Deontological theories (derived from the Greek word for duty, deon) base morality on certain duties, or obligations, and claim that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong, that is, right or wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences that may follow from those actions.  What makes a choice or an action right is its conformity with a moral norm.  Thus, an agent has a duty to act in accordance with a moral norm, irrespective of the (potentially beneficial) effects of acting otherwise.

We might say that parents, for example, have an obligation to take care of their children.  On a deontological view, parents must fulfill this obligation, even if breaking the obligation were to result, for the parents, in some great benefit (increased financial savings, for example).

The deontological view holds that some actions cannot be justified by their consequences. In short, for the deontologist, the ends do not justify the means.

Indeed, Immanuel Kant, whose formulation of deontological ethics is perhaps the most well known, wrote that one must “act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.”  As with other deontologists (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, for example), Kant held that the basis of our moral requirements is a standard of rationality.  In the case of Kant, the standard is a categorical imperative. This single principle of rationality comprehensively includes all of our particular duties.

Objections to Kantian deontology:

(1)   Kant’s claim is that the moral status of our actions is determined solely on the basis of the rightness or wrongness of the action itself.  This means that it is categorically wrong to, for example, lie, in any circumstances, regardless of the consequences.  It seems implausible, however, to hold that lying is categorically wrong in all circumstances.  Imagine, for example, a situation in which a serial killer is on the hunt for your daughter.  While searching for her, the killer, whom you know to be the killer, encounters you and asks for information regarding your daughter’s whereabouts.  According to Kant’s deontological theory, you would be required to tell the truth.  Does this seem reasonable?

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