Deontological ethics

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In moral philosophy, deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, "obligation, duty" [1] ) is the normative ethical theory that the morality of an action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than based on the consequences of the action. [2]

Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking.


It is sometimes described as duty-, obligation- or rule-based ethics, because rules "bind one to one's 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.

Duty commitment or obligation to someone or something or to perform an action on the behalf of

A duty is a commitment or expectation to perform some action in general or if certain circumstances arise. A duty may arise from a system of ethics or morality, especially in an honor culture. Many duties are created by law, sometimes including a codified punishment or liability for non-performance. Performing one's duty may require some sacrifice of self-interest.

An obligation is a course of action that someone is required to take, whether legal or moral. There are also obligations in other normative contexts, such as obligations of etiquette, social obligations, religious and possibly in terms of politics, where obligations are requirements which must be fulfilled. These are generally legal obligations, which can incur a penalty for non-fulfilment, although certain people are obliged to carry out certain actions for other reasons as well, whether as a tradition or for social reasons.

Consequentialism class of ethical theories

Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.

It is an ethical framework that depends on the predefined sets of rules and policies for the proper functioning of a system in the environment. The deontology is simply based on the checklist which includes certain rules to be followed while performing a particular task. According to this framework, the work is considered virtuous only if this checklist is completed. This procedure is very simple to implement and understand. Minimum time is consumed to decide between right and wrong. However, its simplicity ignores the consequences of the decision taken under this approach.

The term deontological was first used to describe the current, specialised definition by C. D. Broad in his 1930 book, Five Types of Ethical Theory [5] Older usage of the term goes back to Jeremy Bentham, who coined it before 1816 as a synonym of Dicastic or Censorial Ethics (i.e. ethics based on judgement). [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.

C. D. Broad English philosopher

Charlie Dunbar Broad, usually cited as C. D. Broad, was an English epistemologist, historian of philosophy, philosopher of science, moral philosopher, and writer on the philosophical aspects of psychical research. He was known for his thorough and dispassionate examinations of arguments in such works as Scientific Thought, published in 1923, The Mind and Its Place in Nature, published in 1925, and An Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy, published in 1933.

Jeremy Bentham British philosopher, jurist, and social reformer

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.

Ethical codes are adopted by organizations to assist members in understanding the difference between right and wrong and in applying that understanding to their decisions. An ethical code generally implies documents at three levels: codes of business ethics, codes of conduct for employees, and codes of professional practice.

Depending on the system of deontological ethics under consideration, a moral obligation may arise from an external or internal source, such as a set of rules inherent to the universe (ethical naturalism), religious law, or a set of personal or cultural values (any of which may be in conflict with personal desires).

Externality an impact on any party not involved in a given economic transaction or act

In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Externalities often occur when a product or service’s price equilibrium cannot reflect the true costs and benefits of that product or service. This causes the externality competitive equilibrium to not be a Pareto optimality.

Ethical naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
  4. These moral features of the world are reducible to some set of non-moral features

Religious law refers to ethical and moral codes taught by religious traditions. Examples include Christian canon law, Islamic sharia, Jewish halakha, and Hindu law.

Deontological philosophies

There are numerous formulations of deontological ethics.


Immanuel Kant Immanuel Kant (painted portrait).jpg
Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant's theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons. [7] [8] First, Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (Pflicht). [9] 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.

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

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. [10] 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 suffer, this seems to make the situation ethically worse. He concludes that there is only one thing that is truly good:

Intelligence has been defined in many ways, including: the capacity for logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. More generally, it can be described as the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context.

Pleasure broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or worth seeking

Pleasure is a broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or worth seeking. It includes more specific mental states such as happiness, entertainment, enjoyment, ecstasy, and euphoria. The early psychological concept of pleasure, the pleasure principle, describes it as a positive feedback mechanism that motivates the organism to recreate the situation it has just found pleasurable, and to avoid past situations that caused pain.

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. [10]

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'. [10] 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". [11]

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

Kant 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. In his essay, On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, arguing against the position of Benjamin Constant, Des réactions politiques, Kant states that "Hence a lie defined merely as an intentionally untruthful declaration to another man does not require the additional condition that it must do harm to another, as jurists require in their definition (mendacium est falsiloquium in praeiudicium alterius). For a lie always harms another; if not some human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general, inasmuch as it vitiates the very source of right [Rechtsquelle] ... All practical principles of right must contain rigorous truth ... This is because such exceptions would destroy the universality on account of which alone they bear the name of principles." [12]

Divine command theory

Although not all deontologists are religious, some believe in the 'divine command theory', which is actually a cluster of related theories which essentially state that an action is right if God has decreed that it is right. [13] According to Ralph Cudworth, an English philosopher, William of Ockham, René Descartes, and eighteenth-century Calvinists all accepted various versions of this moral theory, as they all held that moral obligations arise from God's commands. [14] 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 clearly distinguishes Kantian deontologism from divine command deontology is that Kantianism maintains that man, as a rational being, makes the moral law universal, whereas divine command maintains that God makes the moral law universal.

Contemporary deontology

Contemporary deontologists (scholars born in the first half of the 20th century) include Józef Maria Bocheński, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Scanlon, and Roger Scruton.

Bocheński (1965) makes a distinction between deontic and epistemic authority. [15] A typical example of epistemic authority in Bocheński's usage would be "the relation of a teacher to his students"; an example of deontic authority would be "the relation between an employer and his employee". [16] A teacher has epistemic authority when making 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 in the act of issuing an order that the employee is obliged to accept and obey regardless of its reliability or appropriateness. [16]

Scruton, in his book On Human Nature, is critical of consequentialism and similar ethical theories, such as hedonism and utilitarianism, and instead proposes a deontological ethical approach. He implies that proportional duty and obligation are essential components of the ways in which we decide to act, and he defends natural law against opposing theories. He also expresses admiration for virtue ethics, and believes that the two ethical theories are not, as is frequently portrayed, mutually exclusive. [17]

Deontology and consequentialism

Frances Kamm's "Principle of Permissible Harm" (1996) is an effort to derive a deontological constraint which coheres with our considered case judgments while also relying heavily on Kant's categorical imperative. [18] The Principle states that one may harm in order to save more if and only if the harm is an effect or an aspect of the greater good itself. This principle is meant to address what Kamm feels are most people's considered case judgments, many of which involve deontological intuitions. For instance, Kamm argues that we believe it would be impermissible to kill one person to harvest his organs in order to save the lives of five others. Yet, we think it is morally permissible to divert a runaway trolley that would otherwise kill five innocent and immobile people onto a side track where one innocent and immobile person will be killed. Kamm believes the Principle of Permissible Harm explains the moral difference between these and other cases, and more importantly expresses a constraint telling us exactly when we may not act to bring about good ends—such as in the organ harvesting case. In 2007, Kamm published a book that presents new theory that incorporates aspects of her "Principle of Permissible Harm", the "Doctrine of Productive Purity". [19] 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. 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. [20]

See also


  1. from the verb δέω "bind, tie, fetter", via the present participle stem deont- + the suffix -logia .
  2. "Deontology dictionary definition | deontology defined".
  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. Jeremy Bentham, Chrestomathia (1816), p. 213: "For a synonym, Dicastic Ethics may have the single-worded appellative Deontology. [Deontology.] From two Greek words, the first of which signifies fit, fitting, right, becoming, proper. Deontologyan account or indication of that which, on the occasion in question, whatsoever it be, is(i.e. by him who speaks or writes, is regarded as being)fit, fitting, becoming, proper. It is in sound only, and not in signification, that it has any connexion with the word ontology, employed above. Applied to every branch of Ethics, taken in the largest sense of the word Ethics, the use of such a word as Deontology affords a promise of being attended with considerable convenience. It will accord equally well with every system which ever has been, or ever can be, devised, in relation to the foundation of moral obligation :in the use of it, no such incongruity and presumption is involved, as that which is called petitio principiii.e. a begging of the questionan assumption of the matter in dispute." Also explained as "the knowledge of what is right and proper": "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. Orend, Brian. 2000. War and International Justice: A Kantian Perspective. West Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press: 19.
  8. Kelly, Eugene. 2006. The Basics of Western Philosophy. Greenwood Press: 160.
  9. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (trans.), Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, 1889 [Preface and Introduction to Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Tugendlehre, 1797]. Abbott's deontology translates Kant's Pflichtenlehre.
  10. 1 2 3 Kant, Immanuel. 1785. "First Section: Transition from the Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical", Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.
  11. Kant, Immanuel (1785). Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (ed.). Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (10 ed.). Project Gutenberg. p. 23.
  12. "Über ein vermeintes Recht aus Menschenliebe zu lügen", Berlinische Blätter 1 (1797), 301-314; edited in: Werke in zwölf Bänden, vol. 8, Frankfurt am Main (1977),
  13. Wierenga, Edward. 1983. "A Defensible Divine Command Theory". Noûs, Vol. 17, No. 3: 387–407.
  14. Cudworth, Ralph. 1731. A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality. Reprinted in 1996. Sarah Hutton (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Józef Bocheński (1965), Analysis of authority, in The Logic of Religion, New York: New York University Press, ISBN   978-0814700501, pages 162–173
  16. 1 2 Anna Brożek (2013), Bocheński on authority, Studies in East European Thought, Volume 65, Issue 1, pages 115–133
  17. Scruton, Roger (2017). On Human Nature (1st ed.). Princeton. pp. 79–112. ISBN   978-0-691-18303-9.
  18. Kamm, F. M. 1996. Morality, Mortality Vol. II: Rights, Duties, and Status. New York: Oxford University Press.
  19. 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.
  20. King, Iain (2008). How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time. Continuum. p. 245. ISBN   978-1-84706-347-2. Page 220 of this book lists fourteen deontological principles, which it describes as "The first fourteen principles of right and wrong".

Related Research Articles

Applied ethics refers to the practical application of moral considerations. It is ethics with respect to real-world actions and their moral considerations in the areas of private and public life, the professions, health, technology, law, and leadership. For example, the bioethics community is concerned with identifying the correct approach to moral issues in the life sciences, such as euthanasia, the allocation of scarce health resources, or the use of human embryos in research. Environmental ethics is concerned with ecological issues such as the responsibility of government and corporations to clean up pollution. Business ethics includes questions regarding the duties or duty of 'whistleblowers' to the general public or their loyalty to their employers.

Ethics branch of philosophy that systematizes, defends, and recommends concepts of right and wrong conduct

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.

Moral absolutism

Moral absolutism is an ethical view that all actions are intrinsically right or wrong. Stealing, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done for the well-being of others, and even if it does in the end promote such a good. Moral absolutism stands in contrast to other categories of normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, which holds that the morality of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act.

Moral universalism is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature. Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism. However, not all forms of moral universalism are absolutist, nor are they necessarily value monist; many forms of universalism, such as utilitarianism, are non-absolutist, and some forms, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, may be value pluralist.

Virtue ethics normative ethical theories which emphasize virtues of mind and character

Virtue ethics are normative ethical theories which emphasize virtues of mind and character. Virtue ethicists discuss the nature and definition of virtues and other related problems. These include how virtues are acquired, how they are applied in various real life contexts, and whether they are rooted in a universal human nature or in a plurality of cultures.

Kantianism Kantianism

Kantianism is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher born in Königsberg, Prussia. The term Kantianism or Kantian is sometimes also used to describe contemporary positions in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

Universal prescriptivism is the meta-ethical view which claims that, rather than expressing propositions, ethical sentences function similarly to imperatives which are universalizable—whoever makes a moral judgment is committed to the same judgment in any situation where the same relevant facts obtain.

Norms are concepts (sentences) of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express. Normative sentences imply "ought-to" types of statements and assertions, in distinction to sentences that provide "is" types of statements and assertions. Common normative sentences include commands, permissions, and prohibitions; common normative abstract concepts include sincerity, justification, and honesty. A popular account of norms describes them as reasons to take action, to believe, and to feel.

A maxim is a concise expression of a fundamental moral rule or principle, whether considered as objective or subjective contingent on one's philosophy. A maxim is often pedagogical and motivates specific actions. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines it as:

Generally any simple and memorable rule or guide for living; for example, 'neither a borrower nor a lender be'. Tennyson speaks of 'a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter's heart, and maxims have generally been associated with a 'folksy' or 'copy-book' approach to morality.

Rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that says an action is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good, or that "the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance". Philosophers Richard Brandt and Brad Hooker are major proponents of such an approach.

<i>The Metaphysics of Morals</i> 1797 work of political and moral philosophy by Immanuel Kant

The Metaphysics of Morals is a 1797 work of political and moral philosophy by Immanuel Kant.

Proportionalism is an ethical theory that lies between consequential theories and deontological theories. Consequential theories, like utilitarianism, say that an action is right or wrong, depending on the consequences it produces, but deontological theories, such as Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, say that actions are either intrinsically right or intrinsically wrong. Proportionalist theories like rule utilitarianism, however, say that it is never right to go against a principle unless a proportionate reason would justify it.

Kantian ethics Ethical theory of Immanuel Kant

Kantian ethics refers to a deontological ethical theory ascribed to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The theory, developed as a result of Enlightenment rationalism, is based on the view that the only intrinsically good thing is a good will; an action can only be good if its maxim – the principle behind it – is duty to the moral law. Central to Kant's construction of the moral law is the categorical imperative, which acts on all people, regardless of their interests or desires. Kant formulated the categorical imperative in various ways. His principle of universalizability requires that, for an action to be permissible, it must be possible to apply it to all people without a contradiction occurring. If a contradiction occurs the act violates Aristotle's "Non-contradiction" concept which states that just actions cannot lead to contradictions. Kant's formulation of humanity, the second section of the Categorical Imperative, states that as an end in itself humans are required never to treat others merely as a means to an end, but always, additionally, as ends in themselves. The formulation of autonomy concludes that rational agents are bound to the moral law by their own will, while Kant's concept of the Kingdom of Ends requires that people act as if the principles of their actions establish a law for a hypothetical kingdom. Kant also distinguished between perfect and imperfect duties. A perfect duty, such as the duty not to lie, always holds true; an imperfect duty, such as the duty to give to charity, can be made flexible and applied in particular time and place.

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concern matters of value, and thus comprise the branch of philosophy called axiology.

Principlism is an applied ethics approach to the examination of moral dilemmas that is based upon the application of certain ethical principles. This approach to ethical decision-making has been adopted enthusiastically in many different professional fields, largely because it sidesteps complex debates in moral philosophy at the theoretical level. Rather than engaging in abstract debate about the best or most appropriate approach at the normative level, principlism is purported to offer a practical method of dealing with real-world ethical dilemmas.

"The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories" is a 1976 paper in ethics by Michael Stocker. Published in The Journal of Philosophy, the central claim of the paper is that some modern ethical theories fail to account for motive in their theories, producing a sort of schizophrenia because the agent is unable to use his reasons or motives as a basis for his actions. According to Stocker, motive is important to ethics and should be considered as well, rather than only "duty, rightness and obligation" which he believes are the main focuses of current theories. Stocker believes that this focus is not compatible with the motives required for goods such as love and friendship.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that examines right and wrong moral behavior, moral concepts and moral language. Various ethical theories pose various answers to the question "What is the greatest good?" and elaborate a complete set of proper behaviors for individuals and groups. Ethical theories are closely related to forms of life in various social orders.

Allen W. Wood academic

Allen William Wood is an American philosopher specializing in the work of Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, with particular interests in ethics and social philosophy. He is the Ruth Norman Halls professor of philosophy at Indiana University and has held professorships and visiting appointments at numerous universities in the United States and Europe. In addition to popularising and clarifying the ethical thought of Immanuel Kant, Wood has also mounted arguments against the validity of 'trolley problems' in moral philosophy.