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Bridging Deontological and Teleological Ethical Perspectives

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Buddhism espouses the concept of “karma” which refers to the chains of causes and events in the universe (Reichenbach, p. 137). A person who has experienced something good in life is said to have good karma whereas the opposite is true for the person who has experienced something bad. In a way, karma serves as the law of moral causation precisely because moral and immoral acts result to good and bad consequences, respectively. Thus, doing something good can ultimately lead to a morally sound consequence whereas doing something bad can eventually lead to an immoral effect.

In any case, the “something” in “doing something” can be either right or wrong in itself. Similarly, the “something” in “doing something” can also be either right or wrong with respect to its consequences. Taking the Buddhist concept of karma and using it within the context of ethics, the result is an understanding of the connection between karma, deontological and teleological ethics. For the most part, deontological ethics is a branch of ethics that deals with the moral worth of actions.

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That is, the moral worth of something depends on the rightness or wrongness of the act that causes it. For instance, aborting an unborn fetus in order to save the mother is morally wrong essentially because abortion kills a living being and is, therefore, wrong in the first place. In deontological ethics, the rightness or wrongness of an act is fundamental in determining whether an action is ethical or unethical, which implies that the basis for saying whether an act is moral or immoral is the act itself.

Connecting that thought with the Buddhist concept of karma, the totality of all the chains of causes and effects in the world is the summation of all actions that are inherently good or evil regardless of their consequences. As a result, the foundation of the Buddhist concept of karma when viewed from a deontological ethical perspective is the action itself no matter what the consequence may be. While deontological ethics treats actions and their consequences separately when identifying the moral worth of actions, it does not mean however that actions and their consequences are inherently separate.

Rather, they remain tied insofar as they remain causes and effects to one another. On the other hand, teleological ethics is primarily concerned with the consequences of actions in determining their moral worth, which is why most teleological ethical theories are also called consequentialist ethical theories. The moral worth of an action can be gauged in terms of the consequences it leads to. For instance, aborting a child may save the mother, thereby making the act of abortion in the specific circumstance morally permissible and ethical at the same time.

So long as the consequences are favorable, an action remains moral as far as teleological ethical theory is concerned. With that in mind, the Buddhist concept of karma sits comfortably with teleological ethics. That is because karma involves both causes and effects; no action can be determined as either right or wrong if there is no consideration for the consequences it leads to. Taken as a whole, there is strong reason to believe that karma shares several revealing characteristics with the philosophical formulations of both deontological and teleological ethical theories.

In most case, teleological and deontological ethical theories are often placed on extreme poles primarily because each treats the moral worth of action in distinct ways. However, the Buddhist concept of karma can provide a common ground for both ethical theories at least in terms of one thing—the causation of events in the universe. Buddhist Karma and Deontology Immanuel Kant is one of the foremost philosophers who favored deontology throughout his career. Kant once argued that human beings should not be treated as means to an end but as the ends themselves (Sokoloff, p.770).

In other words, a person should not use another person as a way for him to achieve his desires. Rather, that person ought to treat the other person with respect and dignity precisely because the welfare of other persons should be at the helm of every human pursuit. That idea closely resembles the “golden rule” which proposes that a person should act towards other people in the way that he expects himself to be treated by others. Deontological ethics, therefore, prescribes that actions are morally right because of their morally right nature.

Given the fact that karma in general is the totality of all causes and effects in the universe, it can also be said as the totality of all the interactions among human beings with other fellow human beings. Although karma is not entirely limited to such an interpretation, it nevertheless accepts the fact that interpersonal interaction—apart from humanity’s interaction with the surrounding environment—can be the respective causes of certain effects and effects of certain causes.

A society can be composed of individuals treating one another as means to an end, as ends themselves or a combination thereof. Take all societies in the world and the picture becomes broader yet clearer. In a way, interpersonal interaction has a substantial role in the general karma of all things. There are countless numbers of individuals from across the world taking part in the activities that occur on a daily basis. Somewhere in North Korea, there may be a person who is morally condemned for constantly threatening neighboring countries through the testing of potentially dangerous nuclear armaments.

Somewhere in the United States, a policeman avoids offers of bribe due to the belief that the act of bribing in itself is morally wrong even though the money given can be enough to sustain the officer’s family’s financial needs for another month. Somewhere in Saudi Arabia, a man pays respect to his elders by making them happy through gifts because he believes that his elders are human beings who deserve all the happiness in the world just like anybody else. These interactions and all the rest happening in the world as we speak comprise a portion of the general karma of things.

Performing actions that are inherently ethical or unethical can influence the way in which karma takes places. The favor may be returned or not. Either way, both ethical and unethical actions play a role in the chains of causes and effects in the universe. Buddhist Karma and Teleology The key principle in teleological ethical theory is the idea that an action is morally right or wrong depending on its consequences. One version of that idea is utilitarianism which grants that an action is good if it leads to the greatest benefit of the greatest number (Freeman, p.313).

Conversely, a person’s actions or decisions are morally right if it actually promotes the welfare of the wide majority of people involved or concerned in the situation. On the other hand, an action is wrong if it does the exact opposite, which is either to promote the welfare of the few or to cause harm to the majority. Teleological ethics, therefore, implies that the consequences of an action largely determine its moral worth. In the case of utilitarianism, determining the moral worth of an action is possible if the consequences can be quantified.

If teleological ethics depends on the consequences of actions, it will also naturally involve the relationship between the cause and effect of any given circumstance. In effect, good karma can be characterized as karma resulting from the good consequences of an individual’s actions or decisions. On the other hand, bad karma can be characterized as karma resulting from the bad consequences of a person’s acts. In both cases, there is the presumption that there are causes in the same way as there are effects.

That presumption underscores the principle that the relationship between causes and effects significantly determines not only the rightness or wrongness of actions but also their good and bad valuations in terms of Buddhist karma. When taken from the broadest perspective of teleological ethics, karma can be seen occurring in almost every part of the globe. A president of a certain first-world country deciding to aid people living in impoverished countries through foreign aid can certainly give good consequences to an immense number of people.

In effect, the benefits these people will be receiving through the aid can be said as part of their good karma. On the other hand, the praises from the international community and the appreciation of the people at the receiving end of the foreign aid can also be said as part of the good karma for the president. Another example is when one nation decides to declare war on another distant nation. The results can be devastating, the most significant of which is the possible loss of countless lives.

For both sides participating in the war, the bad karma can be easily seen not only for the people who lived to witness and experience firsthand the atrocities of the war but also for the generations that will follow. Karma interpreted in the context of teleological ethics can also refer to ordinary events on a smaller scale. A person taking the law into his own hands by murdering another person for vengeance will be jailed. Consequently, the jailing of the murder convict can be said as a form of bad karma. A person gaining a new friend by sharing the table to another stranger in the public library can be said as good karma.

At any rate, the consequences of our actions determine our actions’ moral worth, and it is from the relationship between the consequences and the actions where Buddhist karma can be taken from. Deontology’s Karma versus Teleology’s Karma What are the differences between deontology’s karma and teleology’s karma? For the most part, it can be said that both deontological and teleological ethics attempt to categorize moral worth of actions, the former in terms of the nature of the actions and the latter in terms of their consequences.

Although the difference largely rests on what to use as the basis for the moral worth of an action, the undeniable similarity is that both ethical theories touch the Buddhist concept of karma. At the least, the concept of karma provides the common ground for the ethical theories that are commonly labeled as anti-thesis to one another. Since karma presupposes causes and effects, it must also deal with the relationships that exist between them.

On one hand, the relationship can be viewed in terms of the “cause” determining its own moral worth independently from the “effect”. On the other hand, the relationship can also be viewed in terms of the “effect” determining the moral worth of the “cause”. In both instances, the causes naturally lead to their effects even though the basis for identifying their moral worth differs. As Kaufman writes, karma is “not only about the causes of an effect insomuch as it is not only about the effects of a cause in any given circumstance.

Rather, it is about the marriage of the two” (Kaufman, p. 16). This inseparability of the cause from the effect—or vice versa—in terms of Buddhist karma is the reason why it can be said that deontological and teleological ethics are looking at the same coin only focusing on different sides, so to speak. They look at the same relationships although each one concentrates on a distinct angle—deontology on the cause and teleology on the effect. Karma and General Ethics Damien Keown writes that karma “inevitably concerns a person’s character” (Keown, p.331).

That is because a person’s character can influence his actions and decisions as well as the effects of such actions and decisions. In effect, the chains of universal causes and effects involve the overall moral characters of all people. Karma becomes intertwined, as it does in fact, with the ethical inclinations of individuals. In general, ethics is concerned with the rightness or wrongness of things. It offers a wide array of ethical precepts which people are expected to follow in order to live morally upright lives.

Karma, on the other hand, implies a person’s capacity to make his own decisions and, therefore, his capacity to self-determination as opposed to abiding by a predetermined fate. Taken together, ethics provides options for individuals to fully realize the things that they want to achieve. Ethics provides frameworks for people to use in order to make decisions and enact them based on what is morally permissible. Keeping in line with what is morally permissible is said to lead to good karma while deviating from what is moral can lead to bad karma.

Deontological and teleological ethics are just two of the ethical doctrines that individuals can follow in order to attain a favorable karma. Although deontological and teleological ethics are both unique to the point that they contradict one another in terms of what to use as basis for determining the moral worth of actions, they also come into terms within the context of the Buddhist karma. They share the common belief in the causation of things; everything happens for a reason. Either the cause in itself is the reason for the act’s moral worth or the effect determines the moral worth of the action.

Works Cited

  1. Freeman, Samuel. “Utilitarianism, Deontology, and the Priority of Right. ” Philosophy and Public Affairs 23. 4 (1994): 313-49.
  2. Kaufman, Whitley R. P. “Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil. ” Philosophy East and West 55. 1 (2005): 15-32.
  3. Keown, Damien. “Karma, Character, and Consequentialism. ” The Journal of Religious Ethics 24. 2 (1996): 329-50.
  4. Reichenbach, Bruce R. “Karma, Causation, and Divine Intervention. ” Philosophy East and West 39. 2 (1989): 135-49.
  5. Sokoloff, William W. “Kant and the Paradox of Respect. ” American Journal of Political Science 45. 4 (2001): 768-79.
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