In This Article Ethical Deontology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Agent-relativity
  • Constraints and the Paradox of Deontology
  • Priority of the Right over the Good
  • Honoring (versus Promoting) Values
  • Deontology in Applied Ethics

Philosophy Ethical Deontology
Jörg Schroth
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0383


Deontology is usually contrasted with consequentialism (and both with virtue ethics). Whereas consequentialists maintain that the right action is determined solely by its consequences, deontologists deny this and hold that the right action is not determined solely by its consequences. This characterization makes room for the important distinction between moderate deontology (or threshold deontology) and absolutism: Absolutists assert that there are exceptionless moral rules or intrinsically wrong actions that are absolutely wrong and may never be performed, whatever the consequences. Moderate deontologists reject exceptionless moral rules or absolutely wrong actions and regard all moral rules as prima facie rules. A further distinction is between agent-centered deontological theories, which focus upon agents’ duties, and patient-centered (or victim-centered) deontological theories, which focus upon people’s rights. Deontology is associated with the following features which play a more or less significant role in different deontological theories: agent-relativity, especially agent-relative constraints (restrictions), options (prerogatives) and special obligations; priority of the right over the good; definition of the right independently of the good; priority of honoring values over promoting values; intrinsically wrong actions; absolutely wrong actions and exceptionless moral rules; duty for duty’s sake; pluralism of moral rules; respect of persons; non-instrumentalization of persons; human dignity; inviolable rights. Deontologists also maintain the moral relevance of the following distinctions: positive versus negative duties, doing versus allowing (killing versus letting die; see the Oxford Bibliographies article in Philosophy “Doing and Allowing.”), and intention versus foresight and unintended side-effects. Famous deontological moral principles are Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the Pauline Principle (“Evil may not be done for the sake of good”), the principle of double effect (see the bibliography on Bibliographien zu Themen der Ethik) and the principle that the end does not always justify the means. Deontology can take many forms, the most important ones are Kant’s and Kantian ethics (see the Oxford Bibliographies article in Philosophy “Immanuel Kant: Ethics”); Ross’s and Rossian-style moral pluralism, natural law theory, and moral contractualism (see the Oxford Bibliographies article in Philosophy “Moral Contractualism”); libertarianism (in political philosophy); moral particularism (see the bibliography on Bibliographien zu Themen der Ethik); and principlism (in bioethics). Deontology is also often associated with ethical intuitionism (see the Oxford Bibliographies article in Philosophy “Ethical Intuitionism”) although not every deontological theory is grounded in moral intuitions.

General Overviews

There is no textbook or book-length general overview on deontology available. Even many ethics textbooks do not have a single chapter on deontology, but instead a chapter on Kant’s or Kantian ethics, and sometimes one or more additional chapters on contractualism, intuitionism, moral pluralism, or natural law theory. Alexander and Moore 2016 is a good introduction to the distinction between agent-centered and victim-centered (patient-centered) deontological theories (not dealt with in the other overviews) and to the main current controversies regarding deontology versus consequentialism. Birnbacher 2003 focuses on the comparison between monistic and pluralistic deontological theories. Hurley 2013 offers a short overview of deontology based on a particular understanding of deontology. Gaus 2001 discusses in the author’s two-part article several proposed definitions and characteristic features of deontology. F. M. Kamm is one of the most important contemporary proponents of deontology and presents in Kamm 2007 a (not always easy to read) introduction to the author’s own (victim-focused) view of deontology. Good introductions to Rossian-style deontology can be found in McNaughton and Rawling 2006 and McNaughton and Rawling 2014. Kagan 1999 goes beyond the previously mentioned overviews and offers a comprehensive but still introductory discussion of several deontological constraints (which he regards as the defining feature of deontology). Timmermann 2015 considers various characterizations of deontology and concludes that the word “deontology” is useless and should be banished.

  • Alexander, Larry, and Michael Moore. “Deontological Ethics.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2016.

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    An up-to-date and very detailed overview of deontology with a special focus on the division into agent-centered and victim-centered (patient-centered) deontological theories. (Ross is only mentioned once in passing, and none of the many papers on deontology by David McNaughton and Piers Rawling are mentioned.)

  • Birnbacher, Dieter. “Deontologische Ethik.” In Analytische Einführung in die Ethik. By Dieter Birnbacher, 113–172. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003.

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    A very clear and detailed introduction to deontology with a special emphasis on the comparison between monistic (Kant and M. G. Singer) and pluralistic deontological theories.

  • Gaus, Gerald F. “What Is Deontology. Part One: Orthodox Views.” Journal of Value Inquiry 35 (2001): 27–42.

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    In this two-part article, Gaus discusses several ways of characterizing deontology. The first part is mainly concerned with deontology as nonteleological, nonoptimizing, and as giving the right priority over the good.

  • Gaus, Gerald F. “What Is Deontology. Part Two: Reasons to Act.” Journal of Value Inquiry 35 (2001): 179–193.

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    In the second part, Gaus considers various attempts to distinguish deontology from teleology in terms of different reasons to act. He finally distinguishes ten ways to understand deontology and contends that each deontological theory is deontological only in some of these ways.

  • Hurley, Paul. “Deontology.” In The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, 1272–1287. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

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    In this brief introduction Hurley argues that the common feature of all deontological theories is a special class of deontological reasons which can be described as impartial but not impersonal reasons.

  • Kagan, Shelly. Normative Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

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    An introduction to normative ethics almost exclusively in terms of the opposition between deontological and consequentialist (and teleological) theories. Essential reading for anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the current debate between deontology and consequentialism. Picked with ingenious arguments and written in an engaging style.

  • Kamm, F. M. “Nonconsequentialism.” In Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm. By F. M. Kamm, 11–47. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195189698.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This is not so much an overview on deontology in general as an introduction to Kamm’s own view of deontology and her (victim-focused, rights-based) defense of deontological constraints. Much more demanding than the other titles in this section.

  • McNaughton, David, and Piers Rawling. “Deontology.” In The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Edited by David Copp, 424–458. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Very helpful overview from two authors who have co-authored many articles on deontology in which they defend a Rossian version of deontology.

  • McNaughton, David, and Piers Rawling. “Deontology.” In Ethics in Practice. 4th ed. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, 37–48. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

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    Shorter presentation of the authors’ view of deontology than in McNaughton and Rawling 2006.

  • Timmermann, Jens. “What’s Wrong with Deontology?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 115 (2015): 75–92.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9264.2015.00385.xE-mail Citation »

    This paper is not so much an overview, but rather a critique of the very idea of deontology, based on an overview of different characterizations of deontology. Timmermann argues that supposedly deontological theories have nothing in common except being nonconsequentialist.

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