8 Deontology

The next approach to ethical decision-making that we are going to consider is deontology or duty ethics. With this approach, we focus on the actions themselves and consider whether they are right or wrong. The idea is that we have certain duties, things that we should do, whether because of a prior commitment, our social role, or simply because they are the right things to do. The rightness of an action is determined by the kind of action it is and the motive behind it.

People often contrast deontology with consequentialism. Deontology emphasizes the intrinsic rightness of an action regardless of any consequences, while consequentialism favours bringing about the best ends regardless of the actions required to do so. Realistically, this is a bit of an oversimplification, but this kind of cartoon can help one get a grip on the basic idea before adding more nuance.

Many people think that both approaches are valuable. Consistent with the ethical lens idea, applied ethicists often articulate basic principles at least one of which is deontological and another of which is consequentialist. For instance, research ethics often demands that researchers treat their participants/subjects with respect—a deontological commitment—and also requires that researchers care for the welfare of their participants/subjects—a consequentialist commitment. Because these are fundamentally different ethical orientations, they can conflict. When they do, this is often a sign that an ethical issue is particularly challenging.

One of the tricky things about duties is figuring out how we acquire them and who has which duties. As noted, there are different deontological approaches identifying different sources of our duties. Although the three approaches are not meant to be exhaustive, they capture common ways of thinking about duties.

8.1. Duties Based on Roles

Perhaps the easiest to understand is the idea that specific social roles come with particular duties. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the central texts of the Hindu tradition, touches on this approach to duty. (The Gita certainly does much more than this—it is one of the great texts of world literature and broaches multiple fundamental philosophical issues. Here, we merely brush the surface of one of the many important themes in this text.) The Gita recounts the story and moral struggles of Arjuna, a prince and hero who must fight a war against his cousins. Arjuna is full of doubt and grief at the idea of killing his kin and the destruction of war more generally but is nonetheless bound by his duty as a warrior and the justness of his cause to take up arms. He asks his charioteer, who is an avatar of the god Krishna, what he should do.

Here we can see Arjuna struggling with two competing duties based on kinds of social roles. First, there is the duty not to kill his kin, the duty he has as a family member. Second, there is his duty as a prince and warrior to save his people from the unjust rule of his cousins. Horrified by the thought of killing so many, particularly friends and family, Arjuna resolves not to fight. Krishna admonishes Arjuna and urges him to change his mind. Among the various arguments that Krishna offers, the one that interests us has to do with Arjuna’s social role. Krishna points out that for a warrior there is no higher purpose than a just war. For a warrior, to refuse to fight is to abandon one’s duty.[1]  The role of warrior has within it a duty to fight for the righteous; it is simply tied up with the role.

The idea that specific duties come with specific professions is especially powerful for applied ethics contexts. For instance, a physician has particular duties concerning protecting and promoting the health of their patients and an engineer has particular duties to produce designs that fulfill their functions.

STOP & THINK

What is your ideal job?

Are there particular duties that someone in that profession has because of the nature of the profession?

(Note, not all professions or social roles have these kinds of particular duties so it’s important to notice which ones do.)

Many professions come with fiduciary obligations. These are duties that come from particular relations of trust constraining how a professional can act on behalf of their client. For instance, lawyers have fiduciary obligations to their clients to act in their clients’ interests and as directed by their clients. The specifics of these fiduciary duties are determined by law and professional societies. For instance, lawyers failing in their fiduciary obligations may be disbarred by the relevant law society. Although some professional fiduciary obligations are enshrined in law, others are more nebulous. The key idea for us is that certain kinds of professions or social roles come with duties that are particular to those roles.

8.2. Duties Based on Past Actions

Another approach to deontology recognizes that some of our current duties rest on our past actions and the past actions of others. W.D. Ross, a twentieth century English thinker, thought that we have many different types of duty, an important subset of which are backward looking. Consequentialism is limited, Ross thought, because it only concerns itself with the future, not acknowledging the important role of the past in determining what we should do. For instance, Ross suggests that we acquire particular duties when we make promises. As a tangible example, at this moment, Letitia doesn’t have a duty to pick up Clarisse at the airport. However, if Letitia had promised Clarisse that she would do so, then she would have acquired the duty to pick up Clarisse at the airport and, concomitantly, the duty to keep her promise. Letitia is doing something wrong if she doesn’t do as she promised. The same action—not picking up Clarisse—would not count as a wrong if Letitia never made the promise.

We can also acquire duties from committing harms. Suppose Letitia had promised to pick up Clarisse at the airport and failed to do so. We might think that Letitia has, at the very least, a duty to apologize. If Letitia’s negligence led to significant harm—maybe Clarisse had to spend the night at the airport—Letitia acquires a duty to try to ameliorate the harm or correct it. Similarly, if Letitia frequently picks up Clarisse from the airport, we might think that Clarisse acquires a duty too. We would expect her to show gratitude and perhaps reciprocate in some way.

Ross identified three types of duty that come from past actions that fit the duties described in the above scenarios. One type of duty is duties of fidelity, which are in effect duties to be trustworthy and keep our promises. Duties of reparation are another type of duty. These come into effect when we have harmed or wronged someone. They are duties to repair a situation or otherwise make amends. Finally, Ross also mentions duties of gratitude. These arise when others help or support us. We acquire through their actions, a duty to reciprocate or, at least, be grateful for their benefiting us.[2] Ross did not suggest that these duties exhaust all the possible types of duty. Indeed, he also suggested we have forward-looking duties of non-maleficence (not harming others), beneficence (improving the well-being of others), self-improvement, and justice.

Another useful idea Ross offers is that duties are often prima facie. Prima facie simply means “at first glance.” The idea of prima facie duties, then, is that each duty is required unless there is some other competing duty that outweighs it in moral force.[3] It’s easy to see—when we consider Ross’s list of duties—why he needs an idea like this. After all, there are many situations where these duties may compete. Think back to the scenario with Xena, Yassar, and Zhou and put yourself in Xena’s shoes. On the one hand, Xena has the duty of fidelity, which means she should keep the promise to pay her rent, which is likely explicit in her lease (but would be implicit in renting even without a lease). On the other hand, we may think that her duty to protect her own interests, personal security, and well-being, implied by the duty of self-improvement, means she should try to convince Yassar to let her stay in the apartment, even if she can’t pay her rent.

How is one to decide between competing duties? Ross, unfortunately, offers little help on this matter. However, if we treat ethical theories as lenses that help us appreciate the moral contours of ethical life, we might find that other ethical theories can help us weigh these various duties.

8.3. Duties Based on Reason Alone—Categorical Imperatives

One particularly influential deontological approach was first articulated by the 18th-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that we could figure out what our duties are on the basis of reason alone. He called such duties categorical imperatives.

A categorical imperative is a fundamental principle of human choice and action. Kant thought that these fundamental moral principles were, in effect, rules hard-wired into our rational minds that we can discover and make explicit to ourselves to better guide our actions. Categorical imperatives can be understood as intrinsic moral duties that we have an obligation to fulfill, irrespective of any desires or goals we might have.

In reality, there may be instances where we do what appears to be the morally right thing but only because it will benefit ourselves. For example, consider a millionaire who decides to donate a proportion of their wealth to charity but only in order to get a tax break. While this seems like a moral action because it benefits a worthy cause, Kant would argue that the action was immoral because it was motivated by the wrong reasons. The millionaire’s goal was to get a tax break. They acted for selfish reasons. For Kant, even though the action brought about good consequences, the act itself was immoral because the millionaire was putting their interests ahead of others, in effect behaving as if they had more value or worth than everyone else. To act in accord with a categorical imperative, one must act the right way for the right reasons. It is not justified on the basis that it will achieve some desirable consequence. It is just something you must do. The consequences are irrelevant to determining right and wrong and the only goal that matters is to perform one’s moral duty.

The problem is, how do you justify categorical imperatives? Kant was impressed by the fact that humans are both free and rational. He thought that we can use our rational capacities to identify categorical imperatives and then freely choose to follow this moral law. So, he proposed a kind of rational test, commonly referred to as the first formulation of the categorical imperative. He suggested that when considering an action, we should articulate the maxim that describes that action—basically, the rule we would be following were we to act in this way.[4] Then we should ask ourselves, could we will that the maxim be a universal law, akin to a natural law (like universal gravitation or E=mc2). In other words, would we want everyone to always act according to this maxim? If not, we shouldn’t do it. Kant’s test (at least at its best) is a logical one. The question is about whether it is logically possible to will the maxim as a universal law.

Kant considers the following example:

Let the question be, for example: May I when in distress make a promise with the intention not to keep it? …[T]o discover the answer to this question…[I] ask myself, “Should I be content that my maxim (to extricate myself from difficulty by a false promise) should hold good as a universal law, for myself as well as for others?” and should I be able to say to myself, “Every one may make a deceitful promise when he finds himself in a difficulty from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself?” Then I presently become aware that while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, since it would be in vain to allege my intention in regard to my future actions to those who would not believe this allegation, or if they over hastily did so would pay me back in my own coin. Hence my maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself.[5]

Thus, according to Kant, the wrongness of lying comes down to the idea that it is impossible to consistently will that everyone would lie when it would be to their advantage because it would create a world in which people who act on this maxim would never succeed in telling a lie. Lying only works because there is an expectation in society that people tell the truth. However, the lying example also fails Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative: we should never treat ourselves or others as merely a means to some end, but always treat others as ends in themselves. Before explaining this, it is important to understand why rationality was so important to morality in the Kantian tradition.

Kant believed that the ability to rationally decide and then freely act was characteristic of moral beings. This capacity for self-governance is called autonomy. Autonomous beings are capable of overcoming their inclinations and emotions. They are not simply driven by psychological or biological processes; they can choose to act on the basis of reason. Violating someone’s autonomy—treating them as if they are either not rational or not free—is one of the worst things you can do to an autonomous being.

Autonomy, thought Kant, gives beings special moral status—they are “ends in themselves.” This is a way of saying that autonomous beings have moral status not because of some other goal, consequence, or value. They have inherent moral worth.  As such, Kant believed it is wrong to treat any free and rational being as a mere means to achieving some goal or end. Insofar as we are autonomous beings and we are moral equals, we must never value ourselves over anyone else. This idea, often called respect for persons, has been extremely important in philosophy in the European tradition and, arguably, grounds the idea of universal human rights (which we will return to in 4.13). To return to Kant’s lying promise example, lying violates the other person’s autonomy because the other person cannot, with false information, make a rational decision for themselves. If I lie in order to further my own ends, I am treating the other person as a means to my own ends.

Despite the importance of Kant in the legal, political, and ethical traditions of Europe and European settler societies, there are some serious concerns with this approach. First, when it comes to the universal law test (the first formulation of the categorical imperative), it’s not entirely clear how to come up with the right maxim. Typically, any given action can be described in a variety of ways and so there are several different maxims that might be used to capture a given act. Suppose you are in the position of the person considering the lying promise,  described above. However, the reason you are considering lying is because it is the only way you can get some money and, without this money, you will be unable to feed your children and they will starve. You might ask yourself, “Can I will as a universal law the following maxim? When someone’s child is threatened with death, they must do whatever it takes to save them.” It seems reasonable to think that you can will this as a universal maxim. So, which maxim is the right one to use when you are considering what you should do: the maxim that says to never lie and break a promise, or the one that says to lie only when you cannot feed your children?

Although the challenge of articulating the right action stands, Kant has a clear reply. Any time you lie or break a promise you are doing something wrong because you are failing to respect another person’s autonomy, which means that you fail to respect their inherent worth as a person. In the imagined scenario, when you lie to someone, even in order to save your child, you are taking away that person’s freedom to use their own rationality to think through what they should do and their own freedom to help you. If there is a good reason for you to get the money despite not having the capacity or intention to pay it back then, as a rational and free being, they are capable of recognising that too. If you lie to them, you are just treating them as a means to getting money and not an end in themselves.

8.4. Final Considerations about Deontology

While Kantian ethics has dominated discussions of deontology over the last few hundred years in societies that are shaped by the European tradition, it is worth remembering that the idea that we have basic duties is global and ancient. Whether duties are categorical, or are specific to social role, or acquired through previous actions, the view that some types of action are morally required and that the motivations behind actions matter ethically is common.

While both consequentialism and deontology are particularly adept at addressing moral problems when they arise, virtue ethics and relational ethics are more oriented to how to live life well or what makes a good life as a whole. It is to these rather different ways of approaching ethics that we now turn.


  1. Stephen Mitchell (translator), Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 51-2.
  2. W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), 21-2.
  3. Ross, 18-36.
  4. It is important to note that when you attempt to follow the first formulation of the categorical imperative, that you try to make the maxim as generalizable as possible. Often, students think that if they create a specific maxim, such as “Can I lie about how good my grandmother’s haircut looks if she asks me this Friday?”, then it is easy to pass Kant’s test. However, this move loses sight of Kant’s bigger picture: to identify universal moral principles that should guide any autonomous being to act because the action is intrinsically good.
  5. Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (Project Gutenberg, 2004), Kindle Loc. 283-300.

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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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