Deontological ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 21, 2017, from

Article Summary

Deontology asserts that there are several distinct duties. Certain kinds of act are intrinsically right and other kinds intrinsically wrong. The rightness or wrongness of any particular act is thus not (or not wholly) determined by the goodness or badness of its consequences. Some ways of treating people, such as killing the innocent, are ruled out, even to prevent others doing worse deeds. Many deontologies leave agents considerable scope for developing their own lives in their own way; provided they breach no duty they are free to live as they see fit.

Deontology may not have the theoretical tidiness which many philosophers crave, but has some claim to represent everyday moral thought.

Deontology (the word comes from the Greek deon meaning ‘one must’) typically holds that there are several irreducibly distinct duties, such as promise-keeping and refraining from lying (see Duty; Moral pluralism). Some deontologists, such as W.D. Ross (1930), maintain that one of these duties is a duty to do as much good as possible. Most deny that there is such a duty, while conceding that there is a limited duty of benevolence, a duty to do something for the less fortunate (see Help and beneficence). All agree, however, that there are occasions when it would be wrong for us to act in a way that would maximize the good, because we would be in breach of some (other) duty. In this respect they are opposed to act-consequentialism (see Consequentialism §§1, 2).

Most deontologies include two important classes of duties. First, there are duties which stem from the social and personal relationships in which we stand to particular people. Parents have duties to children, and children to parents; people have duties in virtue of their jobs and the associations to which they belong; debtors have a duty to repay their creditors, promisors to keep their promises and borrowers to return what has been lent to them (see Family, ethics and the; Friendship; Professional ethics; Promising; Solidarity). Some of these social relationships are ones we enter voluntarily, but many are not. The second kind take the form of general prohibitions or constraints. We should not lie to, cheat, torture or murder anyone, even in the pursuit of good aims (see Truthfulness).

Deontology is often described as an agent-relative moral theory, in contrast to act-consequentialism, which is an agent-neutral theory. According to act-consequentialism the identity of the agent makes no difference to what their duty is on any particular occasion; that is determined solely by which of the courses of action open to them will produce the best consequences. In deontology, by contrast, a reference to the agent often plays an ineliminable role in the specification of the duty. This is especially clear in the case of duties which stem from social relationships. I have a duty to help this person. Why? Because he or she is my friend, or my child. I have a duty to pay my debts and to keep my promises.

Constraints also involve agent-relativity, though in a slightly different way. The duty not to murder does not take the form of enjoining us to minimize the number of murders. The rule tells me not to commit murder myself even if I could thereby prevent something worse being done, such as two murders being committed. Proponents of deontology think of this as moral integrity; their opponents refer to it disparagingly as ‘keeping one’s hands clean’ (see INTEGRITY § 1; UTILITARIANISM § 5).

Many deontologists hold that our duties, though sometimes very onerous, are quite limited in scope. Provided I am in breach of no duty, I am morally at liberty to devote quite a large part of my time and effort to pursuing my own projects in whatever way I please. This latitude leaves room for acts of supererogation: heroic or saintly acts that clearly go beyond the call of duty, and deserve high praise (see Supererogation).

There is a sharp division in the deontologist camp over the status of constraints. Some, such as Fried, think of them as absolute: they have no exceptions and may not be breached in any circumstances which we are likely to encounter. Others regard the fact that an act would breach a constraint as providing a weighty objection to it, but one which could be overcome if there were a sufficiently pressing duty on the other side. Conflicts between two duties which are not absolute must be settled by determining which duty is the more pressing in the circumstances.

Deontology gains much of its appeal from the fact that it seems to capture the essential outlines of our everyday moral thinking, but it is open to several objections. First, its claim that there is a plurality of distinct duties runs counter to the theoretician’s search for simplicity. The deontologist will reply, of course, that a theory must do justice to the complexity of the phenomena. Second, many deontologists further defy the supposed canons of good theorizing by denying that there is any overarching explanation of why there are the duties there are; they record our conviction that there are such duties without seeking to justify them. Others, usually inspired by Kant (1785), do attempt such an explanation based on some broader precept, such as respect for persons (see Kant, I. §§9–11; Respect for persons; Kantian ethics). Third, those who hold that some kinds of action, such as lying, are absolutely prohibited have to provide clear and detailed criteria for determining the boundary between lying and some supposedly less nefarious activity, such as ‘being economical with the truth’. Such casuistry can appear both excessively legalistic and incompatible with the spirit of morality (see Casuistry). Fourth, deontology provides no procedure to settle conflicts of duty (though some might think that an advantage). Finally, from a consequentialist perspective, the notion of a constraint seems perverse. If what is wrong with murder is that it is a bad thing, how can it be rational to forbid an agent to commit one murder in order to prevent two? If deontology is to answer this challenge, it must show how it can be that one’s duty does not rest (wholly) on the goodness or badness of the results of acting in that way.

Citing this article:
McNaughton, David and Piers Rawling. Deontological ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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