Deontological ethics, also known as duty-based ethics, is concerned with what people do, not with what the consequences of an action might be. The Greek word deon means duty, hence why it is defined as a duty-basic ethic theory.
Deontology holds that some actions are either right or wrong because of what they are. Deontologists hold to moral rules that are binding, for instance, it is wrong to murder people, to take advantage of the weaker, and to lie. Essentially, one ought to prevent themselves from doing bad things and strive to do what is right. However, deontological ethics is opposed to consequentialism which argues that the right thing to do would be that which manifests the best consequences overall. According to deontologists it is morally wrong to murder a child because such an act would end the life of the innocent child, yet that this act would impact a family with sorrow, or deprive a distant future spouse joy is not considered. To make up a lie about a person is morally wrong because it purposely deceives someone and not because it harms that other person’s reputation. It is that “Deontology maintains that the wrongness of (some) actions is intrinsic, or resides in the kind of action that it is, rather than the consequences it brings about” (1).
A major proponent of this ethical system was the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who theorized that to act morally one was to do so from duty. He would argue that consequences were not the deciding factor in moral decisions; rather it was an individual’s motives that carried the most weight (2). For Kant, one was to begin acting from duty with the highest good in mind; that is an action must be good in of itself without qualification (3). Kant also argued that many things routinely considered good are not actually good without qualification, for instance, perseverance seems good, but it needs to be qualified. Perseverance would be good in one’s academic career and pursuits, however, it would not be good in Hitler’s determination to exterminate as many Jews as he could. As Kant himself writes that: “Nothing in the world” could ever be “called good without qualification…” (4). Kant also argued that since humans are rational beings we can acknowledge that moral laws exist and that we ought to obey them. Such laws would be broad and, according to Kant, apply to all humans and even to other rational beings: “The supreme principle of morality would have an extremely wide scope: one that extended not only to all rational human beings but to any other rational beings who might exist – for example, God, angels, and intelligent extraterrestrials” (5).
Despite the intricacy, complexity and hard thought behind his theory, Kant tried to assist people with their dealing of moral issues and dilemmas in daily life.
Nevertheless, like the other normative ethical theories, deontological ethics also has its pros and cons. It is good since it values human life with regards to dignity, respect, and thus provides a foundation for basic human rights. It further argues that specific actions are always immoral – certain actions are prohibited independent of what the consequences may be. It also deals with an individual’s motives – motive always play a pivotal role in making moral decisions. However, there is a downside as, for example, deontological ethics is absolute as it is built upon a foundation of absolute rules. Kant would argue that to kill a person is always, absolutely wrong even if this person would kill your friends, or family. Likewise Professor Aaron Levine tells us that “Deontology maintains that the relevant rules may not be violated under any circumstances,” (6) and there are no exceptions. Also, since deontological ethics does not take consequences into account, it may negatively impact happiness in the world. For instance, to kill someone is always, absolutely wrong, however that person might cause ultimate pain to millions of other people in the world (think Hitler, or Stalin), thus deontological ethics may severely reduce world happiness. This criticism is aptly captured by Alfred Ewing: “…it is hard to believe that it could ever be a duty deliberately to produce less good when we could produce more” (7).
1. New World Encyclopedia. 2015. Deontological ethics. Available.
2. Kant, I. & Abbot, T. 1780. The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics. p. 7-11.
3. Kant, I. & Abbot, T. ibid. p. 9-22.
4. Kant, I. & Abbot, T. ibid.
5. Samuel, K. 2002. Kant’s Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality. p. 2.
6. Levine, A. 2012. Economic Morality and Jewish Law. p. 25.
8. Ewing, A. 1947. The Definition of Good. p. 188.