Deontology and Kant

Meaning of deontology

The term deontology finds its etymology in the Greek word “Deon”, meaning ‘duty,’ ‘obligation,’ or ‘that which is necessary, hence moral necessity’.

As per the deontological approach: 

It rejects that the moral worth of any action depends on its consequences moral agents have to rigorously fulfil their moral duties or obligations unmindful of the consequences. The moral worth of an action does not depend on its consequences, but that a different criterion should be used.

Moral agents have to honour human rights and meet moral obligations even at the cost of an optimal outcome.

Historically, the most influential deontological theory of morality was developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).


How to know the truth

Immanuel Kant talked about the importance of both empiricism and rationality. Both sensory experience (favoured by utilitarians) and reasoning (favoured by virtue ethics and social contractarianism) are needed for gaining knowledge.

Sensory experience is the first stage which helps in obtaining data.

Rationality is the second stage of knowing the duty which includes understanding which helps in putting data in different concepts and categories.

Both of these ways can lead to the revaluation of present duty/morality/truth/knowledge and to create new duty/morality/knowledge/truth

His idea about the world:

 Now, as he said that rationality is core to finding and creating the moral truth. Then a new question was raised about where this rule of rationality can be applied, for this purpose, he divided the world into two categories:

  1. : Transcendental world is the one that is beyond the human realm.
  1. : Empirical world is the one in which we live and

He argued that reasoning is only applicable to the empirical world and application of reason to the transcendental world will cause an error.

As rationality applies only in the empirical world and this world works through morality/rationality. It gave rise to new two questions:

Kantian ethics is based on two questions

i. Why be moral?

ii. What is the basis of morality?

Why be moral?

For Kant, a human is a social and rational being. Every society has some set of minimum basic rules for its well-functioning. This set of rules defines the morality of its participants. Hence it is the moral and legal duty of everyone to follow these rules. It means not following these rules will lead to immorality and irrationality.

Basis of morality

Now the question raised is whether should one follow all social rules.

Answering this question he said no, one is not obliged to follow all the rules rather one is obliged to follow only those rules which are an absolute unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. He called such rules categorical imperative.

Categorical Imperative of Kant

Kant holds that the moral life does not have any place for feeling, emotion or sentience. For him, a moral life is a rational life. He started by asking what it is that distinguishes a moral action from a non-moral action.He concluded that a moral action is done from a sense of duty. Kant grants purity to only one feeling and that is faith in the moral law. The moral law is unconditional or absolute for all agents, the validity or claim of which does not depend on any ulterior motive or end.

For Kant, the only thing that is unqualifiedly good in this world is goodwill, the will to follow the moral law regardless of profit or law to ourselves. (goodwill is free will accompanied by reason).

For him, there is only one such categorical imperative, which he formulated in various ways. “Act only according to that maxim (rule) by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. It implies that what is right for one person becomes right for all and what is wrong for one is wrong for all. If you cannot universalise your action to make it right for all, then it is wrong for you too.

How to achieve categorical imperative

There are four principles with the help of which we can achieve this categorical imperative

Principle of duty: Do the things considering them as your duty by following your conscience.

Principle of equality. Any law/moral rule should apply to all equally this can be achieved by following the Veil of ignorance.

Principle of humanity: Considering humans as an end in itself rational thinking can help in achieving this principle.

Principle of universality: Act in such a way that your action can become a universal action.

Moral absolutism

His idea of universal action will result in a uniform standard of conduct.

The action should be an end, so he denies the binary of means and end. Action as an end will promote dutiful activity rather than justification of action based on standards of lots. This uncompromising dutiful behaviour is called moral absolutism.

Application of Kantian theory

At the individual level

  • It will promote rational thinking and duty-fulness.
  • If an individual follows his moral command, it will promote moral autonomy, which may infuse leadership quality.

At the administrative level

  • Universal action is needed to protect secularism and neutrality.
  • Governance based on the proper rational rules will create trust among the subjects.

Criticism of deontology

The concept of moral absolutism may not be suitable in a particular situation because morality changes from society to society.

His preference for moral duty over ends is criticised because human life has some purpose/end then. How one’s action can be devoid of limitation.


Nevertheless, Kantian philosophy is relevant for promoting the quality of human conduct, selfless conduct, and acting ethically without influencing by end/consequences.

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