Deontological Ethics

I'll start by discussing the Deontological theories of Ethics, because those are the theories most popular with non-philosophers.

"A deontological theory of ethics is one which holds that at least some acts are morally obligatory regardless of their consequences for human weal or woe. The popular motto 'Let justice be done though the heavens fall' conveys the spirit that most often underlies deontological ethics". Robert Olsen(1)

The word Deontological comes from the Greek "deon" meaning "bind, tie, or fetter".  Deontological Ethics is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules.(2)   It is sometimes described as "duty-" or "obligation-" or "rule-" based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty."(3)  It is also sometimes called "Authoritative Command Ethics" because the rules involved are seen as commands demanding or prohibiting certain actions, issued by some accepted Authority figure (frequently, but not always God).  The term "deontological" was first used to describe this form of ethics by C. D. Broad in his book, Five Types of Ethical Theory(4) which was published in 1930.(5)  Older usage of the term goes back to Jeremy Bentham, who coined it in ca.1826 to mean more generally "the knowledge of what is right and proper".(6)

Deontological Ethics is contrasted with the various Consequentialist theories of ethics, because deontological ethics judges an action based on whether (or the degree to which) the action follows the rules.  The consequences of the action are not relevant to the moral worth of the action.  (Although, as mentioned earlier, the consequences of an action must be examined to determine which rules might apply, and whether - or the degree to which - the action follows those rules.)  This raises some challenges.  It is always possible, and in practice often common in a given circumstance, that different actions may by recommended and/or prohibited by different rules.  Hence adherents to Deontological Ethics frequently face moral dilemmas, with no means within the system of resolving the conflict.  Resolving such moral dilemmas must rely on resources outside the collection of Deontological ethical rules.

Deontological Ethics is also contrasted with various theories of Virtue Ethics.  The term "virtue ethics" is a broad label for theories that emphasize habits of character, rather than singling out particular actions.  Virtue Ethics focusses on what constitutes good and proper ways of living rather than on the action which fulfills one's duty or obeys some rules, or the consequences resulting from the action.(7)

However, the most important challenge facing adherents of any of the various Deontological theories of ethics is the question -- "Why be moral?"  What is it about the rules and duties provided by your preferred system of Deontological Ethics that persuades anyone to follow them?  Why should I follow these rules, fulfill these duties, rather than some other rules?  Why should I follow rules at all, rather than follow my inclinations?  What is the source of motivation?

The answers that are provided in answer to this challenge define the different categories of Deontological Ethics.  In a rough order of popularity, the answers that are provided are:-

(i) Divine Command Ethics  "God said it.  I Believe it. That settles it!"
(ii) Natural Law Ethics  "That's just the way the world works!"
(iii) Kant's Categorical Imperative "Reason Dictates it!"
(iv) Intuitionist Ethics    "It's Intuitively Obvious!" / "Because I said so!"
(v) Social Conventionalism  "That's what everybody does / believes!"
(vi) Social Contractualism  "We've all agreed (perhaps only in theory)!"

[Up] [Home] [Next]


(1)  Robert G. Olson, "Deontological Ethics," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, New York, New York, 1967.  Pg 1:343.

(2)  Hursthouse, Rosalind;  "Virtue Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

(3)  Waller, Bruce N.;  Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. Pearson Longman, 2005, New York, New York. Pg 23.

(4)  Broad, C. D.;  Five Types of Ethical Theory, Harcourt, Brace and Co., Mew York, New York. 1930,

(5)  Beauchamp, Tom L.;  Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy, 2nd Ed. , McGraw Hill Publishing, 1991, New York, New York. Pg 171.  

(6)  Wikipedia contributors;  "Deontological ethics," in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<>.

(7)  Athanassoulis, Nafsika;  "Virtue Ethics" in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL=<>.