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Duties and Deontological Ethics

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Duties and Deontological Ethics A duty is a moral obligation that an agent has towards another person, such as the duty not to lie. Etymologically, duties are actions that are due to someone else, such as paying money that one owes to a creditor. In a broader sense, duties are simply actions that are morally manditory. Medieval philosophers such as Aquinas argued that we have specific duties or obligations to avoid committing specific sins. Since sins such as theft are absolute, then our duty to avoid stealing is also absolute, irrespective of any good consequences that might arise from particular acts of theft. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, many philosophers held the normative theory that moral conduct is that which follows a specific list of duties. These theories are also called deontological theories, from the Greek word deon, or duty, since they emphasize foundational duties or obligations. We find one of the first clear indications of this view in The Law of War and Peace (1625) by Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). For Grotius, our ultimate duties are fixed features of the universe, which even God cannot change, and comprise the chief obligations of natural law. Some moral theorists at the time based their list of duties on traditional lists of virtues. ...read more.


himself has no immediate entitlement to respect, but acting disrespectfully towards a corpse will negatively impact the living relatives of the dead person. Problems with Traditional Duty Theory. One problem with traditional duty-based ethics involves the list of prescribed duties. What was self-evident in the 17th and 18th centuries seems less self-evident today. The existence and nature of God are more widely questioned now, hence it is speculation to claim that we have a set of duties toward God. Advocates of personal liberty question the traditional duties to ourselves. For example, the right to suicide is now widely defended, and the right to self-rule implies that I can let my faculties and abilities deteriorate if I so choose. Finally, many of the traditional duties to others have also been under fire. Defenders of personal liberty question our duties of benevolence, such as charity, and political duties, such as public spirit. For some, the traditional list of self-evident duties needs to be reduced to one: the duty to not harm others. Another problem with traditional duty theory is that there is no clear procedure for resolving conflicts between duties. Suppose I am placed in a situation where I must choose between feeding myself to avoid starvation, or feeding my neighbor to keep her from starving. ...read more.


By appealing to our actual moral convictions, Ross attempts to address the problem of including principles that are not duties by our standards today. This list is not complete, Ross argues, but he believes that at least some of these are self-evidently true. He also addresses the problem of choosing between conflicting moral duties. For Ross, the above duties are prima facie (Latin for first appearance) insofar as we are under obligation unless a stronger duty shows up. If I am torn between two conflicting actions, such as preventing myself from starving or a neighbor from starving, I am under obligation to follow only the strongest of the two duties. Ross argues that there is no obvious priority among the principles, hence it will not necessarily be clear which is the stronger duty. To choose between conflicting duties, we must use our own insight on a case by case basis. For critics, the weakness in Ross's theory is that it rests too heavily on spontaneous moral intuition. We are given neither a definitive list of duties, nor a clear procedure for prioritizing our duties. Thus, only an immediate moral intuition will tell us both our possible duties and our primary obligation in the situation at hand. ...read more.

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