Deontological ethical model

Before delving into more strategic content, I will dedicate a series of posts to various ethical models. These models are used to judge our actions and can also inspire multiple strategies. The first ethical model is the deontological model.

First, it is necessary to clarify its meaning to avoid confusion. There are two meanings for the term ‘deontology’. The first has to do with professional ethics, which is related to the set of values and rules that regulate the practice of a profession and that are sometimes set out in a code of ethics, as in the case of doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc… The second is related to an ethical approach that is based on duties.  

I will explain this second meaning in this post. The deontological ethical model, based on duties, often contrasts with the consequentialist ethical model, which is based on consequences. More precisely, the deontological model is based on the individual’s duty to act according to the correct principle or value.

The paradigm of the deontological ethical model is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and is usually exemplified in the formulations of the categorical imperative. Thus, it is stated, “behave in such a way that your maxim of action becomes a universal law”. This seems an essential moral principle, but some argue it is empty. With sufficient skill, the universal law can be turned into unacceptable claims. Let’s see how this mechanism works. If someone wants to use hate language against minorities, it seems that this could not be universalised. However, if someone advocated positive discrimination policies, could they be universalised? Some might argue that it does not make hate speech but that the principle of universalisation is the freedom of expression of people with their own pride.

Behind the categorical imperative lies the Golden Rule of Humanity, which has strategic significance and holds “treat others as you would like to be treated yourself”. It is a rule based on reciprocity, but unlike the an eye for an eye, it is not a rule of response to an attack but anticipates a cooperative attitude, which implies putting oneself in the other person’s shoes. Some studies indicate that this long-term cooperative attitude is the one that yields the best results.

Another formulation of the categorical imperative is to “always treat every human being as an end in himself, never as a means”. This shows how the deontological ethical model is a maximal ethics. Others connect this view with the notion of human dignity. From the perspective of strategy, it could be said that this is a commendable statement of principles, but that human relations move between cooperation and competition. The strategy should enhance the cooperative elements and diminish the competitive aspects to achieve specific objectives.

This ethical deontological model is legalistic, rigorist, not based on experience, rational, and universally applicable. Two maxims defended by this model are of particular strategic importance. The first is that promises must always be kept. In the U.S., some journalists go to prison for not revealing their sources in court. Their promise of confidentiality is stronger than the legal duty to testify. Keeping promises is a good ethical principle, and society relies heavily on the expectation that promises will be kept. Objections may come from the Machiavellian ethical model, where keeping one’s word is not always the best solution. The deontological model holds that commitments should always be honoured, regardless of the circumstances. The strategy should prevent being exploited by those who claim commitments and then do not want to fulfil them.

The other maxim of the ethical deontological model with strategic interest is that the truth must always be told. First, a distinction should be made between not telling the whole truth and lying. Second, the strategic use of threats assumes they must be credible to be effective. The ethical deontological model holds that the truth must always be told, even if it harms the speaker. In such cases, the best strategy is silence. Or as Wittgenstein said “what cannot be spoken about, it is better to remain silent about”.

The deontological ethical model is a morally demanding proposal; it could be described as rigorist. It is based on universally valid principles not based on experience. It can function as a mechanism to make commitments and threats solid and credible. However, the strategy learns from experience. Thus, there may be special situations where exceptions to the general principles can be made, provided they are adequately justified.

Principles and values are guides for action that occasionally mark the limits where one should not go. The ethics of duties should allow for a flexible application, not an absolute one. Arguably, this flexibility reflects the spirit of Kant, but it is closer to life.