Deontological Ethics

… a core concept in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M

Concept description

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Larry Alexander and Michael Moore (2016, reference below) describe deontological ethics as “one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted.”

See also: Normative Ethics; Consequentialism; and Virtue Ethics.

Alexander and Moore write:

“In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do (deontic theories), in contrast to those that guide and assess what kind of person we are and should be (aretaic [virtue] theories). And within the domain of moral theories that assess our choices, deontologists – those who subscribe to deontological theories of morality – stand in opposition to consequentialists. …”

“In contrast to consequentialist theories, deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteria different from the states of affairs those choices bring about. The most familiar forms of deontology, and also the forms presenting the greatest contrast to consequentialism, hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects – that no matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden. On such familiar deontological accounts of morality, agents cannot make certain wrongful choices even if by doing so the number of those exact kinds of wrongful choices will be minimized (because other agents will be prevented from engaging in similar wrongful choices). For such deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm. Such norms are to be simply obeyed by each moral agent; such norm-keepings are not to be maximized by each agent. In this sense, for such deontologists, the Right is said to have priority over the Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce (including even a Good consisting of acts in accordance with the Right). …

Alexander and Moore describe the advantages and weaknesses of deontological theories:

Advantages of deontological theories

“On the one hand, deontological morality, in contrast to consequentialism, leaves space for agents to give special concern to their families, friends, and projects. At least that is so if the deontological morality contains no strong duty of general beneficence, or, if it does, it places a cap on that duty’s demands. Deontological morality, therefore, avoids the overly demanding and alienating aspects of consequentialism and accords more with conventional notions of our moral duties.

“Likewise, deontological moralities, unlike most views of consequentialism, leave space for the supererogatory. A deontologist can do more that is morally praiseworthy than morality demands. A consequentialist cannot, assuming none of the consequentialists’ defensive maneuvers earlier referenced work. For such a pure or simple consequentialist, if one’s act is not morally demanded, it is morally wrong and forbidden. Whereas for the deontologist, there are acts that are neither morally wrong nor demanded, some – but only some – of which are morally praiseworthy.

“As we have seen, deontological theories all possess the strong advantage of being able to account for strong, widely shared moral intuitions about our duties better than can consequentialism. … Finally, deontological theories, unlike consequentialist ones, have the potential for explaining why certain people have moral standing to complain about and hold to account those who breach moral duties. For the moral duties typically thought to be deontological in character – unlike, say, duties regarding the environment – are duties to particular people, not duties to bring about states of affairs that no particular person has an individual right to have realized.”

Weaknesses of deontological theories

“On the other hand, deontological theories have their own weak spots. The most glaring one is the seeming irrationality of our having duties or permissions to make the world morally worse. Deontologists need their own, non-consequentialist model of rationality, one that is a viable alternative to the intuitively plausible, “act-to-produce-the-best-consequences” model of rationality that motivates consequentialist theories. Until this is done, deontology will always be paradoxical. …

“Second, it is crucial for deontologists to deal with the conflicts that seem to exist between certain duties, and between certain rights. … The intending/foreseeing, doing/allowing, causing/aiding, and related distinctions certainly reduce potential conflicts for the agent-centered versions of deontology; whether they can totally eliminate such conflicts is a yet unresolved question.

“Thirdly, there is the manipulability worry mentioned before with respect to agent-centered versions of deontology. To the extent potential conflict is eliminated by resort to the Doctrine of Double Effect, the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing, and so forth (and it is not clear to what extent patient-centered versions rely on these doctrines and distinctions to mitigate potential conflict), then a potential for “avoision” is opened up. …

“Fourth, there is what might be called the paradox of relative stringency. There is an aura of paradox in asserting that all deontological duties are categorical – to be done no matter the consequences – and yet asserting that some of such duties are more stringent than others. … The greater the wrong, the greater the punishment deserved; and relative stringency of duty violated (or importance of rights) seems the best way of making sense of greater versus lesser wrongs.

“Fifth, there are situations – unfortunately not all of them thought experiments – where compliance with deontological norms will bring about disastrous consequences. To take a stock example of much current discussion, suppose that unless A violates the deontological duty not to torture an innocent person (B), ten, or a thousand, or a million other innocent people will die because of a hidden nuclear device. If A is forbidden by deontological morality from torturing B, many would regard that as a reductio ad absurdum of deontology.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Ethics in Public Policy and Management (core topic) in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M Ethics.


Larry Alexander and Michael Moore (2016), Deontological Ethics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at, accessed 12 March 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 March 2019.

Image: Chanakya IAS Academy Blog, deontological ethics, at, accessed 12 March 2019.