Deontology in Brief

A pupil repays a teacher badly if he remains only a student. –Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathrustra

So I was judging an LD round last weekend where a student was valuing deontology… which he then promptly confused with teleology. So I’m feeling like it’s my duty to try to explain this in terms that might be understood since Kant and Wikipedia apparently didn’t help. So let’s grab H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self and recount that:

[W]e may say that purposiveness seeks to answer the question: “What shall I do?” by raising as the previous question: “What is my goal, ideal, or telos?”  Deontology tries to answer the moral query by asking, first of all: “What is the law and what is the first law of my life?”  Responsibility, however, proceeds in every moment of decision and choice to inquire: “What is going on?”  If we use value terms then the differences among the three approaches may be indicated by the terms the good, the right, and the fitting; for teleology is concerned always with the highest good to which it subordinates the right; consistent deontology is concerned with the right, no matter what may happen to our goods; but for the ethics of responsibility the fitting action, the one that fits into a total interaction as response and as anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right.

And that’s the charitable interpretation of those three frameworks, by which anybody making any decision can claim to do so with the best intentions, be they good, right, or fitting.  But it may not be entirely clear yet, so let’s provide an alternate description (which will almost certainly grossly shortchange Kant et al, but I’m talking to people who didn’t get Kant so hopefully the oversimplification is effective enough):

Deontology is about fulfilling duty to your existing identity. It is about doing things because they’re the sort of thing a person like you does, regardless of the consequences. For example, you go to school because you identify yourself as a student and “going to school” is what students do, never mind how bored you are in class. Alternately, a soldier goes on guard duty regardless of whether or not their position is being threatened. You can’t shirk this kind of duty without giving up a part of your identity.

Teleology is about pursuing a goal or consequence-of-action that will be crucial to your identity.  It’s about doing the things that the person you’re trying to become would have already done, and piffle on the side-effects.  For example, if you want to become a doctor then you’re going to go to med school and not let a little thing like crippling six-figure debt stop you.  You can’t give up this kind of goal without feeling a crushing futility.

Responsibility, in Niebuhr’s book, is about constantly asking “Wait, what?” to best balance your duty to the legacy which brought you into the status quo and your goals that will take you up and out of it. This framework may be preferred by the sorts of people who have equal senses of duty and purpose, but also by the people with neither sense of duty nor purpose, assuming that they’re also considering ethical frameworks for decision-making. Which they almost certainly aren’t.

Having prefaced with Nietzsche, I’ll now end with the reason why, and it is to reformulate Responsibility into the question “What is my duty to the future?”