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
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
|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,
|In Islam the interpretation of Divine Command found in
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
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
- 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
Natural Law as the Basis for the
|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
|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.
|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
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.