UNIVERSALISM: A DEONTOLOGICAL (DUTY-BASED) APPROACH Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is considered one…


Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is considered one of the leading founders of the principle of universalism. Universalism, which is also called “deontological ethics,” holds that the ends do not justify the means of an action—the right thing must always be done, even if doing the wrong thing would do the most good for the most people. Universalism, therefore, is also referred to as a no consequentialist ethic. The term “deontology” is derived from the Greek word deon, or duty. Regardless of consequences, this approach is based on universal principles, such as justice, rights, fairness, honesty, and respect.19 Kant’s principle of the categorical imperative, unlike utilitarianism, places the moral authority for taking action on an individual’s duty toward other individuals and “humanity.” The categorical imperative consists of two parts. The first part states that a person should choose to act if and only if she or he would be willing to have every person on earth, in that same situation, act exactly that way. This principle is absolute and allows for no qualifications across situations or circumstances. The second part of the categorical imperative states that, in an ethical dilemma, a person should act in a way that respects and treats all others involved as ends as well as means to an end. 20 Kant’s categorical imperative forces decision makers to take into account their duty to act responsibly and respectfully toward all individuals in a situation. Individual human welfare is a primary stake in any decision. Decision makers must also consider formulating their justifications as principles to be applied to everyone. In Louise Simms’ situation, if she followed deontological principles of universalism, she might ask, “If I accept the official’s offer, could I justify that anyone anywhere would act the same way?” Or, “Since I value my own self-respect and believe my duty is to uphold self-respect for others, I will not accept this assignment because my self-respect has been and may again be violated.” The major weaknesses of universalism and Kant’s categorical imperative include these criticisms: First, these principles are imprecise and lack practical utility. It is difficult to think of all humanity each time one must make a decision in an ethical dilemma. Second, it is hard to resolve conflicts of interest when using a criterion that states that all individuals must be treated equally. Degrees of differences in stakeholders’ interests and relative power exist. However, Kant would remind us that the human being and his or her humanity must be considered above the stakes, power bases, or consequences of our actions. Still, it is often impractical not to consider other elements in a dilemma. Finally, what if a decisionmaker’s duties conflict in an ethical dilemma? The categorical imperative does not allow for prioritizing. A primary purpose of the stakeholder analysis is to prioritize conflicting duties. It is, again, difficult to take absolute positions when limited resources and time and conflicting values are factors. Universalism and Stakeholder Analysis The logic underlying universalism and the categorical imperative can be helpful for applying a stakeholder analysis. Even though we may not be able to employ Kant’s principles absolutely, we can consider the following as guidelines for using his ethics: Take into account the welfare and risks of all parties when considering policy decisions and outcomes.

1. Identify the needs of individuals involved in a decision, the choices they have, and the information they need to protect their welfare.

2. Identify any manipulation, force, coercion, or deceit that might harm individuals involved in a decision.

3. Recognize the duties of respecting and responding to individuals affected by particular decisions before adopting policies and actions that affect them.

4. Ask if the desired action would be acceptable to the individuals involved. Under what conditions would they accept the decision?

5. Ask if individuals in a similar situation would repeat the designated action or policy as a principle. If not, why not? And would they continue to employ the designated action?


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