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Deontology: An Explainer

The word ‘deontology’ comes from the Greek words ‘deon’ meaning duty, and ‘logos’ meaning science. So, it is best described as the study of duty or moral obligation. 

By definition, deontology is a prescriptive ethical theory that focuses on the inherent rightness or wrongness of actions rather than the consequences of said actions. This means that the morality of the action itself is more significant than its outcome.

Key Ideas of Immanuel Kant 

Kant's deontological ethics revolves around the idea of duty and rationality. Actions are judged based on their conformity to moral rules rather than their outcomes.

Here are some of his key ideas: 

  • Universalizability: Kant proposes that moral principles should be capable of being applied universally, without exception. In other words, an action is morally acceptable if it can be willed as a universal law. In his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he wrote, “So act that your principle of action might safely be made a law for the whole world.”

  • Categorical Imperative: His central idea in deontology is the concept of the categorical imperative, which suggests that moral actions are those that are done out of duty and are universally applicable.

  • Duty and Obligation: Moral decisions should be guided by a sense of duty and obligation rather than by consequences or personal inclinations. In his book Critique of Practical Reason, Kant wrote: "It is not enough to do one's duty; one must do it as well.” 

  • Autonomy and Rationality: Kant emphasizes the autonomy and rationality of moral agents, arguing that individuals have the capacity to determine moral principles through reason alone.

  • Emphasis on Intentions: Kant argues that the moral worth of an action is determined by the intention behind it rather than the outcome or consequences. In his work Metaphysics of Morals, he wrote: "In law, a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics, he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.”

  • Respect for Persons: He emphasizes the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, suggesting that moral principles should always respect the autonomy and humanity of others.

Key Ideas of David Ross

William David Ross, a prominent philosopher, outlined his key ideas on deontology in his book "The Right and the Good"

  • Prima Facie Duties: Ross proposed that individuals have several fundamental moral obligations, termed prima facie duties, which guide ethical decision-making. These duties include fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and non-maleficence.

  • Pluralistic Approach: Unlike strict absolutism, Ross's theory allows for conflicts between prima facie duties. In such cases, individuals must carefully weigh and prioritize their obligations based on the context and specifics of the situation. He wrote, "The fact that a duty is prima facie does not mean that it is never overridden; it means only that it cannot be overridden except by a more stringent duty.”

  • Moral Intuition: Ross argued that moral principles are not derived from a single source but are instead intuited through reflection and experience. When faced with conflicting duties, one must use practical reasoning to determine which duty is stronger in a particular situation.

  • Rejecting Moral Resolution: Ross acknowledged that moral conflicts are inevitable and suggested that resolving them requires careful consideration of the context and consequences.

  • Flexibility and Realism: He recognized the limitations of moral theories, and his approach offers a flexible framework that acknowledges the complexity of moral decision-making.


Let’s look at the film ‘Lagaan’, where the protagonist ‘Bhuvan’, played by Aamir Khan, leads a group of villagers in colonial India who are burdened by high taxes imposed by British officials. When faced with the challenge of alleviating the tax burden, Bhuvan decides to challenge the British to a game of cricket, with the wager being that if the villagers win, they will be exempt from paying taxes for three years.

Throughout the film, Bhuvan and his team adhere strictly to their principles of fairness and honesty, refusing to resort to any unethical tactics or cheating despite the harsh consequences of losing. This exemplifies deontological ethics, as they uphold their commitment to integrity by following moral principles, regardless of the extremely high benefits of compromising those principles. 

Their actions are guided by a sense of duty rather than solely by the outcome or consequences of their choices.


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