Are rules and duties sufficient?

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Deontology, which is the view that ethics and morality should be based on rules and duties, is the viewpoint that dominates a lot of conservative Christian and political thought, and it has been the focus of the last several posts in this series. [1] In its many forms and interpretations, deontology has long held a central role in ethical theory. And to many theologians and philosophers, as well as to many politicians and people on the street, this vector of moral reasoning is completely sufficient to make ethical pie complete. “If only people would just follow God’s laws and the civil laws,” these people say, “society would be perfect!”

Case in point: A version of this common trope in recent public discussion is one frequently-heard reaction to a citizen who has been shot while fleeing from a policeman, usually in response to some relatively-minor offense, which is an all-too-often occurrence in America these days: “If only he had submitted to the police, he would still be alive!” That’s deontology in a real application.

In one important sense demonstrated here, deontology is definitely not sufficient. As we will see in upcoming posts, other parts of our brains outside of our “logic and rule” centers are also addressing the ethical problem at hand, coming up with their own answers, and directing our bodies in perhaps different directions. Sometimes these answers are compatible with the rules, but often they are not.

As one mentor of mine put it, “At its root, morality must be based on reality.” In other words, systems of morality that rely on an unattainable and unrealistic ideal are not workable. And the reality here is that, while our brains are processing the rules, they are also simultaneously processing our desired end goals (perhaps at odds with the rules), plus a visceral human empathy for other people (our “heart”), as well as thoughts of “higher things.”

Back to our case in way of elaboration here: The “reality” is that some people will flee the police, whether guilty or not, often with good reason. [2] As we shall see in the next post of this series, the primal human “fight-flight” response often suspends and overrules all logic, and that response, no matter how ill-advised, is not in itself a capital offense. Yet a summary death penalty is too often exercised by the officer of the law on the spot.

A more interesting question may be whether rules and duties have in themselves a universal transcendence. Is there a “natural law,” or more specifically “God’s Law,” underlying, and even trumping, the human expression of the rules of morality? Or is it sufficient that the rules and duties are of human origin? That possibility of sufficiency, I maintain, frightens many traditionally-religious people. “Natural law” has been a staple of religious ethics for centuries.

I have suggested in preceding posts several ways by which the “moral rules” come about, not from “out of nowhere,” but from more basic evolutionary and probabilistic human experience. as people attempt to live in community with one another. We can track most moral rules back through human history and determine from when and where they emerge.

The latter explanation looks like this in summary: Emerging human societies and power structures are always trying to solve the probabilistic “fight-flee-share” dilemma that is unavoidable in trying to survive and prosper in their growing extended families. The evolving human brain gets better and better at setting up logical structures for both generating and evaluating alternatives. These structures are articulated in the evolving human language as “rules and duties,” and often that language is expressed as “God language” (theology), because that is the language we know best through our tradition.

Some rules and duties work better than others in holding the society together, but none of them work all of the time. As a result, societies rise and fall over the centuries, and the rules of the surviving societies also survive, both those essential rules as well as those vestigial. Vestigial rules, similar your body’s appendix and your “junk DNA,” may survive simply because they were attached to a “surviving host,” and not for any other particular evolutionary reason. Many religious dietary laws are good examples of vestigial rules. Some Catholics still eat fish on Fridays.

So the really interesting question, I suggest, is whether this process of evolved rules and duties is sufficient to explain the existing rules and duties, both theological and legal, under which our societies live today. Alternatively, is there is still some more important “universal rule set” determining the moral course?

If you are still leaning toward the universal rule set, think for a moment about all of the critical societal issues where “good people disagree,” about important moral questions, even when they share the same religion or secular philosophy.


  1. See my posts King Hammurabi and your “deontology brain”The Ten-ish CommandmentsDivine command ethicsMaking the exception, and If it’s not illegal…
  2. In this viral video, a policeman pulls his gun on an Hispanic man who was purchasing a roll of mints, accusing him of theft. First of all, the man had paid for the mints, so there was a clear racial bias from the policeman here, and second, the policeman made a very dangerous over-reaction by unholstering his weapon. I don’t normally live in this threatening world daily, but I know many people who do.

For additional posts on probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.

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4 thoughts on “Are rules and duties sufficient?

  1. Pingback: If it’s not illegal… – When God Plays Dice

  2. Pingback: Primal morality and torture – When God Plays Dice

  3. Pingback: When you can’t save them all – When God Plays Dice

  4. Pingback: Ends, means and the banality of evil – When God Plays Dice

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