When discussing deontological ethics vs consequentialism, the examples given are generally somewhat drastic: e.g. killing one person to save five. But what about something which is 'harmless fun' but is nevertheless considered wrong. I have in mind a BBC television program called 'Animal Magic' where the narrator, Johnny Morris, made up voices for the animals. Such anthropomorphism would be considered wrong today (and I would agree with such an opinion), but it doesn't seem that it does any harm, and so this is based on what is right rather than utilitarian arguments. I would call this deontological, but it doesn't seem to fit in with the drastic examples. What do people think?

Note: it is generally possible to invent a utilitarian argument for why something is wrong, but if this done by starting from what is right and finding an argument to fit, then I would say it is essentially deontological.


Welcome quantropy

Deontological ethics need not be drastic ethics ! The term 'deontology' is a made-up modern coinage that derives from the Greek deon (duty - or near enough). Any ethics is deontological if it holds that there are actions or attitudes which are right or wrong not because of their consequences for harm or happiness but because there is something intrinsically morally appropriate or inappropriate about them. A deontologically wrong action doesn't have to be on the moral scale of (say) genocide - a drastic wrong.

For instance, cultural apppropriation has come to be widely resented, and the resentment is moral. It is thought to show disrespect at least where something revered or held sacred in one culture is used for trivial purposes such as toys, ornaments or decorations in another. Deontologically it is considered to be inappropriate because it shows (intrinsic) disrespect and not for any (contingently) injurious consequences it causes - though it may cause such consequences. No deontology that I know of regards cultural appropriation as drastically wrong, as wrong on the scale of genocide.

Johnny Morris' animal voices could be considered a kind of mockery of the animal world or, as you suggest, an inappropriate 'anthropomorphism'. I wouldn't myself take them either way but if they are morally objectionable they could be held to be deontologically wrong because of their intrinsic character. Regardless of their consequences, they embody a morally insensitive attitude towards animals and this is intrinsically wrong.

I am not projecting my own ethical views or attitudes, simply trying to show (1) that Johnny Morris' voices, which few would regard as major evils ('drastic'), might none the less fall under a deontological ban; and (2) more generally that deontolological moral judgements apply to actions or atttitudes considered to be intrinsically morally appropriate or inappropriate regardless of the scale of their rightness or wrongness. There is no special conceptual connexion between the deontological and the drastic.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.