The word “deontology” is derived from the Greek word “deon” meaning “duty”. Deontological theories, therefore, argue that there are some moral duties, which we absolutely have to obey and there are some actions that we must never perform. Deontologists believe that we have to act according to our duty and that a person's behaviour can be wrong even if it brings about a good outcome. Deontologists also argue that one is not required to take every opportunity to promote the general good and that sometimes promoting the general good is bad if it violates the dignity of another person. A deontologist would argue that it would be wrong to have let a plane headed towards the Twin Towers on September the 11th 2001 purposely crash into land even though by doing so it would have saved thousands of lives of the people working in one of those towers. It is obvious from outlining the deontological theory that deontological theories involve respect for the autonomy or self-governing of human beings. Deontologists would argue that in so far as I am autonomous, I should be free to define my own projects to some degree rather than having to do what is required for the promotion of the general good and therefore, in virtue of the autonomy of others, I am not free to treat them as means to an end, even if my purpose is to promote the general good. Deontologists argue that one can exercise a greater degree of autonomy if one has the moral space to do so. From the importance of autonomy, deontologists have deduced, as mentioned previously, that there are some absolute prohibitions, for example, the murdering of the innocent because that action involves subjecting another human being to your will.
The concept of duty can be quite confusing. Duties can be concerned with individual acts or with rules and an individual act cannot necessarily become a rule. Duties can also conflict with each other, such as the duty not to steal and the duty to care for your family. If you are poor, your family is starving and you know that the only option in order to give them some food is to steal, your two duties collide head on. To overcome this, you could argue that your duty to care for your family does not extend to actually stealing for them
Immanuel Kant's deontological theory is probably the most well known and influential. Kant distinguished moral oughts from non-moral oughts and argued that moral oughts have a distinctive character because they are categorical and provide us with a reason for an action no matter what our desires or our wants may be, hence they can not be set aside. From this, Kant created the categorical imperative which is an unconditional ought to promote human reason and freedom. He argued that moral oughts apply no matter what the circumstances are and that they are bound up in reason, not in cause and effect.
Kant also created the hypothetical imperative; a non-moral ought, which will not be binding on someone unless certain conditions are met, for example, watching a film. Non-moral oughts only apply if you have relevant desires or wants, hence they can be cancelled and they have to do with an “if clause”. For example, if you are interested in cricket, you will go and see your cricket team play. There is a condition implied, such as liking cricket, and you are subject to an ought. Whereas, a moral ought, such as saving the life of a child, is binding, even if your desires or your wants do not extend, you cannot ignore it and it is not related to our psychological state.
Kant had a “dual-aspect” conception of human beings, arguing that we are embodied creatures and we are subject to motivations by desire. We are also motivated morally which Kant thinks is grounded in reason. Therefore, he believed we have two drives in life, which are inclinations and moral motivation and the two sources of motivation come from desire and reason. He spoke about our noumenal self that is the fundamental self not caught up in the realm of instinct because we can recognise and be motivated by duty.
Kant asks how reason alone can tell us what to do. Again he answered this by stating that the categorical imperative is the requirement to do your duty and it can be described in two ways. Firstly, the maxim is the generalization of your intention. He said, “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” For example, if someone on a bus will not pay the fine, someone else may ask, “what would happen if everybody did that?” This means that you should act only in a way that you would be content if someone else did the same. Secondly, he said “So act a to treat humanity…in every case as an end and never as a means only.” This means that you must never use people to get what you desire because to use someone is to bend them to your purpose regardless of their own purpose.
Kant concluded that humans are worthy of respect because we have dignity in rationality and a capacity for autonomous action.
W.D Ross was writing in the 1930s and argued that duty is the key for understanding moral life, but he departs from Kant because he does not agree that various duties, such as keeping a promise, are absolutely binding. He believes that all duties can be over ridden by another duty if the context is right.
Some criticisms of the deontological approach are that it “tells us nothing about the content of moral obligation…it is not much help if we are trying to work out how we ought to live our lives.” Another criticism is that Kant's ideas are very rigid and strict, they do not allow for much leniency because of Kant's ideas about the moral oughts and keeping promises. This could mean that sometimes we will not do things that give good outcomes in order to keep a promise or not tell a lie. Others argue that Kant is overly optimistic about human nature and believing that we will always perform our duties to society.