Ethical Orientations: Deontology

Americans are familiar with the unalienable rights espoused in The Declaration of Independence. Through this document, America’s founding fathers established the basic rights of all humanity.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The belief that all humans deserve respect because of their humanity is based on deontological thinking. Deontology respects the integrity of all humans and does not treat people as a means to an end. Rather, people are believed to be deserving of respect because of their humanity.

Deontology derives from the Greek word “deon,” meaning duty or obligation. This ethical orientation uses processes and rules to guide ethical decisions. These rules are considered absolute, meaning that the acts must be done regardless of the consequences. For example, notable deontologist Immanuel Kant proposed that truth must always be told, no matter the consequence. If someone must tell a lie in order to save a person’s life, Kant would categorize the lie as unethical because the lie violates the rule to always tell the truth. He believed that each person has a categorical imperative to tell the truth. Actions can be judged as ethical if they can be translated into an acceptable “universal law” that would apply to everyone faced with the same situation, creating an acceptable standard of human behavior.

Further, deontology believes that the intention of the action is as important as the action. If an individual performs an action that results in a good outcome, but does so with a negative intention, then the action is unethical. As a result, a good consequence does not guarantee that the action is ethical. In the opening example, the visit of the university football players resulted in a good outcome for the patients and hospital staff. However, if the action was performed with an intent to minimize negative press, a deontologist would consider the action unethical, despite its positive outcome.

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