The understanding of whether a particular action is right or wrong depends on the perspective of a moral theory from which it is viewed. Deontological and consequential ethics are contrasting moral codes that often give contradictory views on different problems. According to Vaughn (2019), deontological ethics implies the vision of action as wrong or right that depends “on the nature of the action itself” (p. 69). In other words, the rightness of the action depends on one’s intent to do a proper thing defined by duty. Consequential theories, on the contrary, explain the rightness of the action by its consequences and the amount of good it can give to other people. The case under discussion provides a moral dilemma when adhering to the rules contradicts the desire to do someone good. Duty, in this case, should be trumped by good, as these rules conflict with an understanding of what is right.
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If Daniel had viewed the given situation only from the deontological perspective, he would have complied with the corporate policy, and that would be the end of the case. However, he realized that under these circumstances, the consequences of the right action would bring no good. That is why the given situation should be considered from the consequential perspective. Vaughn (2019) explains consequential ethical theories as those that define the rightness of action according to the outcomes it brings. There are cases, however, when good intentions cause wrong results due to incorrect judgment of the consequences. Human inability to predict all the possible outcomes of the action, neither good nor bad, speaks in favor of the ethics of duty and adhering to rules and principles. That is why it is necessary to consider at least some possible long-term consequences of Daniel’s decision for Carol, himself, and the company.
The most evident consequence of the exception from the rules is the impact on the treatment of Carol, an employee patient. It should be mentioned that granting her financial support does not guarantee positive health outcomes as other clinical factors do not depend on the money. However, the company’s failure to provide help would be catastrophic for her, as she has no other resources. Even if no cure can be granted by this help, it is difficult to detect any harm that financial support from the company can bring to Carol’s health. In the case of Carol’s full recovery, the company will have their already trained and experienced employee back, which is also a positive outcome.
As the consequences of granting the exception from the rules for Carol are considered positive for her, the long-term effects of this action for the company can be controversial. To see the possible impact of the decision to break company rules, one should look at the reasons behind this policy. Financial loss and bureaucratic complications are the primary negative consequences of rule violation. Although cancer treatment is expensive for an employee, a solitary act of financial support will have little impact on a large-scale business. However, it may have severe consequences when the information on this rule violation becomes known.
First of all, the disclosure of information about the rule violation raises the question of the exception being made to a single employee. Similar cases probably occurred in an extensive multihospital system during the years of service, and the exception from the rules made for Carol would make other people who were not granted financial support feel offended. It may harm the hospital’s reputation as that where inequality is supported. The privilege made for Carol may thus harm her further well-being at work. Secondly, this case can become a precedent for other employees to demand help, referring to the situation of Carol. Providing this support would put the company at a financial disadvantage, and failing to do so would damage its reputation.
There is an alternative way for the company to manage the disclosure of such a precedent. The reason why duty conflicts with good in this situation are the imperfection of the rules which cannot grant the morally right attitude to the employees. If Daniel sees this flaw in the corporate policy and believes that it should be done otherwise, he should proceed with his position. Besides the case with Carol, the attempt should be made to change the rules. The increase in insurance compensation is often be viewed as financially disadvantageous for the business. However, when properly managed, it can be covered by the salaries, and it has the potential to bring indirect benefits, improving employees’ well-being and the attractiveness of the company at the job market.
When Duty Should be Trumped by Good
Moral duty or obligation is a key concept of deontological ethics. Doing the actions that are considered ethical by nature, not by their consequences, is the imperative of non-consequential theories. As Vaughn (2019) explains, actions have moral worth only when they are performed with one’s goodwill, namely for the sake of duty. Kant’s ethics implies that the actions have value when they are done “out of pure reverence for the moral law” (Vaughn, 2019, p. 102). Although acting dutifully instead of minding the consequences can be beneficial and help to avoid mistakes in outcome prediction, this theory has some severe drawbacks.
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First of all, focus on one’s actions instead of others’ well-being is egoistic. Acting out of duty prevents one from remorse and from what religion calls ‘sin.’ However, thinking about the good for others even when one should act improperly is more altruistic as it demonstrates care for others instead of concern for one’s conscience. Secondly, the rules cannot be implied to any situation without thinking as the variables may differ. In such cases, acting according to moral imperatives brings more harm than good. Moreover, the rules, duties, and policies should be tested by time, questioned, and revised when they bring no use. The occurrence of moral dilemmas is proof that doing one’s duty is not sufficient to direct people to the right choice.
In the discussed case, Daniel’s vision of what is good contradicts the corporate policy. Although deontological ethics does not simply look at the consequences, the primary role of duty is to bring good to humanity, regulating people’s behavior. The current situation shows that specific rules fail to cope with this mission due to their flaws. Adhering to the corporate policy would bring no blame on David and would clear his conscience, but his moral principles do not align with these rules. The reason is in the flaws of the regulations, and the exception made for Carol should become a precedent for further changes.
Deontological Ethics in Conflict with Consequential Ethics
Conflicts between deontological moral imperative and concern for consequences occur when the duties cannot motivate the right actions. Different cases of ethical dilemmas show that the conflict can be either internal or external. External conflict arises when the regulations of a particular community contradict a person’s belief of what is right. For example, when a soldier should follow the order even though he or she believes that it is wrong, a moral dilemma occurs. However, deontological ethics is not based merely on following rules, but on setting strong beliefs and ethical principles for people to follow. According to Paquette, Sommerfeldt, and Kent (2015), “a central principle of Kantian deontological ethics, that respect, and empathy for the other is paramount” (p. 32). Several perfect duties, such as the obligation not to lie or not to break a promise, should be followed, according to deontological ethics, without fail (Vaughn, 2019). Nevertheless, in some cases, people feel that following such obligations brings more harm than good, and under such circumstances, internal moral conflicts occur.
In such contradictory situations, human behavior differs according to their beliefs. However, studies show that people tend to “show intuitive sensitivity to conflict between deontological and utilitarian aspects of a classic moral dilemma” (Białek & Neys, 2017, p. 162). The feeling of what is right is perceived intuitively by each individual, even those whose primary imperative is to act according to the duty. The discussed case provides an example of the external conflict of a person’s (Daniel’s) moral beliefs and corporate policy. The foundation for his reasoning is his understanding of what is right and the inability of the corporate regulations to maximize the best outcomes for the employees.
Deontological ethics, developed by Kant, implies the supremacy of the dutiful action disregarding the outcomes for other people. However, there are cases when doing the right thing does more harm than good. That is why internal or external conflicts occur under such circumstances, as people intuitively tend to think of outcomes. The discussed case is an example of the situation when duty should be trumped by good, and the existing rules should be questioned.
Białek, M., & Neys, W. D. (2017). Conflict detection during moral decision-making: evidence for deontic reasoners’ utilitarian sensitivity. Judgment and Decision Making, 12(2), 148-167.
Paquette, M., Sommerfeldt, E. J., & Kent, M. L. (2015). Do the ends justify the means? Dialogue, development, communication, and deontological ethics. Public Relations Review, 41(1), 30-39. Web.
Vaughn, L. (2019). Doing ethics: Moral reasoning and contemporary issues. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.