The Significance of Human Emotions to Deontological Ethics

Published 27 Dec 2016

At the heart of this paper’s topic lays a paradox. And the paradox stems from in the fact that this paper endeavors to argue for the significance of human emotions in respect to an ethical paradigm – i.e., deontology – which axiomatically dismisses the importance of the same.

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The roadmap of this paper draws inspiration from Joshua Greene’s article entitled “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul”. While in part a harsh critique of Kant’s deontology, the article is largely about offering an alternative paradigm – an educated furthering of an already propounded theory – that seeks to unravel the role of emotions in coming up with ethical decisions. In view of Greene’s article, this paper tries to argue that human emotions play a crucial role in the determination of ethical decisions, especially in respect to decisions that follow the reasoned norms of deontology.

Emotions as the Initial Impetus for Ethical Evaluation

Deontology is an ethical paradigm anchored on the rational premise of moral duty. Frequently contrasted with consequentialism or utilitarianism, deontology argues that moral judgment is not based on the outcomes of an action – however beneficial – as its consistency with stipulated moral precepts. Deontology is, much too often, reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical ethics. This is because Kant’s deontology places higher premium than most on both the supreme importance of acceding to moral norms and the sheer necessity of upholding one’s moral duty.

And because deontology seeks to frame ethics under the purview of moral precepts, which in turn in essentially a rational framework of right and wrong, it then tends to under-appreciate the importance of human emotions. As a matter of fact, Joshua Greene believes that there are reasons to think that Immanuel Kant was ‘adamant’ about any “moral judgment that is made on the basis of an emotional response”, in that he held that an “action performed merely out of sympathy and not out of appreciation of one’s duty lacks moral worth” (37).

But while deontology offers a very reasonable basis for moral judgments, it cannot however claim to posses the monopoly of truth relative to the perse science of ethics. For it needs to be acknowledged that deontology alone cannot be taken as the sweeping benchmark to evaluate all ethical decisions. At the very least, it needs to be inquired if it is in fact insightful to frame human actions solely within the context of rational premises such as moral duty and moral norms. Put simply, it needs to be explored whether or not is it even possible to reduce ethical dilemmas into the question of moral duty alone?

Joshua Greene’s critical take on Immanuel Kant can prove to be insightful in this regard. According to him, the crux of deontology – and utilitarianism too – lies not really on moral paradigms arising from “moral reasoning” as one’s “exercise of moral rationalization” (Greene 36). This means that a person evaluates the moral ramifications of an act by making “rational justifications for emotionally driven moral judgments”, instead of “reach(ing) moral conclusions on the basis of moral reasoning” (Greene 39). In other words, Greene attempts to argue that ethics is not just about rational frameworks. Far more essential, he believes that ethics necessarily involves the emotional impact which certain actions engender to people, which in turn inspires them to evaluate such actions within the framework of deontology.

To be sure, it makes a lot of sense to talk about ethical judgments being arrived at by a person on account of the raw emotions that come with how one’s perceives certain acts. For instance, a person who works as an accountant for a large business enterprise may find it difficult to obey an executive order which impels her to connive to a certain fraudulent transaction. And his or her repugnance against being made accessory to such an act, it must be argued, is the primordial force which brings her into an ethical dilemma. As such, there is not an ethical decision made either to accept or refuse such an offer just yet.

But the raw emotional disdain against the fraudulent business transaction is already patent. Herein it is necessary to acknowledge that moral reasoning is, in its most crude form, emotionally driven. As indeed, even before a person is confronted with an ethical dilemma, there is firstly an emotional force that comes into play. Greene calls this the “moral outrage”; and he argues that, even in creating moral justification to punish felons or law offenders, the rule of thumb has something to do with its being “predominantly emotional, (or) driven by feelings of anger or ‘outrage'” (Greene 55). Thus, at the heart of ethical frameworks is an ocean of human emotions and feelings, which constitutes the first impetus to subsequent moral evaluation.


This paper briefly concludes that human emotion is indeed significant for deontology, insofar as it acts as the initial force which informs the subsequent decisions of a person confronted with an ethical dilemma. While deontology has been widely argued as an ethical framework which does not recognize human feelings as legitimate bases for making moral choices, this paper nevertheless argues that it is impossible to do away with human emotions precisely because any moral evaluation about a particular human action has to start from an unmistakable feeling of being angered or outraged in the very first place. Thus, while human emotions cannot be taken as the sole basis for creating a rational construct of moral duty, they nonetheless have be duly recognized as effective and potent pointers which can help people discern which moral path to choose, consistent with the stipulations of the principle of deontology, paradoxes hitherto identified notwithstanding.


Greene, Joshua. “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul”.

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