5: Deontology


Key Terms

Hypothetical Imperatives
Categorical Imperatives
Autonomous Lawmaker


  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as state of nature, the prisoner’s dilemma, implicit and explicit agreements, social contract, categorical imperative, hypothetical imperative, maxim, and autonomous lawmaker
  • Demonstrate knowledge of major arguments for and problems with social contract theory and deontology
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.

I. What is Absolutism?

  • Two approaches: relativism and absolutism
  • Divine Command Theory - absolutism
  • Social Contract Theory - relativism
  • Shared moral values
    • Protect children
    • Do not lie
    • Do not harm others without appropriate cause

Kant Biography

II. Kantian Duty

Kant's Categorical Imperative

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law

  • An ethical theory should be rooted in consistency and fairness, making it universal
  • Deon - Gr. duty/obligations
  • Immanuel Kant, 18th century
  • Moral rules should always be followed because of reason

III. Categorical Imperative

Kant's Categorical Imperative

  • Imperative
    • Something you ought to do
  • Hypothetical "oughts"
    • You ought to do this, to get that.
    • Hypothetical because you may not want that, in which case you don’t have to do this.
    • Goal oriented conduct
  • Categorical "oughts"
    • You ought to do this. Period.
    • Morality - an absolute rule, regardless of desire
  • Justifying Categorical “oughts"
    • Categorical oughts are justified by reason, not desire
    • Every rational person must accept the Categorical Imperative
    • Consider the maxim (universal rule) that should be followed
    • The person who follows the Categorical Imperative is the Autonomous Lawmaker, the ideal citizen

IV. Advantages of Deontology

Kantian Deontology

  • Most lay people enact a form of deontology naturally
  • Following maxims is both moral and rational
  • Personal equality - one person isn’t special from a moral point of view
  • Reliance on reason

V. Criticisms of Deontology

The Invention of Lying

  • Determining moral laws in a way that will not generate exception
  • Conflicting moral laws
    • The Case of the Inquiring Murderer
      • From “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives” - Kant
    • You have 3 options.
      • You tell the truth. (“My friend has gone home.”)
      • You say nothing, in which case, the murder will still go to the friend’s house.
      • You lie. (“My friend went in the opposite direction.”)
    • Strategy
      • I lie
        • My friend escapes +
          • But I committed a moral wrong –
        • My friend is killed –
          • And I committed a moral wrong –
      • I tell the truth
        • My friend escapes +
          • And I committed no wrong +
        • My friend is killed –
          • And I committed no wrong because the wrongdoing was committed by the murderer, not me +
      • Consequences are uncertain
      • Better to stick with a known good (that may have a negative effect) than take a chance on a possible good (requiring a negative cause)
  • Pessimistic view of foreseeing consequences
  • Presumes doing duty absolves us of consequences that result from our action or inaction
  • Maxims can be taken to extremes
  • Common sense lies (little white lies)