Deontological ethics
Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

 deon, "obligation, duty"; and -logia
-logy is a suffix in the English language, used with words originally adapted from Ancient Greek language ending in -λογία...

) is the normative ethical
Normative ethics
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...

 position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" or "rule" -based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty". Deontological ethics is commonly contrasted with consequentialist
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 of that conduct...

 ethical theories, according to which the rightness of an action is determined by its consequences. Deontological ethics is also contrasted from pragmatic ethics
Pragmatic ethics
Pragmatic ethics is a theory of normative philosophical ethics. Ethical pragmatists, such as John Dewey, believe that societies have progressed morally in much the way they have attained progress in science...



The term "deontological" was first used to describe the current commonly understood definition by C. D. Broad in his book, Five Types of Ethical Theory, which was published in 1930.

Contemporary deontology

Contemporary deontologists include Thomas Nagel
Thomas Nagel
Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy and ethics...

, Thomas Scanlon
T. M. Scanlon
Thomas Michael Scanlon is the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity in Harvard University's Department of Philosophy. He has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. He grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana; earned his Ph.D...

 and Frances Kamm
Frances Kamm
Frances M. Kamm is a philosopher specialising in normative and applied ethics. Kamm is currently the Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard...


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 Categorical Imperative. 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 judgements, 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
Trolley problem
The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics, first introduced by Philippa Foot, but also extensively analysed by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Peter Unger, and Frances Kamm...

 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". 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.

The 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. William of Ockham
William of Ockham
William of Ockham was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey. He is considered to be one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of...

, René Descartes
René Descartes
René Descartes ; was a French philosopher and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day...

 and eighteenth-century Calvinists all accepted versions of this moral theory, according to Ralph Cudworth
Ralph Cudworth
Ralph Cudworth was an English philosopher, the leader of the Cambridge Platonists.-Life:Born at Aller, Somerset, he was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, gaining his MA and becoming a Fellow of Emmanuel in 1639. In 1645, he became master of Clare Hall and professor of Hebrew...

, as they all held that moral obligations arise from God's commands. 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
Biblical Sabbath
Sabbath in the Bible is usually a weekly day of rest and time of worship. The Sabbath is first mentioned in the Genesis creation narrative. The seventh day is there set aside as a day of rest—the Sabbath. It is observed differently in Judaism and Christianity and informs a similar occasion in...

, 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.


Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

's theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons. First, Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). 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 from duty, begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself, and good without qualification. Something is "good in itself" when it is intrinsically good
Intrinsic value (ethics)
Intrinsic value is an ethical and philosophic property. It is the ethical or philosophic value that an object has "in itself" or "for its own sake", as an intrinsic property...

, 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
Intelligence has been defined in different ways, including the abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving....

, perseverance
Perseverance may refer to:* Perseverance , a card game* Perseverance , American fighter Brock Lesnar* Perseverance...

 and pleasure
Pleasure describes the 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...

, fail to be either intrinsically good or good without qualification. Pleasure, for example, appears to not 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:
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'. 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. Thus, according to Kant, goodness depends on rightness.

Kant's three significant formulations of the categorical imperative
Categorical imperative
The Categorical Imperative is the central philosophical concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as well as modern deontological ethics...

  • Act only according to that maxim
    Maxim (philosophy)
    A maxim is a ground rule or subjective principle of action; in that sense, a maxim is a thought that can motivate individuals.- Deontological ethics :...

     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.
  • Act as though you were, through your maxims, a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.

Moral absolutism

Some deontologists are moral absolutists
Moral absolutism
Moral absolutism is an ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other contexts such as their consequences or the intentions behind them. Thus stealing, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done to promote some other good , and even if...

, believing that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of the intentions behind them as well as the consequences. Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

, 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
W. D. Ross
Sir David Ross KBE was a Scottish philosopher, known for work in ethics. His best known work is The Right and the Good , and he is perhaps best known for developing a pluralist, deontological form of intuitionist ethics in response to G.E. Moore's intuitionism...

, hold that the consequences of an action such as lying may sometimes make lying the right thing to do. Kant's and Ross's theories are discussed in more detail below. Jonathan Baron
Jonathan Baron
Jonathan Baron is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in the science of decision-making.-Life and career:Baron was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1944, and received a B.A. from Harvard in 1966 and a Ph.D. from Michigan in 1970, both in psychology...

 and Mark Spranca use the term Protected Values
Protected Values
Protected values are values that people are unwilling to trade off no matter what the benefits of doing so may be. For example, some people may be unwilling to kill any one person, even if it means saving many others...

 when referring to values governed by deontological rules.

Non-Aggression Principle

The non-aggression principle, also known as the non-aggression axiom and zero aggression principle, is an ethical stance which states that any initiation of force is illicit and contrary to natural law. It is the basic moral axiom of deontological libertarianism, most upheld by philosophers such as Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick was an American political philosopher, most prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia , a right-libertarian answer to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice...

 and Murray Rothbard
Murray Rothbard
Murray Newton Rothbard was an American author and economist of the Austrian School who helped define capitalist libertarianism and popularized a form of free-market anarchism he termed "anarcho-capitalism." Rothbard wrote over twenty books and is considered a centrally important figure in the...


Rothbard described the axiom as such:


Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick was an American political philosopher, most prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia , a right-libertarian answer to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice...

 argued that because it is logical to attempt to minimize violations of rights, deontological ethics is therefore incoherent because deontologists constrain themselves from prohibiting such attempts. He cites the trolley problem
Trolley problem
The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics, first introduced by Philippa Foot, but also extensively analysed by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Peter Unger, and Frances Kamm...

 as an example of how deontological ethics is immoral.

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism...

 criticized deontology on the grounds that it is a subjective opinion.

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, economist and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of...

 argued that deontologists usually fail to specify which principles should take priority when rights and duties conflict, so that deontology cannot offer complete moral guidance.

Shelly Kagan
Shelly Kagan
Shelly Kagan is the Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and the former Henry R. Luce Professor of Social Thought and Ethics. Originally a native of Skokie, Illinois, he received his B.A. from Wesleyan University and his Ph.D. from Princeton University under the supervision of Thomas...

 argues that under deontology, individuals are bound by constraints (such as the requirement not to murder), but are also given options (such as the right not to give money to charity, if they do not wish to). His line of attack on deontology is to first show that constraints are invariably immoral, and then to show that options are immoral without constraints.

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