[Supplement to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan]
DEONTOLOGICAL ETHICS. No single idea captures all of the features in virtue
of which an ethical theory may deserve to be called a deontology. In one sense, a
deontology is simply theory of our duties, something most ethical theories have.
But philosophers mean to convey more by calling a theory deontological. Roughly,
a deontological theory denies in some way that the good or what is of value, always
takes priority over the right or duty. What this denial comes to, however, depends
on whether it is meant in a normative or in a metaethical sense.
Taken in a normative sense, deontologies deny that we always ought to rank the
overall value of the states of affairs produced by alternative actions, and on the
basis of this decide how we ought to act. At least sometimes, deontologists hold, it
would be wrong to bring about the best overall states of affairs according to such
prior rankings. Theories holding that there are absolute rights for instance, are
deontological in this sense, since they hold that some rights must not be violated
even if it would produce the most overall good. Many philosophers therefore hold
that what is essential to deontologies is that they contain agent relative, as opposed
to agent-neutral, moral constraints. These differ from agent-neutrual constraints in
making an essential reference to the agent's performing certain actions.
Consequently, an agent-relative constraint may require a person to fulfill some duty
even if by violating it she would prevent many more violations of the very same
duty by others. For instance, suppose that by lying you could prevent twenty lies
by others. A deontologist might argue that, nonetheless, your duty is to ensure that
you do not lie. A theory which regarded the prohibition of lying as agent-neutral,
however, would object that surely if one lie is bad, twenty would be much worse.
Since you could minimize overall badness by allowing one lie, you ought to lie
regardless of the fact that it is you who are lying.
To the extent that a theory, such as consequentialism, argues that some overall
ranking of goods always determines what one ought to do, it gives the good a
normative priority over the right, and so is a teleological theory. But hybrid views
are possible. An indirect consequentialist, for instance, might argue that one ought
to decide what is right as though one were bound by agent-relative constraints,
since if everyone made decisions in this way it would bring about the most overall
good. Thus, this view could also hold that people ought to tell the truth even when
by lying they could prevent many more lies. It would simply argue for this
deontological cast of mind, as it were, for teleological reasons.
There are several metaethical theses that may also be associated with deontologies.
While normative theories argue for normative views about what is good or right,
metaethics analyzes and explains normative views. Metaethics therefore includes
theories of moral justification, the nature of moral properties, and the meaning and
logic of moral statements. A deontology may therefore also deny that the good takes
priority over the right in some metaethical area. It might deny that judgments about
what is right are justified only if they are inferred from judgments about the value of
the effects of available actions. Or it may deny that the property of rightness is
dependent on the property of causing the most overall good. A deontology, that is,
may insist that rightness is an intrinsic, rather than an extrinsic, property of some
actions. A deontology may also deny that statements about what it is right to do can
be defined in terms of statements about what things are good. Again, at the
metaethical level, teleologies may hold one or other of the views denied by
The positive views that may be held by deontologies are quite diverse. Some hold
that dotrines of the right are fundamental. Thus, a deontologist may claim that
judgments about what is good are justified only when they are inferred from
judgments about what is right (e.g., she may claim that the judgment that a state of
affairs is good is justified only when it is inferred from the judgement that it was
brought about by a right action). The good would then be dependent on (in a
metaethical sense) the right. Others hold that neither the right nor the good is
fundamental. For example, a deontologist may hold that judgments neither about
what is good nor about what is right need to be inferred from any other judgments
in order to be justified, claiming instead that both are self-justifying or intuited. A
deontologist need not be an intuitionist, however. Some argue that, in order to be
justified, judgments of right must be inferred from some other kinds of judgments.
For instance, a divine-command theory may hold that judgments about what it is
right to do are justified only if inferred from judgments about the content of natural
law. And Kantian deontologists argue that judgments of right are justified only if
derived from principles of practical reason.
How metaethical and normative theories interrelate is in general a complex and
controversial issue, and so it is with deontological doctrines. Some deontologists
remain quiet on metaethical issues, but others believe that normative deontological
views have metaethical implications. They may hold that, if there are any inviolable
duties, then rightness must be an intrinsic property of some actions. On the other
hand, some remain silent on normative questions, while others argue that
metaethical deontological views have normative implications. And a philosopher
may pair a normative deontology with a nondeontological metaethics. For instance,
an emotivist may claim that judgments of right merely express favorable attitudes
and so are not susceptible to rational justification yet also hold that such attitudes are
expressed toward agent-centered restrictions.
Donagan, A., The Theory of Morality. Chicago, 1977.
Finnis, J., Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford, 1980.
Fried, C., Right and Wrong. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.
Gewirth, A., Human Rights: Essays on Justifications and Applications. Chicago,
Herman, B., The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.
Hill, T. E., Autonomy and Self-Respect. Cambridge, 1991.
Nagel, T., The View from Nowhere. New York, 1986.
Nozick, R., Anarchy, State and Utopia. Oxford, 1974.
O'Neill, O., Constructions of Reason. Cambridge, 1990.
Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass, 1971.
Scheffler, S., The Rejection of Consequentialism. Oxford, 1982.
Robert Neal Johnson