The utilitarian and deontological ethics are important theories that
have a wide application in the field of law enforcement. The utilitarian
theory holds that human behavior or actions are considered to be right
or wrong depending on whether they maximize happiness or pain.
Utilitarianism focuses more on the consequences of a certain behavior or
action in assessing moral and ethical aspects of such behavior or
actions. The difference in views held by act utilitarian and rule
utilitarian present some challenge in determining the morality behind
torture and legal killing. The deontological theory, on the other hand,
judges between what is morally right or morally wrong on the basis of
adherence to some moral obligations. Deontologists do not consider the
consequences of human behavior or actions provided that such actions are
desirable and gives individual sufficient reasons to pursue them. In
addition, deontologists reject both torture and legal killing
irrespective of the magnitude of harm they cause on an individual.
Key words: Utilitarianism, deontological ethics, law enforcement,
torture, legal killing.
Application of Utilitarianism and Deontological Theories in Law
The primary duty of the law enforcers is the determination of whether an
act is right or wrong and then designs the possible solution that
maximizes the happiness of the majority. Although these rules are simple
to mention, practicing them is a challenge because some actions may seem
to be right to a certain group of people, but wrong to another group.
Ethical theories are some of the key tools that simplify the decision
about the ethical grounds of certain actions and justify the measures
taken by the law enforcers to correct unethical behavior in the society.
This paper will provide a discussion of two prominent theories of ethics
namely the utilitarian and deontological theories of ethics. Utilitarian
and deontological theories are the most appropriate theories of ethics
that can help the law enforcers in making significant decisions and
judging the moral and ethical grounds of certain human behavior in the
Statement of the problem
The law enforcement involves the determination of whether certain
actions or human behavior is right or wrong. This is a difficult
decision given the fact that it involves a man judging the decision of
another man. Eliminating subjectivity in such situations is paramount in
order to ensure that decisions made by law enforcers in judging the
moral and ethical grounds of the behavior of others is free of bias and
does not violate their rights. Different theories (such as
utilitarianism and deontological ethics) present some basic principles
that are appropriate in the process of determining the moral and ethical
practices that are universally accepted (Buha, 2010), but they some
points of divergence that may confuse the law enforcers. The present
study seeks to analyze the two theories (utilitarianism and
deontological ethics) with some specific applications in law enforcement
in order to identify the specific points of their divergence and how
they can contribute towards the administration of justice.
The researcher will be guided by the following research questions in
pursuing the purpose of the present research What are the basic
principles of the Utilitarian theory of ethics?, How does the
utilitarian theory fit in law enforcement?, How can the utilitarian
theory help in making decisions regarding torture and legal king in law
enforcement? What are the basic principles of deontological ethics
theories? How does deontological theory fir in the administration of
justice? How can deontological perspective help law enforcers in making
decisions regarding torture and legalization of killing?
The structure of this paper consists of seven parts. The first part
addresses the basic principles of the Utilitarian theory, which include
the determination of moral or ethical grounds of human behavior and
actions depending on whether they maximize pain or pleasure.
The second part explains how the principles of utilitarianism fit and
can be utilized in making significant decisions in law enforcement.
The third part provides a discussion of different views of subscribers
of utilitarian in making decisions about the torture of suspects and
The fourth part addresses the basic principles of deontological theory,
which include the determination of morality of ethics in human behavior
depending on one’s ability to comply with moral duties.
The fifth part explains how deontological ethics can be used in the
administration of justice.
The sixth part provides a discussion of views and positions taken by
deontologists regarding the torture of suspects and legalization of
The paper concludes that the two theories (utilitarian and deontology)
are significant in making crucial decision in law enforcement.
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that is based on the principle that
certain behavior or action is morally right if it does not cause harm to
another, but instead seeks to maximize their happiness (Driver, 2009).
The theory defines happiness of pleasure or absence of pain, while
unhappiness is defined as pain or absence of pleasure. Any type of
behavior of action can only be desired on the basis of its inherent
pleasure or capacity to reduce pain. Utilitarianism was advanced by
social reformers who believed that women, slaves, and people without
property should have been protected and not blackmailed. In addition,
the early theorists believed that criminals should be reformed instead
of being merely punished. Moreover, utilitarianism is a consequential
perspective given that any action or human behavior is considered to me
right if it guarantees the best results out of all the other
Appropriateness of utilitarianism in law enforcement
The classical approach of utilitarianism theory is the most appropriate
perspective that fits into the legal and social reform agenda. This
approach was put forwards by Mill and Bentham who held that any corrupt
social practice and laws should be reformed to reduce the pain they
inflict on innocent souls (Driver, 2009). The development of this
approach was motivated by the observation that people punished those who
had a different taste of morality to their own. This resulted in the
development of utility as a standard of measuring what should be
considered to be universally right or wrong. Based on utility, as a
standard of measure, law enforcers and the government should approve
policies and legislations that promote pleasure and happiness. Any form
of punishment that is based on differences in taste demonstrates false
beliefs or prejudice and reduces the antipathy of the legal action taken
by the law enforcer. This implies that any action considered by law
enforcers should have predictable consequences that involve reforming
the wrong behavior in a way that enhances the happiness of offenders
while reducing the pain inflicted on them.
Establishing the connection between utility and justice is a difficult
task, which requires one to harmonize different tastes of moral
perception that are held by different people. Although human behavior
and actions should seek to minimize harm and maximize pleasure,
punishment and reward are considered to be the most effective ways of
regulating human pursuit of happiness. This means that offenders should
be punished, but with the primary objective of motivating them to
abstain from behaviors that harm the society. According to Stuart
(1863) an objective link between utility and justice can be found by
analyzing four basic principles of justice. First, it is unjust to
divest people what belongs to them including their liberty or property.
This notion results in a concise sense that, it is unjust to violate
legal rights of anyone and it is just to respect those tights.
Secondly, it is unjust to violate a certain engagement (both implied and
express) with anyone because it breaks one`s faith with other members of
the society. This implies that people have absolute obligation not to
disappoint the expectations they have raised voluntarily (Stuart, 1863).
Third, the utility theory reduces violation of human justice by
objecting the application of the general understanding of justice, which
implies that one should get what he deserves. The theory of utility does
not encourage the return of good for good and evil for evil, but the
consequence of any action should be the guiding rule (Stuart, 1863).
Fifth, obligation of justice is subjected to preferences and sole
influence by desert. This means that any case of preference or legal
form of impartiality should be interpreted by the judges or preceptors
to mean that justice should only be influenced by desert or public
interest (Stuart, 1863). Consequently, law enforcers should aim at
providing justice to the majority in order to maximize their happiness.
Utilitarianism versus torture and legal killing in law enforcement
The basic principles of utilitarian theory hold that choices that are
considered to be morally superior yield more pleasure and less harm
compared with their alternatives. Although the utilitarian theory makes
it easy to differentiate the right and the wrong, different perceptions
held by subscribers of utilitarianism present some challenge in
determining the morality behind torture in law enforcement. The act
utilitarian hold that rules can be broken if breaking the rules will
maximize happiness (Buha, 2010). The rule utilitarian holds that
maximize happiness by formulating laws that are observed universally.
This means that observing the legal integrity outweighs the need to
break laws in order to maximize happiness. Consequently, the rule
utilitarian advocate for legal measures that ban torture unconditionally
given that flexible rules are marginal and can allow unnecessary
torture. In addition, flexible standards can facilitate a slippery slope
to increased rate of torture.
There are two major reasons given by the rule utilitarian when opposing
torture in law enforcement. First, legal standards that allow torture
under certain circumstances results in exorbitant costs, but its
benefits are uncertain (Buha, 2010). This is based on the fact that
infliction of pain without any guaranteed rerun results in cost that
should be avoided. The cost of torture can only be accounted for under
the rule utilitarian if six conditions are satisfied. In the case of
terror investigation, an actual terrorist threat should exist, the
threat should be imminent, dangerous enough to rationalize torture,
assurance the suspect will give reliable informant, torture will force
the suspect in releasing the information, and torture will help in
distinguishing the truth from falsehood. Secondly, allowing the use of
torture in certain circumstances might create an opportunity for
frequent application of torture even in circumstances that do not
require torture. In addition, allowing the use of torture in certain
crimes (such as terror investigation) can create an opportunity for its
application in other types of crime, which may not guarantee positive
Deontological theories of ethics assert that the locus of what is right
and what is wrong can be judged on the basis of one’s ability to
adhere to some moral obligations autonomously (Larry & Moore, 2012).
This means that one cannot act morally before understanding the moral
duties that can provide sufficient guidance in making the correct moral
choices. Based on these basic rules, people are considered to act
immorally if they fail to follow their moral duties. Theories of
deontological ethics emphasize on reasons as to why certain actions are
performed. This means that simple adherence to certain moral rules is
insufficient unless one is compelled to do those actions following a
correct motivation. In addition, moral duties that are considered to be
correct are determined with objectivity and absolute. The monistic
deontology is based on two formulations that stress on the need for one
to adhere to moral obligations. First, people should act as if the maxim
of their action were to secure through their will a universal rule of
nature. The second imperative states that people should treat other
humanity considering their actions as an end and not as means only.
Compliance with these imperatives helps people, especially the law
enforcers, in taking actions that are morally right.
The theories of deontology can be used to analyze ethical compliance in
the legal context by considering the fact that deontology focuses on
character and not its effects (Larry & Moore, 2012). This means that,
unlike the theory of utilitarianism, deontologists do not consider the
consequences of an action. Deontologists consider an action to be right
or wrong if its principles can be universalized. Examples of universal
principles considered by deontologists include never kill, never tell
lies, and never engage in corruption no matter the situation. The
effectiveness of various instruments of law enforcement is determined by
certain power of sanction that is associated with those instruments. For
an instant, the power of sanction should be expected to reside in, and
administered by an organ that is relevant to a specific profession.
However, the code of deontology sets any specific borders between
society and profession. The society and the law enforcers are expected
to know the types of instruments that are being enforced and how they
should be enforced.
Use of deontology ethics to determine what is just in law enforcement
Deontologists describe a good action as one that is desirable and gives
one a reason to pursue. Theorists consider properties that promote good
and distribute it following the rule of justice when determining the
good-making properties of any given action (Gaus, 2001). An act is
considered to be deontological if it has the capacity to distribute its
features of goodness in the right way and at the cots the total goodness
associated with that action. Deontology, unlike utilitarianism, does not
allow the violation of justice (or the right to liberty) of a few to be
compensated by the goodness that is shared by the majority.
Deontologists hold that each person ought to be treated with total moral
dignity and be accorded with respect that they are entitled. However,
deontologists do not consider the possibility of maximizing potential
benefits because of the inherent challenges of distribution
Deontological perspective and torture in legal enforcement
The decision to torture suspects in order to enforce the law is one of
the examples that can be used to analyze the views of deontologist.
While rule utilitarian base their legal decisions on pleasure and pain,
deontologists address the mental status of the person performing a given
action and whether the action infringes the rights of another person
(Buha, 2010). An act that infringes the rights of other people is
considered to be unethical and it is forbidden irrespective of its
potential consequences. Since deontologists treat each person as an end
and not as a means, torture is prohibited at in all circumstances.
Deontologists perceive the torture of suspects as a repugnant
infringement of their rights, deprivation of dignity, and interference
with suspect’s psychological and physical integrity. This implies that
a deontologist can allow mass death to take place in an attempt to
protect the rights of a single person on the grounds that torture
contravenes their right and dignity.
The basic principles of deontology are at times considered to be valid,
but unsound. For example, a deontologist would not torture a suspect who
holds information about a ticking time bomb that is set in a highly
populated area because that would result in violation of an
individual’s rights. This means that a deontologist would respond to
such circumstances with both the empirical and logical objections and
assumes that the antecedent detail would be unlikely to occur
simultaneously. Similarly legal enforcers who apply the deontological
ethics suggest that legal killing is based on dispute premises that
cannot be accepted. Deontologists follow the modus ponens rule, which
states that if a harm greater magnitude is permitted, then a lesser harm
should also be permitted (Buha, 2010). This means that if killing (in
some circumstances) is legalized on the basis of the high calling to
enforce law, then torture (lesser harm) should also be legalized. The
deontologist rejection of either of these harms implies that the other
one is automatically rejected.
Utilitarian and deontological theories are the most appropriate theories
of ethics that can help the law enforcers in making significant
decisions and judging the moral and ethical grounds of certain human
behavior in law enforcement. The utilitarian theory judges the moral
appropriateness of human behavior of certain action on the basis of
whether they cause pain and pleasure. Consequently, utilitarian should
consider the consequences of certain actions to evaluate whether they
maximize happiness or pain. However, the moral judgment made by
utilitarian should be objective to ensure that the law enforcers do not
punish people who have different taste from theirs with an excuse of
enforcing the law. The deontological perspective, on the other hand,
determines the appropriateness of human behavior or actions on the basis
of one’s ability to adhere to some moral duties. This perspective does
not allow the law enforcers to consider the consequence of human
behavior and actions in making significant decisions, but respecting the
individual’s rights are the priority. Although the two theories are
important in law enforcement, their basic principles present some
substantial points of disagreements that should.
Buha, J. (2010). Rule utilitarian and deontologist perspectives on
comparisons of torture and killing. Wash U Law Repository, 2 (2),
Driver, J. (2009). The history of utilitarianism. Stanford CA: Stanford
University. Retrieved December 22, 2013, from HYPERLINK
Gaus, F. (2001). What is deontology? Part one: Orthodox views. Journal
of Value Inquiry, 35, 27-42.
Larry, A. & Moore, M. (2012). Deontological ethics. Stanford CA:
Stanford University. Retrieved December 22, 2013, from HYPERLINK
Morello-Frosch, R. (2002). Deontology and distributive justice.
Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Stuart, M. (1863). On the connection between justice and utility.
Posthumously: Miniature Library of Philosophy. Retrieved December 22,
2013, from HYPERLINK
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