Derived from the Greek terms for “duty” and “science,” deontology is a philosophical concept that emphasizes adhering to an immutable moral law.
This notion is based on the belief that certain behaviors – like lying or stealing – are inherently wrong no matter what context they occur in.
From a deontological perspective, we should always strive to do what is ethically correct, even if it does not guarantee the desired results.
For instance, deontologists are steadfast in their belief that lying is inherently wrong, regardless of the possible outcome. Therefore, they would always consider telling a lie to be unethical and unacceptable under any circumstances.
Deontology is based on the view that morality is derived from duty or obligation. This branch of moral philosophy states that one should act following a certain set of principles regardless of the consequences.
McKee and Krentel (2022) state that deontology is “a moral theory that suggests actions are good or bad according to a clear set of rules” (p. 228).
According to deontology, the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined exclusively by its inherent nature and cannot be affected by any consequences it yields (Schlegelmilch & Szőcs, 2020)
It means that a morally right action should be performed even if the immediate result of it is negative, and a morally wrong action should not be performed even if its immediate result is positive.
Irrespective of the outcome or situation, it is essential for individuals to adhere to a moral code. Deontology advocates that one’s ethical obligation should be prioritized over any other result that could be accomplished.
- Honesty: Telling the truth no matter what, even if it may lead to unfavorable outcomes. So, it would be wrong if a boy lied about stealing a candy bar from the store.
- Respect: Showing respect to others by honoring their wishes and beliefs, even if you disagree with them. If a friend asks you not to talk about a specific subject, it would be wrong to disregard this wish.
- Responsibility: Taking responsibility for your actions and accepting the consequences, no matter how unfavorable. For instance, if you damage someone’s property, it would be wrong to try and hide the deed or blame someone else for your mistake.
- Fairness: Making sure everyone is treated fairly, regardless of their race, religion, or gender. If a company is hiring new employees, it would be wrong to discriminate against any particular group of people.
- Integrity: Being honest and consistent in your behavior and beliefs. It would be wrong to act one way with your friends and another way when you are around strangers.
- Non-violence: Refraining from violence, even if it might lead to a desirable outcome. For example, beating up someone who has wronged you would be wrong no matter what the reason.
- Gratitude: Showing appreciation for generosity and kindness, even if you don’t see the immediate benefit. For instance, when someone gives you a gift, it would be wrong not to say thank you or at least show appreciation.
- Forgiveness: Letting go of anger and resentment, even if the other person doesn’t deserve it. If your friend betrays you, holding a grudge or taking revenge would be wrong.
- Humility: Showing modesty and not taking credit for something you didn’t do. It would be wrong to take credit when your team produces a great result.
- Moderation: Acting in moderation and not overindulging, even if it’s something you enjoy. So, if you like a cake, it would be wrong to overeat it and make yourself sick.
Origins of Deontology
Deontology first gained prominence with the works of Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher. Kant argued that an action is morally permissible if it follows a universal law.
In other words, according to Kant, the morality of an action depends on whether it can be applied universally (Løgstrup et al., 2020).
Later, Charlie Broad was credited with using the term deontological to describe its current, specialized definition in his 1930 book Five Types of Ethical Theory.
Prior to 1816, however, Jeremy Bentham had already coined the same word as a synonym for dicastic or censorial ethics. It was a type of moral philosophy that focused on judging the nature of an action rather than the results (Sweet, 2013).
Today, deontology is widely accepted as a branch of moral philosophy that emphasizes the importance of upholding our duties and adhering to moral principles, regardless of any external influences or outcomes.
It emphasizes the importance of adhering to specific rules or principles, no matter what favorable outcomes may be produced along the way.
Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Deontology
In 1785, Immanuel Kant proposed his famous categorical imperative, which states that an action is morally permissible only if it follows a universal law (Sweet, 2013).
According to Kant, the morality of an action is not judged by its results but rather by whether it meets a certain set of universal standards.
Kant is known for his famous categorical imperative, which states, “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1994, p. 30).
In other words, the morality of an action is not judged by its results but rather by whether it meets a certain set of universal standards.
Kant’s categorical imperative is widely seen as the foundation of deontology. Kant’s theory suggests that one should adhere to a strict set of moral principles, regardless of any external influences or outcomes (Sweet, 2013).
It is an important concept in deontology because it implies a sense of duty, or obligation, to do the right thing. It is not enough to simply follow a moral code; one must also act out of respect for that code and its underlying principles.
Categorical imperative is a powerful tool for understanding how morality works and establishing a strong foundation for ethical behavior. It is a principle that remains relevant today and is an integral part of deontological philosophy.
Deontology vs. Utilitarianism
While deontology focuses on upholding specific rules or principles, utilitarianism focuses on producing the greatest amount of good.
Deontologists believe it is more important to adhere to moral principles than to pursue favorable outcomes, even if it means sacrificing certain benefits.
On the other hand, utilitarians think it is more critical to pursue favorable outcomes than adhere to certain principles or rules (Løgstrup et al., 2020).
In a situation where the two solutions conflict, deontologists would say that it is more important to adhere to moral principles than pursue favorable outcomes.
On the other hand, utilitarians would say that it is more important to pursue favorable outcomes (Løgstrup et al., 2020).
So, while deontologists focus on upholding specific rules or principles, utilitarians focus on producing the greatest amount of good.
The two theories also differ in their approach to rule-following. Deontologists believe that rules should be followed regardless of the consequences. In contrast, utilitarians believe that rules should only be followed if the outcome is beneficial.
Simply, deontology and utilitarianism differ in their focus on moral principles versus the pursuit of favorable outcomes. Deontology upholds specific rules or principles, while utilitarianism focuses on producing the greatest amount of good.
Importance of Deontology
Deontology is an important ethical system because it helps people understand why certain actions are right or wrong and how they should act morally.
Deontology emphasizes the importance of following certain rules or principles no matter what favorable outcomes may be produced along the way.
Deontology urges individuals to consider their behavior’s morality before deciding instead of reflecting on it afterward.
It is an important distinction since it prevents people from committing unethical acts that may yield desirable results but break moral standards.
For example, imagine a doctor who is faced with the choice to either save one patient’s life or save five patients’ lives.
The doctor should not decide based on the outcome but rather on whether it is moral to give up one life to save five. Therefore, the doctor should adhere to the moral principles at play in this situation and make her decision based on those.
Deontology prioritizes the motivation behind an action over any other factors. It holds that, even if the consequences of an action are positive, it is wrong to do something simply to achieve those results.
Overall, deontology encourages people to think critically about their actions and to strive to make ethical decisions that will lead to positive outcomes.
Deontology is a useful system for understanding morality and can help people stay on the right side of the ethical line.
Deontology is an important ethical system that emphasizes the importance of following certain moral principles regardless of any favorable outcomes.
Prompting individuals to pause and reflect on their choices, deontology motivates them to judge the ethicality of any decision before taking action.
As a timeless concept, deontology not only brings to mind the moral codes ingrained in society but also has remained pertinent for generations. It is an enduring reminder of what constitutes right or wrong and serves as an ethical compass.
By understanding deontology, people can make informed decisions that will lead to the greatest amount of good and help them stay on the right side of ethical principles.
Kant, I. (1994). Ethical philosophy: The complete texts of grounding for the metaphysics of morals, and metaphysical principles of virtue. Hackett Pub. Co.
Løgstrup, K. E., Kooten, V., Lykke Cobos, K.-A., Fink, H., Rabjerg, B., & Stern, R. (2020). Ethical concepts and problems. Oxford University Press.
McKee, M., & Krentel, A. (2022). Issues in public health: Challenges for the 21st century. Open University Press.
Schlegelmilch, B. B., & Szőcs, I. (2020). Rethinking business responsibility in a global context. Springer.
Sweet, K. E. (2013). Kant on practical life: From duty to history. Cambridge University Press.