People often take the view that one must sometimes ignore the consequences of an action and simply assess the morality of the action itself. It is generally accepted that some things are simply wrong even if they bring about good consequences. It is also accepted that people should not do such things (as the saying goes: “that’s just not right”). It is generally accepted that some things are acceptable or right even if they have harmful consequences. It is also accepted that people should do such things.
This method is involves assessing the action, policy, etc. in terms of the nature of X itself as opposed to its effect(s). The theoretical basis is deontology, the view that morality is based on determining and following the correct moral rules. Immanuel Kant is perhaps the best known deontologists. Religious ethics tend to be deontological in nature. For example, the Ten Commandments provide a set of rules that are supposed to be followed without exception.
While deontological theories often have a great deal of appeal, they are also subject to debate and criticism. This is discussed in part two of the course.
While this method refers to rules it is important not to confuse moral rules with other rules, such as those of civil or criminal law. There are theories that do involve the claim that morality is determined by the law of the state. For example, legal positivism is the view that morality is set by the state. Thomas Hobbes is often considered a legal positivist. The aptly named Chinese Legalists also held this view. Their rule in China was influential, but short lived. It is, of course, possible to argue from the legal rules to moral rule-this is discussed in the method known as mixing norms.
There are two general versions of this method. Each version has two steps.
Step 1: Argue that X violates (or does not) violate moral rule Y.
Step 2: Conclude that X is morally unacceptable (or acceptable).
Step 1: Argue that X is required by moral rule Y.
Step 2: Conclude that X is morally obligatory.
The most difficult part of the method is the first step. The challenge is to argue in favor of a moral rule and show how X breaks or is required by the moral rule. One way to do this is to use an established moral theory or principle (rule). For example, you might make an argument against lying by using the commandment against false witness in the context of divine command theory. Or you might use the method of mixing norms.
As an example, consider the matter of incurable diseases. Putting people to death who are infected with incurable contagious diseases would protect everyone else. By arguing that morality should be based on rules and that killing of innocent people violates a moral rule it can be concluded that we should not kill infected people.
There are two main ways to counter this method. The first is that the rule used in the method can be attacked. If the rule is successfully attacked, then the argument is undercut. The type of attack varies depending on the rule and the circumstances.
It can be argued that the rule is illegitimate. For example, someone might attack an argument based on a religious rule by arguing that the rule is mistaken or no longer applies today.
It can also be argued that a more important rule overrides the rule. For example, it could be argued that a rule about lying might be breakable because the rule of saving life is more important.
The second main avenue of reply is to argue that some factor other than moral rules should be used when assessing the situation. This can be done by using another method, such as an appeal to consequences, to offer a counter argument. For example, someone might argue that while it is not a pleasant thing to contemplate or do, those with incurable contagious diseases should be mercifully put to sleep. This would effectively reduce the spread of contagious diseases protecting everyone else from them. And, of course, the good of the many must outweigh the needs of the few, especially when it comes to life and death.