Deontology generally focuses on the process people use to make ethical decisions, with the general assumption that an ethical process will, by definition, lead to ethical results. (COM 563 — Lesson 3 Overview)
Question: Can an exclusive focus on the process of decision-making — to the exclusion of a focus on consequences — yield ethical decisions?
Answer: Nope. The question itself suggests a lack of balance in determining the ethical decision. In fact, an exclusive focus on anything generally (in my experience, personally and professionally) leads to poor consequences, a lack of balanced results, predictably causing (at best) discomfort, and (at worst) serious harm.
But, let’s see what the experts say:
Duty for duty’s sake
Kant’s “categorical imperative” is defined as “the unconditional moral principle that one’s behavior should accord with universalizable maxims which respect persons as ends in themselves . . . [and] . . . the obligation to do one’s duty for its own sake and not in pursuit of further ends” (retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/categorical-imperative).
Kant’s primary argument against consequence-based ethical decisions is summed up by Johnson’s essay, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy” (retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/kant-moral/):
When we do something because it is our moral duty, Kant argued, we are motivated by the thought that, insofar as we are rational beings, we must act only as this fundamental law of (practical) reason prescribes, a law that would prescribe how any rational being in our circumstances should act. Whatever else such a law might be, it is, in virtue of being a principle of reason, true of all rational agents.
In other words, for Kant “process” can lead you to places other than obeying the universalizable maxim. However, universalizable maxims are anything but universalizable and do not take into account the multitude of factors impacting decisions, end results and consequences.
Bogged down in detail
For example, if the universal maxim is that all people deserve access to affordable, high quality health care, then the logical decision is to legislate universal health care.
However, any piece of legislation must consider the implementation of the law — the how, who, where, what and when — for good or ill across multiple spheres, public and private. It is in the debates on the details of implementation, though, that necessary action to “respect persons as ends in themselves” can get bogged down by quibbling over details and action steps.
For Rawl’s, a simple solution is to “draw a veil of ignorance” over the issue when making ethical decisions. The veil of ignorance is necessary to preserve “a just society . . . [with] . . . equal citizenship . . . [and] . . . rights secured by justice . . . [that is] . . . not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests” (p. 4). From Rawl’s perspective, this approach “ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances” (p. 12).
While Rawl’s theory is a lovely one, it again evades the reality of consequences. When the choice has been made, how does it play out? What is the impact, and on whom? These are important considerations when developing policies and programs that touch on the lives of a diverse population.
That being said, the reality in the policy arena is that policy makers can hand down expectations based on new laws (or revisions to current laws) that are not morally good. The public alludes to this when they criticize “pork barrel” budget privisos, or lobbyist-driven legislation. It then rests on the implementing agencies to bring to life the law in ways that are still morally good, even if they originated out of morally bad reasoning or actions.
The convolutions of hope
Ross offers hope for the struggling implementer of poor policy, pointing out that “no act is right unless done from some good motive, such as either sense of duty or benevolence (p. 2) and that “the only acts that are morally good are those that proceed from a good motive” (p.4). In a very real sense, he moves the conversation from one of pure theory to one of action, stating that considering “the doing of a right act may be a morally bad action, and that the doing of a wrong act may be a morally good action; for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ refer entirely to the thing done, ‘morally good’ and ‘morally bad’ entirely to the motive from which it is done (p. 7). A convoluted mouthful of hope, to be sure.
On the other hand, Ross also reminds us that “An act is not right because it . . . produces good results different from itself; it is right because . . . [the]. . . . production is right in itself, apart from any consequence” (p. 47).
So, where does that leaves us?
With the usual “it depends” and the impulse to make snarky comments about the ongoing fifty shades of grey notion when it comes to these sorts of discussions.
Like I said at the beginning — balance. Gotta have it.
Johnson, Robert, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 3-22, 60-65, 136-142.
W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), ch 1 & 2