined for. However the fact that it is an absolutist theory also has its advantages – it is a source of clear values and moral certainty, it would be very easy to follow, without considering the complexity of circumstances or consequences.
Its focus on reason and universalism also helps the simplicity of the theory and can help it to transcend over a variety of cultures and religions. The only problem with it being a religious theory rather than a secular one is that the primary precept of ‘worshipping God’ will not come naturally to those who do not believe in the Christian God, or to atheists/agnostics. The fact that Aquinas maintains that the absolute laws come from God and that we ought to obey them may lead him into the trap of the naturalistic fallacy – obeying God is a value judgement and therefore he is turning and is into an ought.
However an advantage is that the theory’s emphasis on the purpose of humanity gives people a structure and meaning in their lives, it is humanistic in its assertion that we all have intrinsic worth. Overall I believe that the weaknesses outweigh the strengths of this theory – it fails in its precepts which determine how people should live – people do not all hold the same values and therefore it is presumptuous to say that our morals were given by God and we all share them. It is also interesting that Aquinas himself went against his primary precept of ‘reproduction’ by being a celibate priest.