Deontology is a position in the philosophy of ethics where one believes that morality is primarily derived from our moral obligations and duties. This is different from utilitarianism, which argues that morality is derived from the results our actions create.
The most famous deontologist is undoubtably Kant, who formulated the categorical imperative, which can be defined in the following ways: (1) Act according to the maxim whereby you should will that it becomes a universal moral law. (2) Act always so that you treat every person as an end, never solely as a means.
In a Kantian framework, these imperatives are to be followed without consideration of consequences, and they apply in all circumstances. We can see where such thinking makes sense in instances such as whether or not one should lie to her parents about missing one’s curfew. However, Kant’s categorical imperative seems to lead to odd results if followed to the extent Kant espoused. For example, suppose I live in Nazi Germany, and I hide a Jew in my house to keep him safe. If a Nazi officer knocks on my door and asks if there are any Jews in my house, I must tell him yes. Lying is ruled out a priori because it violates my duty to tell the truth, which must be adhered to in every circumstance.
Such a consequence would strike most of us as obviously false. However, I don’t believe that this means we ought to abandon deontology. Rather, I think we need a better formulation.
Jesus commanded that we should love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind. He also said that we must love our neighbor as ourself. These two sayings state that we have a moral obligation (i.e. a duty) to love both God and our neighbor.
It seems that Jesus’ ethic is superior to Kant’s in that it can fully incorporate deontological concerns about duty, but it avoids some of the unwanted consequences of strict adherence to the categorical imperative. For example, I am meant to love my neighbor as myself. In the situation in which I am hiding a Jewish individual in my house, and a Nazi soldier asks me if there are any Jews in my house, I am morally free to lie to the soldier. The jewish individual is my neighbor, and I want to protect his life as my own. The Nazi soldier, however, is also my neighbor. But by lying to him, I am still loving him as myself because I am keeping him from committing moral atrocity. For whatever reason, his moral cognition is not properly functioning. If I were in a similar situation in which my moral judgments are grossly mistaken, I would want others to do what they could to prevent me from acting on false presuppositions and thus committing a heinous act. Jesus’ ethics allows for this. Kant’s does not. Thus, although Kant provides some valuable insight and additional, philosophical terminology by which we can interact with morality, I still think Jesus’ argument is better.