Ethics: Deontology- Kant Philosophy

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : November 3rd, 2020

Deontological Ethics is one of the normative theories which is part of UPSC IAS Mains GS Paper-IV (Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude) syllabus.

Deontological Ethics

  • The Greek word deon, meaning ‘duty. Deontology means Study of Duty. Hence it is called duty-based ethics.
  • Deontology is one of the models of normative theories regarding ‘which choices/ actions/ means are morally required or forbidden or permitted.’
  • It falls within the domain of moral theories “that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do” contrary to “those that guide and assess what kind of person we are and should be” (aretaic / virtue theories).
  • Deontological theories base morality on certain duties, or obligations, and claim that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong, that is, right or wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences that may follow from those actions.
  • One of the most important implications of deontology is that a person's behaviour can be wrong even if it results in a positive outcome, and an act can be virtuous even if it results in a negative outcome


Immanuel Kant

  • Kant is the most prominent Deontological ethicist.
  • He believed that ethical actions follow universal moral laws, such as “Don’t lie.  Don’t steal.  Don’t cheat” regardless of consequences.
  • He argues means are important than ends. An action is justified, if it follows moral law, not by its results, unlike Consequential theories, which justifies an action that produces greater good or pleasure (end).
  • It says a choice or an action right if it is in conformity with a moral norm. Thus, an agent has a duty to act in accordance with a moral norm, irrespective of the (potentially beneficial) effects of the action.
  • He believes human inclinations, emotions and consequences should play no role in moral action; therefore, the motivation behind an action must be based on obligation and well thought out before the action takes place.
  • Hence moral actions are based on a sense of duty, not on self-interest or greatest utility. It doesn’t need weighing the costs and benefits of a situation or an action. 

Kant Theory

  • Terminology associated with the theory:
    • Moral agent: An agent is one who performs an action; a moral agent is one with the capacity to act morally.
    • Maxim: rule or principle
    • Will: the faculty of deciding, choosing, or acting
  • He believed that all people are fundamentally rational beings. He says morality was derived from rationality.
  • Categorical imperative: According to Kant, the moral worth of an action is determined by the human will, which is the only thing in the world that can be considered good without qualification. Goodwill is exercised by acting according to moral duty/law.
  • Moral law consists of a set of maxims, which are categorical in nature – we are bound by duty to act in accordance with categorical imperatives, which is an absolutely universal, non-negotiable moral law which holds up regardless of context.
  • In simple terms, it states that you should act only in such a way that you would want your actions to become a universal law, applicable to everyone in a similar situation. Gandhi’s principles of tolerance and nonviolence are also some examples.

Indian Duty-based Philosophy

  • Krishna Philosophy: In Bhagavad Geeta, Lord Sri Krishna says to Arjuna “duty or action is important rather than the result or consequences.”
  • Law of Karma: Karma, i.e. actions/thoughts. Emphasis is on actions, not results.
  • Gandhian Philosophy: Gandhi chose nonviolence as the right choice/means to achieve independence even though the British rule and presence are unethical.


  • Universal: The duty ethics are universal and hence can be applied to all the people in all the situations.
  • Reason: Deontological theories have the potential for explaining why certain people have moral standing to complain about and hold to account those who breach moral duties. For example, a whistleblower, who exposes corruption in his organisation.
  • Certainty: In contrast to the Teleological ethics/consequential approach, which suffers from uncertainty due to unpredictability of consequences, Duty based ethics is concerned with actions rather than consequences of actions. Hence when a person is faced with any ethical choice, the duty-based theory provides him with a clear set of moral rules to follow and make a decision with reasonable certainty.
  • Duty-bound administration: This theory inspires public officers to be duty-bound.


  • If a rule-bound officer strictly applies rules, he may have to exclude a poor man from accessing government benefits.
  • As per this theory, there is no place for human inclinations, emotions and consequences. In some situations, emotional intelligence (empathy) is required to bring harmony or achieve a greater good.
  • It may produce consequences that can be unacceptable to most. For example, you should not lie, even if it (the lie) saves the lives of millions of people.
  • Some argue Deontology missed the critical thing of ethical decision making by ignoring the consequences of actions.

One possible way of resolving this problem can be through an idea called threshold deontology, which says we should always obey the rules unless in an emergency situation, at which point we should revert to a consequentialist approach.

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