Deontological ethics

Deontological ethics

Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, "obligation, duty"[1]) is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules.[2]

It is sometimes described as "duty-" or "obligation-" or "rule-" based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty."[3] Deontological ethics is commonly contrasted to consequentialism,[4] virtue ethics, and pragmatic ethics. In this terminology, action is more important than the consequences.

The term deontological was first used to describe the current, specialised definition by C. D. Broad in his book, Five Types of Ethical Theory, which was published in 1930.[5] Older usage of the term goes back to Jeremy Bentham, who coined it in c. 1826 to mean more generally "the knowledge of what is right and proper".[6] The more general sense of the word is retained in French, especially in the term code de déontologie "ethical code", in the context of professional ethics.


  • Terminology 1
  • Deontological philosophies 2
    • Kantianism 2.1
    • Moral absolutism 2.2
    • Divine command theory 2.3
    • Contemporary deontology 2.4
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Deontology is the study of that which is an "obligation or duty", and consequent moral judgment on the actor on whether he or she has complied.[2] In philosophy and religion, states Bocheński, there is an important distinction between deontic and epistemic authority.[7] A typical example of epistemic authority, explains Anna Brożek, is "the relation of a teacher to his students; a typical example of deontic authority is the relation between an employer and his employee".[8] A teacher has epistemic authority when she makes declarative sentences that the student presumes is reliable knowledge and appropriate but feels no obligation to accept or obey; in contrast, an employer has deontic authority when she issues an order that the employee is obliged to accept and obey regardless of its reliability or appropriateness.[8]

Deontological philosophies

There are numerous formulations of deontological ethics.


Immanuel Kant's theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons.[9][10] First, Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon).[11] Second, Kant argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action.

Kant's argument that to act in the morally right way one must act purely from duty begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself and good without qualification.[12] Something is "good in itself" when it is intrinsically good, and "good without qualification", when the addition of that thing never makes a situation ethically worse. Kant then argues that those things that are usually thought to be good, such as intelligence, perseverance and pleasure, fail to be either intrinsically good or good without qualification. Pleasure, for example, appears not to be good without qualification, because when people take pleasure in watching someone suffering, this seems to make the situation ethically worse. He concludes that there is only one thing that is truly good:

Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.[12]

Kant then argues that the consequences of an act of willing cannot be used to determine that the person has a good will; good consequences could arise by accident from an action that was motivated by a desire to cause harm to an innocent person, and bad consequences could arise from an action that was well-motivated. Instead, he claims, a person has a good will when he 'acts out of respect for the moral law'.[12] People 'act out of respect for the moral law' when they act in some way because they have a duty to do so. So, the only thing that is truly good in itself is a good will, and a good will is only good when the willer chooses to do something because it is that person's duty, i.e. out of "respect" for the law. He defines respect as "the concept of a worth which thwarts my self-love."[13]

Kant's three significant formulations of the categorical imperative are:

  • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
  • Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in a universal kingdom of ends.

Moral absolutism

Some deontologists are moral absolutists, believing that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of the intentions behind them as well as the consequences. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that the only absolutely good thing is a good will, and so the single determining factor of whether an action is morally right is the will, or motive of the person doing it. If they are acting on a bad maxim, e.g. "I will lie", then their action is wrong, even if some good consequences come of it. Non-absolutist deontologists, such as W. D. Ross, hold that the consequences of an action such as lying may sometimes make lying the right thing to do. Jonathan Baron and Mark Spranca use the term "protected values" when referring to values governed by deontological rules.

Divine command theory

Although not all deontologists are religious, some believe in the 'divine command theory'. The divine command theory is a cluster of related theories that state that an action is right if God has decreed that it is right.[14] William of Ockham, René Descartes and eighteenth-century Calvinists all accepted versions of this moral theory, according to Ralph Cudworth, as they all held that moral obligations arise from God's commands.[15] The Divine Command Theory is a form of deontology because, according to it, the rightness of any action depends upon that action being performed because it is a duty, not because of any good consequences arising from that action. If God commands people not to work on Sabbath, then people act rightly if they do not work on Sabbath because God has commanded that they do not do so. If they do not work on Sabbath because they are lazy, then their action is not truly speaking "right", even though the actual physical action performed is the same. If God commands not to covet a neighbour's goods, this theory holds that it would be immoral to do so, even if coveting provides the beneficial outcome of a drive to succeed or do well.

One thing that is clearly distinctive about Kantian deontologism different from divine command deontology is that Kantianism maintains man, as a rational being, makes the moral law universal. Whereas, divine command maintains God makes the moral law universal.

Contemporary deontology

Contemporary deontologists include Thomas Nagel, Thomas Scanlon, Roger Scruton and Frances Kamm.

Frances Kamm's "Principle of Permissible Harm" is an effort to derive a deontological constraint which coheres with our considered case judgments while also relying heavily on Kant's [17] Like the "Principle of Permissible Harm", the "Doctrine of Productive Purity" is an attempt to provide a deontological prescription for determining the circumstances in which people are permitted to act in a way that harms others.

Attempts have been made to reconcile deontology with virtue-based ethics and consequentialism. Iain King's 2008 book How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time uses quasi-realism and a modified form of utilitarianism to develop deontological principles which are compatible with ethics based on virtues and consequences.[18] King develops a hierarchy of principles to link his meta-ethics, which are more inclined towards consequentialism, with the deontological conclusions he presents in his book.[19]

See also


  1. ^ from the verb δέω "bind, tie, fetter", via the present participle stem deont- + the suffix -logia, first used in 1826.
  2. ^ a b "Ethics-virtue", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. ^ Waller, Bruce N. 2005. Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson Longman: 23.
  4. ^ Flew, Antony. 1979. "Consequentialism". In A Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Ed.). New York: St Martins: 73.
  5. ^ Beauchamp, Tom L. 1991 Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy, 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw Hill: 171.
  6. ^ "Deontology is derived from the Greek words, το δεον (that which is proper) and Λογια, knowledge — meaning the knowledge of what is right and proper; and it is here specially applied to the subject of morals, or that part of the field of action which is not the object of public legislation. As an art, it is the doing what is fit to be done; as a science, the knowing what is fit to be done on every occasion." Deontology or, The science of morality : in which the harmony and co-incidence of duty and self-interest, virtue and felicity, prudence and benevolence, are explained and exemplified : from the MSS. of Jeremy Bentham ed. Bowring (1834), p. 21.
  7. ^ Józef Bocheński (1965), Analysis of authority, in The Logic of Religion, New York: New York University Press, ISBN 978-0814700501, pages 162–173
  8. ^ a b Anna Brozek (2013), Bocheński on authority, Studies in East European Thought, Volume 65, Issue 1, pages 115-133
  9. ^ Orend, Brian. 2000. War and International Justice: A Kantian Perspective. West Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press: 19.
  10. ^ Kelly, Eugene. 2006. The Basics of Western Philosophy. Greenwood Press: 160.
  11. ^ Kant, Immanuel. 1780. Preface. In The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott
  12. ^ a b c Kant, Immanuel. 1785. "First Section: Transition from the Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical", Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.
  13. ^ Kant, Immanuel (1785). Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, ed. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (10 ed.). Project Gutenberg. p. 23. 
  14. ^ Wierenga, Edward. 1983. "A Defensible Divine Command Theory". Noûs, Vol. 17, No. 3: 387-407.
  15. ^ Cudworth, Ralph. 1731. A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality. Reprinted in 1996. Sarah Hutton (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  16. ^ Kamm, F. M. 1996. Morality, Mortality Vol. II: Rights, Duties, and Status. New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. ^ Kamm, F. M. 2007. 'Chapter 5: Toward the Essence of Nonconsequentialist Constraints on Harming.'. In Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518969-8.
  18. ^ Vardy, Charlotte (April 2012). Ethics Matters. SCM Press.   The reference on page 116 of this book states: In How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong, London: Continuum 2008, Iain King develops a quasi-utilitarian system compatible with consequence-, virtue- and act based ethics.
  19. ^ King, Iain (December 2008). How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time. Continuum. p. 245.   Page 220 of this book lists fourteen deontological principles, which it describes as "The first fourteen principles of right and wrong".


  • Beauchamp, Tom L. 1991. Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy, 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Broad, C. D. 1930. Five Types of Ethical Theory. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
  • Flew, Antony. 1979. 'Consequentialism'. In A Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Ed.). New York: St Martins.
  • Kamm, F. M. 1996. Morality, Mortality Vol. II: Rights, Duties, and Status. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • F. M. Kamm Professor of Philosophy Harvard University (2006). Intricate Ethics Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm. Oxford University Press.  
  • Olson, Robert G. 1967. 'Deontological Ethics'. Paul Edwards (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Collier Macmillan.
  • W. D. Ross 1930. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Salzman, Todd A. 1995. Deontology and Teleology: An Investigation of the Normative Debate in Roman Catholic Moral Theology. University Press.
  • Waller, Bruce N. 2005. Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson Longman.
  • Wierenga, Edward. 1983. 'A Defensible Divine Command Theory'. Noûs, 17 (3): 387-407. Dumaguete city.

External links

  • Kantian Ethics - Summary A concise summary of the key details of Kant's deontology
  • Freedom and the Boundary of Morals, Lecture 22 from Stephen Palmquist's book, The Tree of Philosophy (fourth edition, 2000).
  • Deontology and Ethical Ends