Duty or Principle as Guide to Action

According to deontological frameworks based on duty or principle, some types of behavior or acts are either good or bad in themselves, and the outcome is irrelevant to moral judgment. As its name implies, this approach uses duties or moral rules or principles as guides to action. The Golden Rule is a familiar example. Another comes from Le Chambon, France, whose residents, community leaders, and public officials defied Nazi orders and saved thousands of people. According to the pastor’s wife, “Sometimes people ask me, ‘How did you make a decision?’ There was no decision to make. The issue was: ‘Do you think we are all brothers or not?’”

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) provides the categorical imperative, a rational rather than a religious formulation whereby one should only act as if one were legislating a universal law for everyone to follow in a preferred world; people are never treated instrumentally, as a means, but only as ends in themselves. The categorical imperative is a simple thought experiment: if you generalize any action to everyone in society, what would be the impact? An insistence on human beings’ dignity and worth is central to Kant’s ethical perspective.

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