The name “deontological” ethics comes from Greek “to deon” = “that which must be done”. So it is about actions that must be performed (or must not be performed) because the actions themselves are intrinsically good or bad. This is in opposition to consequentialism, which judges actions according to whether their consequences are good.
So, for example, stealing might be always bad for a deontologist, because there is something inherent in the act of stealing that makes it (always) bad. For the consequentialist, stealing might sometimes be good and sometimes bad. For example, stealing a terrorist’s bomb before he can use it, would be considered a “good” kind of stealing, because the consequences of the terrorist not having his bomb are good (no people killed, no damage caused).
Deontological ethics has a few problems. For one, it doesn’t seem right to assume that some actions (like lying or stealing) are always morally bad. We can easily imagine situations, in which a “white lie” seems to be perfectly right. Even killing someone might sometimes seem right (for example, killing Hitler before the beginning of the Second World War might be argued to have been morally permissible, considering the damage done and the deaths caused by the war).
Second, rooting moral commands in rationality (which is the same for all humans) seems to make any sort of allowance for cultural differences impossible. We would like to think that other societies should be permitted to have their own moral values and that these differences should be respected. But a deontological framework makes it very hard to integrate other moral systems, since what is rational at one place should be rational everywhere.
Generally, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is considered the most prominent deontological ethics proponent. For him, some actions are rational (and therefore good), while others are not rational (and these happen to be the morally bad ones). Morality, therefore, for Kant, is based on the rationality of actions, and this rationality is a property of the action itself, not of its consequences. Therefore, Kant would say that stealing, for example, must always be bad, no matter what consequences a particular act of stealing brings about. Click here for a more detailed but still very short introduction to Kant’s ethics.
Kant's Ethics in 5 Minutes
Kant’s ethical system is based on the value of one’s motivation rather than on the outcomes or consequences of our actions. Besides a praiseworthy motivation, a morally right action must also conform to a number of rules, which Kant calls forms of the “Categorical Imperative”: to only perform actions that can be equally performed by all and to treat all human beings as ends.
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