Deontological & Kantian deontological ethics, A2

  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 19-04-12 20:47

Intro & Key concepts

  • Deontological theories of ethics challenge the teleological view that what is morally good can be evaluated in terms of a non-moral concept
  • From Greek 'deon' meaning duty = moral obligation to others
  • Opposite to consequentialism
  • States that decisions should be made solely by considering one's duties & the rights of others
  • Is a priori - that we know something before experience
  • People ought to live by a set of defined principles that do not change
  • Praiseworthy goals cannot justify immoral actions - the ends cannot justify the means, & an action can be right even if it fails to bring about the greatest balance of good

Act deontologists - allow for different situations to lead to different moral obligations, 'In this situation I ought to do X'

Rule deontologists - hold that the standard of right/wrong consists of absolute rules which are permanently valid, such as 'We ought always to tell the truth'

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Key Concepts cont. & Forms of Deontology

Aquinas argued we have specific duties/obligations to avoid committing particular sins that are absolute. Said duties could include duties to oneself, others, family, social duties and duty to God

Divine Command - states an action is morally correct whenever it is in agreement with the rules & duties established by God

Duty Theory - where an action is morally right if it is in accord with some list of duties & obligations

Rights Theories - an action can only be right if it respects the rights all humans have; often referred to as Libertarianism (political philosophy that people should be legally free to do as they wish as long as doesn't harm other's rights)

Contractarianism - where an action is right if it is in accordance with the rules that rational agents would agree upon for mutual benefit

Monisitc deontology - where an action is morally right if it agrees with some single deontological principle which guides all other subsidiary principles

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Proponents of Deontological Ethics incl. Kant

Locke: advocated the deontological theory that individual persons have rights that are part of the natural law of the world, & actions can be judged right/wrong based on whether they respect the rights

Rawls: claimed that individual persons have a duty to act according to the laws that they would propose if they were unaware of their socio-economic status; argues people are risk averse, so most would propose laws to benefit the poor & oppressed (beacuse of this, associated with utilitarianism)

However, most famous deontological theory was devised by Kant:

  • he wanted to discover a rational basis for one's sense of duty & devise principle by which can distinguish right/wrong
  • espoused an absolutist approach to ethics, judging morality by examining the nature of actions & the will of agents rather than the goals they achieved
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Kant cont.

  • held that some acts are morally wrong because are inconsistent with the status of a person as free & rational being, but acts that further such a status should always be carried out under any circumstance
  • He believed all people possess reason & conscience, so can understand moral truths independent of experience
  • Said morality is a priori, & because reason is universal, moral reasoning should lead to same results each time
  • argued universe is essentially just & God is a necessary requirement of universe & to balance moral law
  • attempted to discover the rational principle that would stand as a categorical imperative (something you do because you have to) rather than hypothetical (might do if had to), which would always be carried out
  • developed 3 formulations of categorical imperatrive, incl. that: should act according to the maxim, act in such a way that treat humanity not as a means but as an end, & act as though were through your maxims a lawmaking member of kingdom ends (ensures people are valued for intrinsic, not instrumental, worth)
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Prima Facie Duties

Ross - revived deontology in 20th C. with contemporary deontology in form of Prima Facie duties (at first sight)

  • argued that the idea of motivation determining our actions is incoherent because cannot choose why we act, can only choose how we will act (goodwill is not enough)

However, did not believe the consequences are the only way to judge behaviour, other ways can be used to judge moral action inluding Beneficience - helping others, Self-Improvement - developing talents, & Treating people justly

What we do in a moral dilemma will depend on things that have previously happened, we may:

  • owe a debt of gratitude
  • have made a promise
  • have a privileged/responsible relationship with someone
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Strengths & Weaknesses of Ross's Deontology


  • Offers a middle way between consequentialism & absolutist deontology
  • injects some flexibility into Kant's 18th C. theory
  • Recognises the value of moral absolutes which are not at the whim of fashion or fads - doesn't depend on changing culture


  • If cannot tell in advance which will be most important, all duties are open to subjective evaluation, which is opposite to deontology
  • deontology of any sort will fail if believe the notion of duties is incoherent in age of individualism
  • Bentham = criticised deontology, arguing was merely an intellectualised version of popular morality, as most people do it anyway
  • what deontology attributes to natural law could really be a matter of subjective opinion
  • Mill = argued deontologists fail to specify which rights or duties should be prioritised, so cannot offer complete guidance
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Strengths & Weaknesses of Kantian Deontology


  • motivation is valued over consequences
  • is a humanitarian principle (all considered equal & justice is always an absolute even if majority does not benefit)
  • recognises value of moral absolutes that do not change from culture to time


  • acting out of a sense of 'duty for duty's sake' is cold & impersonal
  • goodwill is not enough, consequences do matter
  • Kant assumes everyone is rational
  • Kant argued only reason to be moral is that you should, but this rules out other motives (such as love)
  • Categorical imperative is too general
  • there is no solution in a clash of conflicts
  • Kant commits the naturalistic fallacy, ought to but does not mean always able to
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Kant cont. & Good Will

  • moral command does not tell us how to achieve an end but is an end itself, & expresses our absolute duty to act without condition
  • maintained that - "it is impossible to conceive of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will"
  • E.g. good will would be a shopkeeper being 'good for goodness sake', not to get customer to buy something
  • Argued that while personal preferences & inclinations are not necessarily wrong, cannot be trusted as reliable guide to what is morally right
  • categorical imperative provides the moral groundwork for all actions which is the principle of universalisability = "act in such a way that their actions might become a universal law"
  • Universalisable principles are those that apply in all cases to everyone
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Prima Facie Duties cont.

  • However, cannot tell in advance what relevant prima facie duty will be
  • when 2 prima facie duties conflict, they do not negate (ignore) one or both of them, rather decision is made about what's more important - must use intuition, but cannot guarantee will be the right action
  • Ross argued we gain moral knowledge through moral experience

There are 7 prima facie duties:

  • fidelity
  • reparation
  • gratitude
  • justice
  • beneficience
  • self improvement
  • non-maleficence
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General Strengths & Weaknesses of Deontology


  • simple, easy to follow - set of rules to follow
  • accounts for motives
  • egalitarian - takes account of everyone's rights
  • everyday, useful, universal, absolute theory - don't have to think about individual situations & not dependent on culture/time
  • intention is good - good will
  • gives humans credit - assumes are rational free agents able to make decisions, doesn't rely on God
  • attractive to both the religious & non-religious because no God involved but principles Christians can apply


  • Could cause harm to others E.g. can't lie even if would save someone
  • Individualistic, so teleology may be more suited
  • no clear way to resolve conflicts between moral duties
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Strengths & Weaknesses of Ross's Deontology cont.

  • Kagan = agrees with Bentham & Mill, & argues that in deontology individuals are bound by constraints but are also given options, & maintains that this leads to a decrease in moral goodness
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General Strengths & Weaknesses of Deontology cont.

  • Which duties qualify as those which we should all follow? - no set of obligations, so how can be universal?
  • Culture & era dependent, such as taking 'obey' out of wedding vows
  • Is consequentialist moral system in disguise - from past experiences of which actions produce best consequences, make duties & laws because tried & tested - know what produces bad result
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