Deontological ethics

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Deontological ethics or deontology ( Greek : δέον (deon) the required, the ought, the duty , hence also duty ethics ) describes a class of ethical theories that determine the moral status of an action not only on the basis of its consequences. Certain actions can therefore be described as intrinsically good or bad (see moral absolutism below). The decisive factor here is whether the action complies with a binding rule and whether it is committed on the basis of this obligation.

Deontological theories are usually differentiated within ethics from consequentialist theories, which do not consider the intrinsic character of an action itself, but only its consequences to be morally relevant. Within deontology there are different forms: while moderate deontologists also admit that consequences have a moral relevance, in moral absolutism certain actions are forbidden under all circumstances and regardless of their consequences.

Concept history

The term "Deontology" was used by Jeremy Bentham before CD Broad defined it in 1930. Broad divided all ethical theories into two classes: deontological theories and teleological theories , identifying the deontological reading with moral absolutism.

A well-known definition of deontological theories comes from William K. Frankena from 1973:

“Deontological theories […] deny that the right, the obligatory, and the morally good are wholly, whether directly or indirectly, a function of what is nonmorally good or what promotes the greatest balance of good over evil for self, one's society, or the world as a whole. They assert that there are other considerations that may make an action or rule right or obligatory besides the goodness or badness of its consequences - certain features of the act itself other than the value it brings into existence, for example, the fact that it keeps a promise, is just, or is commanded by God or the state. "

“Deontological theories […] deny that what is right, what is obligatory and what is morally good are entirely, whether direct or indirect, a function of what is extra-morally good or what is the greatest excess of good over evil for oneself, one's own society or the whole world promises. They claim that in addition to the goodness and badness of the consequences, there are other aspects that differ from the emerging value that can make an action or rule correct or binding - certain properties of the action itself, for example the fact that it keeps a promise , is just or is commanded by God or the state. "

- William K. Frankena : Ethics

Deontological prohibitions and options

Deontological theories ascribe certain actions to be inherently bad and deduce from them that these actions are prohibited. Lying or killing the innocent are common examples of such acts. It is crucial that a lie remains forbidden even if it would lead to better consequences. It even remains prohibited if it could prevent a large number of lies. Such a case, in which the maximization of the good is expressly forbidden, can occur exclusively in deontological theories. Such deontological prohibitions (English: constraints or restrictions ) are therefore characteristic of deontological theories.

Another deviation from the utility-maximizing principle of consequentialist theories are cases in which it is morally permissible to perform an action that does not bring about the maximum overall utility. Such alternatives are (English: Options Options ) called and are relevant for example in personal projects.

Many deontologists see the reason for this in the fact that the actor himself must be at the center of the action evaluation. Deontological theories are so-called agent-centered theories . Consequentialist theories do not start from the moral point of view of the individual, but rather, when evaluating an action, compare what the world as a whole would look like after the action has been carried out and whether this world is the best that can be achieved with the possible alternative actions.

Actor Relativity and Actor Neutrality

There are several ways in which an act is the morally correct act. A distinction is made here between actor-relative (English: agent-relative ) and actor-neutral (English: agent-neutral ) explanations. Actor-relative is a justification if it relates directly to the acting person, i.e. the action becomes morally correct because it is the action of a certain person. This is particularly the case when a special relationship between the acting person and another person plays a role. For example, parents have a special relationship with their child. If a parent saves their own child from death and instead renounces the rescue of two other children, this act was still morally correct from an actor-relative point of view.

In addition to special relationships, deontological prohibitions and options are also products of actor-relative reasons. The deontological prohibition on killing also applies in the event that a person could prevent the killing of two innocent persons by killing one innocent man. So it's about not killing yourself and not about causing as few kills as possible. In the case of the options, too, it is obvious that only the reference to the actor justifies why the pursuit of a personal project can be the morally correct act if, for example, one has to forego a charitable activity that would have brought about a greater overall benefit.

Thomas Nagel characterized actor-relative reasons for action as follows:

“The peculiar thrust of deontological reasons [d. H. actor-relative reasons] is opposed to doing something yourself - and not against it happening. "

- Thomas Nagel : Limits of Objectivity

Actor-relative justifications for action are opposed to the actor-neutral ( agent-neutral ) justifications for action. Actor-neutral is a reason that is equally binding on all people. Many consequentialist theories only accept actor-neutral reasons for action, as these have an objective character and are therefore better suited to bringing about the best possible world. An actor-neutral statement is: "Everyone should make sure that nobody lies", while the actor-relative variant reads "Each person should make sure that they don't lie themselves".

Actor-relative deontological theories make a distinction between what a person does and what happens. Letting someone die, in this view, is not necessarily as morally reprehensible as killing someone.

Thought experiments

To illustrate the problems of actor relativism and thus as a challenge to deontological theories, thought experiments are often put forward in which different variations of a certain decision-making situation are tested to see whether they suggest the same moral judgments, and to check whether and under what conditions these evaluations relate to everyday ones Let situations transfer. These are in particular the trolley problem (by Philippa Foot ), the question of a general ban on torture and the situation of hiding a persecuted person, which Immanuel Kant describes in his essay On a supposed right out of human love to lie .

Trolley problem
"A runaway moving train will kill five people who happen to be on the track, unless the train is diverted to a side track where it will kill one person." A variation on this is:
A runaway train moving will kill five people who happen to be on the tracks, unless a fat man is thrown onto the track who stops the train but is killed in the process.

In the case of the torture problem, the following situation is constructed: If person A does not violate the deontological duty not to torture person B, then ten or one thousand or one million innocent people will die as a result of a nuclear strike.

Right to lie out of philanthropy

In the situation discussed between Kant and the French philosopher Benjamin Constant , a persecuted man hid from a murderer in a house. In search of the persecuted person, the murderer asks a resident of the house who saw the persecuted person go in, whether he actually ran into this house. Constant took the position that a general ban on lying could not apply in such a situation, but Kant insisted that the murderer had a right not to be lied to and that the resident would automatically be jointly responsible for the murderer's subsequent acts by lying (cf. Immanuel Kant: AA VIII, 423).

Moral absolutism

The strongest form of deontological theories leads to a moral absolutism that does not allow any cases in which an intrinsically bad act can nevertheless be the morally correct act due to the circumstances of the situation. Deontological prohibitions apply absolutely and regardless of the circumstances. In the torture example , a moral absolutist shouldn't torture person B, even if it could save a million innocent people.

Moral absolutism is, among other things, the result of a specific interpretation of Christian ethics . Within the Roman Catholic Church , for example, the absolute ban on killing is widespread today. Other Christian churches profess unconditional pacifism, such as the Mennonites .

Moderate deontology

In contrast to moral absolutism, in moderate deontology there is the possibility of carrying out an intrinsically bad action due to special circumstances and justifying it morally. The consequences play an important role here. If the expected consequences of an intrinsically bad act are exceptionally good, then the consequences can justify violating a deontological prohibition.

Since there has to be a point that defines how far an intrinsically bad action is prohibited, and from what level of good consequences the consequentialist assessment of the action outweighs, moderate deontological approaches are also called threshold deontology .


The introduction of limit values ​​in the evaluation of actions in moderate deontological theories poses various problems. Larry Alexander and Michael Moore identified the following problems in their contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on deontological theories:

  1. It is completely unclear how the limit value for a certain action assessment is determined. Assume that the limit to justify killing one person is rescuing 100 people. Why can't it be 50 or 150?
  2. If at the above limit there were only 99 rescues from killing, would it be morally correct to put another innocent person in danger so that the limit is reached?
  3. How should the limit value, assuming it has been reached, be justified?
  4. What is the difference between limit deontology and consequentialism?

Deontological paradox

A general criticism of deontological theories is the so-called paradox deontological prohibitions (Engl. Paradox of deontological constraint ). This paradox arises from the fact that deontological theories attribute the value of good or bad to actions regardless of their concrete consequences. However, it is conceivable that the execution of a prohibited act prevents the execution of several, likewise prohibited acts. Samuel Scheffler formulated the paradox of deontological prohibitions as follows:

“An agent-centered restriction is, roughly, a restriction which it is at least sometimes impermissible to violate in circumstances where a violation would serve to minimize total overall violations of the very same restriction. [...] For how can it be rational to forbid the performance of a morally objectionable action that would have the effect of minimizing the total number of comparably objectionable actions that were performed and would have no other morally relevant consequences? "

“A prohibition relating to the agent is, in general, a prohibition that is at least sometimes inadmissible to violate [also] in circumstances where a violation would minimize the total violations of the very same prohibition. [...] How can it be reasonable to prohibit the execution of a morally objectionable act that would result in minimizing the total number of executions of comparable objectionable acts and no other morally relevant consequences? "

- Samuel Scheffler : The Rejection of Consequentialism

It is not directly about the concrete consequences of the actions, which the moderate deontology does include, but about the responsibility for the intrinsically bad actions - an agent who does not take responsibility for the originally badly rated action must not be responsible because of his omission at least contribute to the subsequent acts?

An illustration of the deontological paradox formulated in this way is the problem of tyrannicide . While murder in the sense of violent homicide (at least outside of immediate self-defense) is generally rejected, there seem to be cases in which mass murder could be prevented by killing a tyrant who continually violates the rights of his subjects, or violent despots . Deontological ethics, however, must evaluate tyrannicide as morally wrong.

See also



  • Jeremy Bentham: Deontology, or the science of morality. In which the harmony and co-incidence of duty and self-interest, virtue and felicity, prudence and benevolence, are explained and exemplified. 2 volumes. Longman & Co. u. a., London a. a. 1834.
  • Alan Donagan: The Theory of Morality. University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL a. a. 1977, ISBN 0-226-15567-6
  • Thomas Nagel : The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, New York NY u. a. 1986, ISBN 0-19-505644-2 .
  • Frances Myrna Kamm: Morality, Mortality. Volume 2: Rights, Duties, and Status. Oxford University Press, Oxford u. a. 1996, ISBN 0-19-508459-4 .
  • Shelly Kagan : Normative Ethics. Westview Press, Boulder CO, et al. a. 1998, ISBN 0-8133-0846-1 .
  • Friedo Ricken : Basic Philosophy Course. Volume 4: General Ethics (= Urban Pocket Books 348). 4th revised and expanded edition. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-17-017948-9 .
  • Frances M. Kamm: Intricate Ethics. Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harms. Oxford University Press, Oxford u. a. 2007, ISBN 978-0-19-518969-8 .


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Thomas Schmidt: Deontological Ethics . In: Ralf Stoecker / Christian Neuhäuser / Marie-Luise Raters (eds.): Handbook of Applied Ethics . Verlag JB Metzler, Stuttgart, ISBN 978-3-476-02303-2 , p. 43-49 .
  2. Werner, Micha H .: Deontological approaches . In: Marcus Düwell / Christoph Hübenthal / Micha H. Werner (eds.): Handbook Ethics . JB Metzler, Stuttgart, ISBN 978-3-476-02388-9 , pp. 122-127 .
  3. C. D. Broad: Five Types of Ethical Theory , London 1930, p. 206 (English language online edition ).
  4. ^ William K. Frankena: Ethics , 2nd ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall 1973, p. 15.
  5. See Larry Alexander / Michael Moore: Deontological Ethics , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007 (English).
  6. Thomas Nagel: The limits of objectivity. Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 1991, p. 70 ff.
  7. ^ David McNaughton & Piers Rawling: On Defending Deontology. In: Ratio. Volume 11, No. 1, April 1998, p. 38 (English).
  8. ^ David McNaughton & Piers Rawling: On Defending Deontology. In: Ratio. Volume 11, No. 1, April 1998, p. 40 (English).
  9. Thomas Nagel: The limits of objectivity. Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 1991, p. 81.
  10. See Jörg Schroth: Research Project Deontological Ethics ( Memento of the original from December 30, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  11. ^ Richard Norman: Ethics, Killing and War. Cambridge 1995, p. 76 (English).
  12. See Philippa Foot: The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect. In: Virtues and Vices. Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1978.
  13. See: Judith Jarvis Thomson: Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem. In: The Monist. 59, 1976, 204-17.
  14. Immanuel Kant, Collected Writings. Ed .: Vol. 1-22 Prussian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 23 German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, from Vol. 24 Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Berlin 1900ff., AA VIII, 423 .
  15. ^ Richard Norman: Ethics, Killing and War , Cambridge 1995, p. 74 (English).
  16. See Larry Alexander / Michael Moore: Deontological Ethics , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007; Point 4 (English).
  17. Thomas Nagel: The limits of objectivity. Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 1991, pp. 83-87.
  18. Larry Alexander & Michael Moore: Deontological Ethics . In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2007, point 2.2.2 (English).
  19. ^ Samuel Scheffler: The Rejection of Consequentialism. Oxford University Press, New York 1982, pp. 133-134.