4 Focus on Action (and Duty)

The next approach that we are going to consider focuses on actions and their motivations and whether they are right or wrong. The idea is that we have certain duties—actions that we must do—whether because of our social role, because of obligations incurred by past actions, 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 this kind of approach—often called deontology or duty ethics—with consequentialism. Deontology pictured is a sound icon linked to the pronunciation of 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, bioethicists often emphasize that physicians should do no harm—a consequentialist goal—but also have a duty to inform their patients about their condition and available treatments—a deontological commitment. Similarly, research ethics requires that researchers honestly represent their results—a deontological commitment—and also demands that researchers care for the well-being 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.

4.1 Duties Based on Roles

We begin with the idea that specific social roles come with particular duties. A famous passage from the Bhagavad Gita pictured is a sound icon linked to the pronunciation of Mi'kmaq, one of the central texts in Hinduism, 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 part of a story about the moral struggles of Arjuna, a prince and hero who must fight a battle 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, Krishna, who is (unbeknownst to Arjuna) an avatar of Lord Vishnu, what he should do.

Here we can see Arjuna struggling with two competing duties based on kinds of social role. 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.

The idea that many professions come with specific duties is especially pertinent for applied ethics. For instance, a physician has particular duties concerning protecting and promoting the health and well-being of their patients and an engineer has particular duties to produce designs that fulfill their functions. 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 act in their clients’ interests and as directed by their clients. Although some professional fiduciary obligations are somewhat nebulous and vague, others are stipulated and enforced by professional societies or enshrined in law. So, for example, lawyers failing in their fiduciary obligations may be disciplined or disbarred by the relevant law society. The key idea for us is that certain kinds of professions or social roles come with duties that are particular to those roles.

Stop and 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.)

4.2 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—an idea explored by twentieth century English thinker, W.D. Ross. 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. 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 harm. 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. 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 those described in the above scenarios—duties of fidelity, reparation and gratitude. Duties of fidelity are duties to be trustworthy and keep our promises. Duties of reparation come into effect when we have harmed or wronged someone. They are duties to repair a situation or otherwise make amends. Duties of gratitude arise when others help or support us. Through their actions, we acquire 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 pictured is a sound icon linked to the pronunciation of prima facie. Prima facie simply means “at first glance.” An act which is a prima facie duty, then, 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 Zhu (section 3.2.1) 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.

4.3 Duties Based on Reason Alone—The Categorical Imperative

A particularly influential deontological approach was first articulated by the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that we could figure out what our duties are on the basis of reason alone. He called the principle that grounds our duties the Categorical Imperative.

The Categorical Imperative is a fundamental principle of human choice and action that defines our moral obligations. Kant thought that this is, in effect, hard-wired into the rational part of our minds and we can discover it and make it explicit to ourselves to better guide our actions. The Categorical Imperative entails a set of duties, or moral laws, specifying actions that are intrinsically right or wrong, in themselves, regardless of circumstances or consequences.

Kant recognized that there may be instances where we do what appears to be the morally right thing but only because it will benefit us or bring about some other desired end. For example, consider a millionaire who donates a proportion of their wealth to charity but only because they get a tax break. While this seems like a good thing to do because it benefits a worthy cause, Kant would argue that the action isn’t praiseworthy because it is done for the wrong reasons. The millionaire’s goal is to get a tax break. They are acting for selfish reasons. For Kant, even though it brings about good consequences, the act itself lacks moral worth. To act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative, one must act the right way for the right reasons.[4] It is just something you must do. This moral law is exceptionless, rather like a natural law.

The problem is, how do you discover, let alone justify, these duties? Kant was impressed by the fact that most humans are both free and rational. He thought that we can use our rational capacities to identify the Categorical Imperative and then freely choose to follow the moral law and the duties that flow from it. So, he proposed a kind of rational test, commonly referred to as the Formula of Universal Law. 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.[5] 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, could we rationally will that everyone would 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:

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 they find themselves in a difficulty from which they cannot otherwise extricate themselves?” 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.[6]

Thus, according to Kant, the wrongness of deceitfully promising can be appreciated through the fact that it is impossible to consistently will it. The same reasoning applies to lying more generally. A world where people always lied would be one in which people could never succeed in telling a lie. Lying only works because there is an expectation that people tell the truth. If we cannot will that everyone follows the maxim that we are considering following ourselves, that reveals our duty to follow a different course of action. So, in this case, the impossibility of willing that everyone should lie all the time grounds our duty to tell the truth.

The lying example also illustrates another formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, sometimes called the Formula of Humanity.[7] It states, “So act that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.”[8] To understand this (and why Kant thought this is another formulation of the same idea) you first need to know why Kant thought rationality and freedom are so important to morality.

Kant believed that the ability to rationally decide and then freely act was characteristic of moral beings. It is these capacities that allow us to plan our lives and pursue our goals. Indeed, it is the ability to reason, and so recognize through careful reflection our duties, as well as our freedom to act according to these duties, that constitute morality. 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 (or not)

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 because they can act for their own reasons. As such, Kant believed it is wrong to treat any free and rational being merely as means to achieving some goal or end. Insofar as we are autonomous, we are moral equals, and we cannot justify valuing ourselves over anyone else. Violating someone’s autonomy—treating them as if they are neither rational nor worthy of equal moral consideration—is one of the worst things you can do to an autonomous being. 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 Chapter 9).

We have already considerd how lying violates the Formula of Universal Law, but we can now see how it also violates the Formula of Humanity. After all, lying violates the other person’s autonomy. If you lie in order to further your own ends, you are treating those you deceive merely as a means to fulfilling your goals. After all, presumably, you are lying to them because you believe that if you told them the truth they wouldn’t act the way you want them to. By limiting their access to the truth, you are diminishing their capacity to make rational decisions; and by trying to manipulate their behavior you are limiting their freedom. Deceiving someone is a way of using them for your own ends and preventing them from choosing their own.

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, remember that it’s the maxim of an action that must pass the Universal Law test; but it’s not entirely clear how to come up with the relevant 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. So you consider this 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 law. The question is, which maxim is the right one to use when you are considering what you should do: the maxim that says lie and break a promise, or the one that says do whatever you must to save your children?

Although the challenge of articulating the right maxim stands, Kant has a clear reply in this particular case. Any time you lie or break a promise you are doing something wrong because the action violates the Formula of Humanity; 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 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 don’t respect them. You are just treating them as a means to getting money and not an end in themselves.

Summary of the Formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative

The Categorical Imperative commands our reason and requires us to act according to the moral law, irrespective of our desires and interests. We have looked at two formulations of the Categorical Imperative

  • The Formula of Universal Law: one must be able to universalize the maxim on which you intend to act without any contradiction.
  • The Formula of Humanity: one may never disrespect another person’s autonomy by treating them as a means to an end, but must treat all people as ends in themselves.

4.4 Final Considerations about Approaches that Focus on Action

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.


Further Reading

In addition to the sources in the footnotes, the following may be helpful:

On duty in general

Warburton, Nigel and David Owens. “David Owens on Duty.” Produced by the Institute of Philosophy. Philosophy Bites. September 1, 2015. Podcast. https://philosophybites.libsyn.com/david-owens-on-duty

Duties based on roles

Flood, Gavin and Charles Martin, translators. The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.

Gupta, Bina. “‘Bhagavad Gītā’ as Duty and Virtue Ethics: Some Reflections.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 34, no. 3 (September 2006): 373-95. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40017693

Hinrichs, Allison.  The Bhagavad-Gita: Righteousness or Duty? The Spectator, March 15, 2022. https://www.spectatornews.com/opinion/2022/03/the-bhagavad-gita-righteousness-or-duty/

Duties Based on Past Action

Atwell, John. “Ross and Prima Facie Duties,” Ethics 88, no. 3 (April 1978): 240-49. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2379943

Robinson, Michael. “Are Some Prima Facie Duties More Binding Than Others?” Utilitas 22, no. 1 (February 2010): 26-32. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0953820809990343

Duties Based on Reason Alone

CrashCourse. “Kant & Categorical Imperatives: Crash Course Philosophy #35.” YouTube, November 14, 2016, Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bIys6JoEDw&t=187s

Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta, last modified July 7, 2016. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/kant-moral/

Korsguaard, Christine M. “Kant’s Formula of Universal Law.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66, no. 1-2 (1985): 24-47. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0114.1985.tb00240.x

O’Neill, Onora. Acting on Principle: An Essay on Kantian Ethics. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139565097

  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, Right and Good, 18-36.
  4. When students are first introduced to Kantian deontology, they commonly misunderstand the Formula of Universal Law as consequentialist. They think that willing a maxim in our world helps us see what problematic consequences might result from the maxim if it was universalized. However, Kant emphasizes that this test is grounded in our reason. We are using it to find logical inconsistencies in our motivations. This test helps us uncover morally problematic motivations that would lead us to do the wrong thing.
  5. It is important to note that when you attempt to follow the Formula of Universal Law 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.
  6. Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (Project Gutenberg, 2004), §1. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5682. (Slightly amended for gender inclusion.)
  7. As a point of interest, Kant has four formulations of the Categorical Imperative—all of which help us rationally decide what we should do. Many Kantian scholars argue that the formulas make the moral law stronger, and, with each progression, subsequent formulations unite the previous ones within it. The Formula of Autonomy is“the Idea of the will of every rational being as a will that legislates universal law” (Groundwork, 4:432). The fourth formulation, also known as the Kingdom of Ends, is, “act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends” (Groundwork, 4:439). For more information on the other formulations, see R. Johnson and A. Cureton’s entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Kant’s Moral Philosophy” (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/#AutFor).
  8. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Allen Wood (London: Yale University Press, 2002), 4:429.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Applied Ethics Primer Copyright © 2021 by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book