Stoa has released their prospective resolutions for the 2018/2019 debate season! You can check them out here, and be sure to stay tuned for the Ethos Voting Guide (coming soon). In the meantime, take a look at this post that tackles a major issue involved in one of this years’ LD resolution options (option 3): Deontological Ethics, and Divine Command Theory.
Wow. Where do we even start with this? Great question – glad you asked.
Ok fine, you didn’t ask it, but I did for you.
You want the short answer? Actions are more important than consequences. There.
But do you want to be able to win rounds under this potential resolution? Read on.
Our resident philosophy nerd Joel Erickson will cover the main explanation and beef of this resolution. I am here to lay the groundwork and discuss two big philosophers (out of many) who wrote on this subject. We will talk briefly about the writings and beliefs of William of Ockham (regarding deontology) and Rene Descartes.
Conservative politicians use a quote by John Quincy Adams, “Duty is ours, results are God’s,” and this is basically a form of deontological ethics called “Divine Command Theory” (more on that later).
Deontological ethics is the exact opposite of consequentialism. It subverts the impacts-based evidentiary standard that so many debaters love to use in the rebuttals by “weighing impacts” or doing “impact calculus.” It subverts all conversation about net benefits and pros and cons.
Why/How? Well, in simpler terms it means this: depending on the system of deontological ethics under consideration, a moral obligation may arise from an external or internal source, such as a set of rules inherent to the universe (ethical naturalism), religious law, or a set of personal or cultural values (any of which may be in conflict with personal desires). While that explanation is from the Wiki page, it is still extremely accurate.
Deontological ethics says that there are a set of Objective Rules and Values that govern our duties and obligations towards each other, our surroundings, and our entire existence. Actions that are “right” and “good” are “right” and “good” no matter what the consequences.
For example: a thought experiment.
Aliens invade and take over the earth. They capture you and usher you into a dimly lit room. Another person is chained to the wall. They give you a gun and say that if you don’t shoot the other innocent person, they will kill 1 million random humans.
A consequentialist would shoot the restrained innocent person, because to them, actions are right or wrong based on the consequences of those actions. A person who adheres to deontological ethics wouldn’t because killing an innocent person is always wrong. Under deontological ethics, you are not responsible for the actions of others in reaction to your own performance of duty. If the aliens killed people because you refused to perform their experiment, that’s on them, not you. Cause and Effect are different operating moral agents inside this view. You de-link the impact from the actor, essentially.
William of Ockham
He wrote and believe in Divine Command Theory, which is what it sounds: that our roadmap to virtue and ethical action is given to us in the form of commands from God or a high Moral Being. He believed both that moral actions were inherently valuable AND beneficial. In his mind, if an action is morally correct or good, then it is also obligatory.
Ockham argued that morality in general only deals with actions that are (obviously) in our control. Morality is a byproduct of both reason and will, thusly he argued that animals are not “moral agents” because they are subjected to neither reason nor will. When a human kills another human in peaceful society, we call it murder; in the wild, it’s just hunting.
For a more complete analysis check out this resource:
Alfred J. Freddoso
Professor Emeritus of philosophy at University of Notre Dame
The Cambridge Companion to Ockham
Descartes was more wrapped up in “virtue” and its positive effects on society, as well as how it interacted with individuals.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes, “Descartes is committed to the view that virtue is sufficient for happiness, that is, a “perfect contentment of mind and inner satisfaction.” At the same time, he denies that virtue has value only as a means to happiness. On the contrary, virtue is grounded in the one aspect of human nature that is of unconditional value: the exercise of our free will, the perfection of the soul that “renders us in a certain way like God by making us masters of ourselves” (art. 152; CSM I 384).
Virtue and free will are inextricably linked in Descartes’ eyes. Where Ockham focused on duty, Descartes focused on free will. Free will is the mechanism through which we can accomplish ethical and moral conclusions. Descartes argues that humans are not just obligated to make the right decision, but they are also obligated NOT to make the wrong one. Free will is a two-edged sword that renders judgment against those who did nothing at all, as well as those who did the wrong thing. Virtue is inherently beneficial for intrinsic reasons as well as consequentialist one too. He does this to cater to any potential consequentialists who may be reading his text.
Check out more on his writing here:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
In the next explanation: Joel will cover Kant’s ethics and views on deontology. Philosophical inquiry is a very intriguing and rewarding journey, though it can seem useless from a productivity standpoint. I would still encourage it as it contributes to your critical analysis of all actions and reactions. I really hope this resolution gets chosen for next year!