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Compare and Contrast two ethical theories

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In this essay I have chosen to compare two opposing theories, Immanuel Kant’s absolutist deontological ethics and Joseph Fletchers relativist situation ethics. The deontological ethics focuses on actions made according to duty and the categorical imperative – which shows how acts are intrinsically good or bad. The situation ethics state that no act is intrinsically good or bad, and that actions should b made according to love. From this perspective it looks as thought Kant’s views were less personal than Fletcher’s, although in actuality both focus on the best outcome for humans.

Deontological ethics is concerned with actions, not consequences. To act with good intention but have a bad outcome is still moral. Similarly if the intention is bad, then it is wrong in all circumstances and situations, even if it turns out for the best. If benefiting from the act is the motivation for the action, it negates any morality from a good deed. To be good and act morally is to do ones duty – duty being to obey moral law.

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”

Kant (1788).

Kant believed that humans know the moral law through reason and without reference it the consequences, and that it was part of people’s duty not to be distracted by their emotions. If moral law dictates you ought to do something, it implies that it can be done, as it is not our duty to do the impossible. Therefore there is no excuse not to obey natural moral law.

Kant maintained humans’ work towards an ultimate end in which human virtue and happiness is brought together, and justice prevails. This is what is known as the summum bonum. As it is impossible to achieve it in this life, he said it was reasonable to assume that there would be a next life with God, where there is an opportunity for reaching the supreme good. In his opinion, morality leads to God.

He also believed that morality is prescriptive. Once a person knows of a moral requirement it is their reason for doing something. The categorical imperative helps us to know which actions are obligatory and which are forbidden.

“All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically…If the action would be good simply as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; but if the action is represented as good in itself…then the imperative is categorical.”

Kant (1797)

From this he said that all moral imperatives are categorical -“I ought to do such and such.” (E.g. “I ought to tell the truth” makes no reference to wants or needs). There are three main principles of the categorical imperative; the universal law, “treat humans as the ends” as opposed to means, and “act as if you live in a kingdom of ends.”

The universal law dictates you should “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This means that if an action is wrong for one person, it is wrong for every person. It is a variation on Jesus’ principle “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself,” meaning treat others as you wish to be treated. The example Kant gave was lying. In certain circumstances it could work to our advantage but at a cost to somebody else. If lying became an accepted practise, nobody would trust anyone else, and society would become intolerable.

The second principle of the categorical imperative is “so act that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in the person of every other human being, never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” This means that one should never treat people as a means to achieve an end, as ultimately the end is the happiness of society. There should never be use of an individual for the sake of many. Everybody should have the same moral protection.

The third principle is “act as if you live in a kingdom of ends.” This backs up the other two as it states that moral statements assume that everyone lives by the maxim of treating people as ends not means.

Fletcher’s theories are almost the exact opposite of Kant’s views. Fletcher believed that there are three types of ethical theories; legalistic ethics, antinomian ethics and situation ethics. Deontology would be considered legalistic as it uses moral law as a set of prefabricated rules – much like in Christian traditions, which focus on natural moral law and the commandments from the bible. According to Fletcher this would lead to problem s when life’s difficulties require additional laws. To explain this he used an example of murder once murder has been prohibited – one has to clarify the meaning in relation to killing in self defence, abortion, killing in war, euthanasia and so on. A legalist would have to accommodate them. Fletcher rejected this as it can create confusion – there would be too many rules to learn.

Antinomian ethics is the direct opposite of legalistic ethics. All decisions are made spontaneously as if every situation was unique. There are no ethical rules – antinomian meaning ‘against law’.

“it is literally unprincipled, purely ad hoc and casual. They are exactly, anarchic -i.e. without a rule.”

Fletcher (1963).

Fletcher was equally critical of antinomianism as there is on structure to it.

The third approach to ethics is situational ethics. This approach seems to be a compromise between legalistic and antinomian views as a situationist follows the rules of society, but will set them aside if love seems better served by doing so.

“the situationist follows a moral law or violates it according to love’s need.”

Fletcher (1963)

This theory is sensitive to variety and complexity and offers versatility to accommodate Christian beliefs in modern society.

“Christ Jesus…abolished the law with its commandments and legal claims”

St Paul -Ephesians 2:13 – 15

It uses principles to illuminate the situation but not dictate the action.

Fletcher divided situation ethics into 10 main concepts: 4 working principles, and 6 fundamental principles. The working principles help us to better understand situation ethics.

Pragmatism means a practical or success posture. The planned course of action must work towards the end, which is ultimately love.

It is relativist, so even though there are no set rules to obey, neither is it a free for all. All decisions are made relative to Christian love.

“The situationist avoids words like ‘never’ and ‘perfect’ and ‘always’ and ‘complete as he avoids the plague, as he avoids ‘absolutely.’

Fletcher (1963)

Positivism is the foundation of the situation theology on the ends being agape – Christian love. It is shown in the statement “god is love” which is a priori, knowledge without experience.

The personalist principle shows that the situationist will do whatever it takes to best benefit humans in any given situation.

These principles can be basically summed up in a singly sentence; the situationist follows no strict set of rules, but instead works towards helping mankind in the best way possible, breaking rules where required. With these presuppositions acknowledged, Fletcher goes on to explain the main theory.

The first proposition states that “only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing else at all.” Actions aren’t good or evil in and of themselves; the morality of an action depends on the motivation behind it. If an action promotes the most loving result then it is a good action. An action that sets out to destroy the happiness of another is an evil one.

The second proposition is; “the ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else.” The ruling principle in this proposition is Jesus replaced the torah with the principle of love, he felt that the commandments were not absolute and could be broken when love demanded it. Love replaces law – it is not equalled by any other law.

The third principle states that “love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.” To be fair is to love humans enough to care about doing right by them. To do justice is to be fair to all. So love and justice are the same.

The fourth proposition is about agape (Christian love). “[L] ove wills the neighbour’s good whether we like him or not.” It says that unconditional desire to do good by society is essential for situation ethics to work – as if some people didn’t “love thy neighbour,” it would be impossible to trust that people wouldn’t misuse the principles of situation ethics (for example: a person murdering a child for throwing stones in a pond and claiming it was in defence of the surrounding people – stones can be dangerous when thrown).

The fifth proposition is “only the end justifies the means, nothing else.” When considering an action, the ends must be considered to know if love is best served by acting. To be contemplate on moral action without due reference to it’s outcome is an irresponsible approach. Any actions taken must be promoting the most loving result or else it is immoral.

The sixth proposition reinforces the situational ethical thought, “[L] ove’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively.” It says that as it is a Christian ethical system, we should pay more attention to what Christ actually believed and less to the old Jewish tradition. Jesus rejected the kind or rule – based morality that he saw around him. He wads prepared to break the rules when he felt that love required him to.

It is clear from these propositions that even thought Fletcher bases it on the teachings of Jesus, it is radically different from traditional Christian ethics. Actions are not intrinsically right or wrong, but depend on what best serves love in the situation.

There are many differences between Kant’s views on deontology and Fletcher’s views on situation ethics. Both have Christian connections; Kant’s are more traditional and Fletcher’s more relate to the current social climate giving flexibility to accommodate the modern Christians who need a solution to life’s complexities. However, looking at the historical context, Kant’s views also reflected the social climate as in the 18th century there were very strong views on good and evil in relation to heaven and hell. Kant in himself rejected the theory of the masses as he did not believe in the theological arguments for the existence of god, but assumed the existence of god to explain his ethics in a way people could understand.

The first difference in the principles is the theory according to people’s actions. Kant believed that people should act with reference to duty dictated to them by their a priori knowledge of natural moral law. To act out of love or compassion is wrong, as they are distractions that cloud our judgement. As natural moral law is instinctive it doesn’t require pre meditation of the consequences – as the ends should always be to do ones duty, morality leads to god. Moral value is conferred from the virtue and motivation of an action, not the consequences. In contrast, Fletcher believed that to act out of love for others is truly moral. To act without reference to the ends is a haphazard approach – one should always think about whether an action produces the most loving result.

An absolutist, legalistic thinker, Kant believed that there needed to be rules for people to follow, the natural moral law. Under no circumstances should this law be broken: a wrong action with a positive result is still a wrong action. These rules should be obeyed by everybody. “Live according to a maxim that can be applied universally.” Which is variation of Jesus’ ‘do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.’ Fletcher agreed for the most part that you should follow the rules, unless love is better served by breaking them. He believed that the only ruled was to “love thy neighbour” also taught by Jesus. If to love others you need to break the law – it replaces it. These differences are purely down to interpretation from the bible, as both carry Jesus’ teachings.

Deontology tells us that actions are intrinsically right or wrong. To allow exceptions to the rule would hurt someone in the process, and have an eroding affect on society. Situation ethics say that the only thing that is intrinsically good is agape – Christian, charitable, unconditional love. All other acts depend on the situation and outcome as to whether they are good or bye.

To better explain the difference I will use the example of lying.

An insane murder asks you the whereabouts of his next victim.

A legalist, or absolutist in this situation would tell the truth: even though the outcome would be bad they’ve still avoided an immoral action, or sin. A situationist however would break that rule as love of human life is better served by lying.

Kant was unbending in his belief in natural moral law, to against it is wrong. Fletcher would break the rules when the need occurred. These are examples of absolutist views in comparison with relativist views.

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