Introduction to Deontological Ethics

Duties are Everything

All Deontological theories of ethics share a common feature, they all maintain that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by some intrinsic feature of an act. Usually this intrinsic feature is a rational obligation (or 'duty') to behave toward others in a specific way. If good consequences follow, then the action is determined to be 'good'. The consequences which follow any given action do not determine the morality of the act or the agent. A moral agent is one who acts in accordance with her obligations, a moral act is one motivated by the appropriate motive or duty. The primary work of the Deontological ethicist is to spell out what our specific duties are.

Deontological ethics takes its name from a Greek root meaning "duty" or "obligation."

'deon' = duty

It characterizes a family of ethical theories which focus on the duties we owe to each other. How we determine (or come to know) our duties gives rise to two varieties of Deontological theories.

  1. Act Deontological Theories -

    Act Deontological theories are usually called 'Intuitionist' theories because they argue humans have a special moral faculty or intuition by which we perceive our obligations.

    1. Situational Ethics - each moral action is unique and calls for a unique ethical decision

    2. Existentialist Ethics - humans create ethical norms to fit the circumstances of their existence

  2. Rule (Imperative) Deontological Theories -

    Rule Deontological theories are usually called 'Rationalist' theories since they claim it is the human capacity for reason which enables us to come to know our obligations toward one another.

    1. Kantianism (Categorical Imperatives) -

    2. The Divine Command Theories (Divine Imperatives) -


Note: it should also be noted that Rule Deontological theories can be divided into two subsets:

  1. Objectivist - moral imperatives can conflict with one another and may be suspended under certain conditions

  2. Absolutist - moral imperatives are universal and inviolable; moral imperatives do not conflict with one another and cannot be suspended under any circumstances


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