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Laws: A Deontological Approach

When many people are confronted by the question, "What should I do?" their response is another question: "What are the rules or law?"  In other words, they decide what is the right course of action based on what the religious tradition or culture prescribes. What makes an action right is that it conforms to the rule that applies to that particular situation.

This way of deciding right and wrong is usually labeled a deontological approach. The word, "deontological" comes from a Greek word that means "that which is binding."  Thus, deontological refers to an approach to ethics based on duties.  In a pure deontological approach, one does not consider the consequences of one's actions. For example, one does not keep the Sabbath because doing so will result in rest for the body and renewal of the spirit;  rather one keeps the Sabbath because it is divinely commanded.  "A person recognizes his or her obligations and fulfills them, not because of selfish concern, but because of an overriding sense of duty . . .  ."


Most religious traditions have codified the ethical actions that they prescribe. On the one hand such codification may make the laws easier to remember.  On the other hand, collections of laws, sayings and precepts embody the wisdom of the group or the deity. Examples of such codes include the Ten Commandments, the "Golden Rule," and the Eightfold Path in Buddhism. 


What is the source of the laws that one must follow?  The deontological approach can be based on (1) Divine Command or (2) Natural or Cosmic Law.


Divine Command as the Basis for the Deontological Approach

In some religions, the moral code is thought to be derived from the God or gods. For example, in Judaism the Ten Commandments along with the rest of the Torah are considered to be part of the law given by the God of Israel. For Islam, the Qur'an is the direct word of Allah that was dictated to the prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. In the case of Divine Command, the question "What should I do?" is answered by asking, "What does the deity command?"  One must simply obey what is perceived to be the divine command without regard for the consequences of his/her action.
Interpreting Divine Command
The critical thing to note in the last statement is the phrase "perceived to be." In many cases Divine Command is stated in general terms and thus requires some sort of interpretation to make it application clear. For example, the Ten Commandments state "You shall not kill."  Does this command apply to cases of self-defense?  What about killing as part of war?  Does the command apply to capital punishment?  Obviously, some further interpretation is needed even of divine law.  In Judaism, this need for further interpretation gave rise to a vast collection of material known as the Talmud
The Talmud contains the oral law of Judaism, which according to tradition goes back to the time of Moses himself. It was believed that when God had given Moses the written Torah, He had also given him an Oral Torah with additional laws to help provide explanations of how to fulfill the 613 commandments of the written Torah.  These explanations were to be transmitted orally from one generation to the next. As time passed it became necessary to apply the written and oral law to new, unanticipated circumstances. Thus, expounders of the Oral Law would apply new legal rulings  which, in turn, became a part of the Oral Law. It was not until the end of the second century CE that the Oral Torah was compiled and written down. It eventually became the basis for a vast commentary on the Law that is known as the Talmud (literally, "learning). 
In Islam the interpretation of Divine Command found in the Qur'an  is known as the  shariah:  "a collection of interpretations and extrapolations developed by learned members of the Islamic community to make laws for people to abide by."  We have already seen an example of the shariah in the case of Islamic mortgages. The shariah covers all areas of behavior and demonstrates how the Divine Command found in the Qur'an is to be applied in specific cases. In Islamic societies, the shariah has the status of law and people are expected to obey it.  The shariah divides actions into five categories:
  • What is required
  • What is recommended, but not required.
  • What is permitted
  • What is discouraged
  • What is forbidden.

Among the duties that are required by shariah are the five pillars of Islam.  We have already seen that one of the five pillars of Islam is the obligation to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).  The other pillars are: fasting during the month of Ramadan, prayer, giving to the poor and making the confession known as the shahadah.  Among other duties that are required of all Muslims is the duty of jihad.  The exact nature of jihad and how one fulfills this obligation provides a case study in the complexity and necessity of interpreting Divine Command.



Natural Law as the Basis for the Deontological Approach

While an ethics based on duty can be based on a belief in Divine Command, it can also be based upon cosmic law or natural law.  The concepts refer to the belief that there is a moral order inherent in the order of the universe. (Remember the connection between world view and ethics.) Through the use of reason, one can discover the principles and rules of this natural or cosmic law. Moral or ethical actions are those that conform to the natural law. Two examples of the attempt to base ethics on natural law are Confucius and Thomas Aquinas. 

Confucianism is a religious tradition that emphasizes belief in an inherent moral order in the universe. The founder of Confucianism is K'ung Fu-Tzu. His name has traditionally been translated into English as "Confucius."  Confucius lived from 551-479 BCE.  His life witnessed a time of chaos and disintegration in Chinese society. 

Confucius himself was a minor public servant who attracted very little attention during his life.  He believed that a return to the classical rites and standards of virtue was the only way out of chaos.  Consequently, he focused his energies on teaching the classics of China's cultural heritage to young men who were training to become public servants.  His teachings, known as Juchiao ("the teaching of the scholars") focused on developing a just and orderly society.  They are based on traditional Chinese religious beliefs. In the second century BCE the teachings of Confucius and the classics that he collected and edited were officially adopted by the state.


While Confucianism is a rich and complex religious tradition, our focus here is the connection that Confucius made between natural law and ethical behavior.  Confucius referred to the natural law as the Tao or way.  As is the case in Taoism, the Tao refers to the patterns and principles which order all creation.  Confucius believed that the Tao is of divine origin:  its source is the sacred realm that he referred to as Heaven or Nature. One is able to discover the principles and patterns and apply them to one's own life.  
St. Thomas Aquinas
In the Christian tradition the theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274),  articulated the belief in a natural law. Aquinas reasoned that there is an eternal law underlying all of creation.  Through the eternal law, God is guiding all things in the universe toward their intended purpose.  This Eternal law gives all beings (rational or not) the inclination to actions and goals that are appropriate to them.  Rational creatures (human beings), however, share in divine wisdom and thus can discern the actions and goals that are appropriate to them.  This discernment of and participation in the Eternal Law is what Aquinas called Natural Law. Ultimately, this participation in the recognition of the Natural Law leads to precepts and principles that provide moral guidance.