Deontology is a form of moral philosophy centered around the principles of eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Its name comes from the Greek words deon and logos, meaning the study of duty. This school of ethics is based on the notion that people have the duty to always obey moral rules, regardless of any positive outcomes that can come from breaking them.
The basis of deontology is to assess a person’s character by how well he or she follows moral rules, even if by doing so, tragic results occur. It is in direct contrast to consequentialism, a form of ethics that determines the morality of actions by the results they produce. Consequentialism favors the Good over the Right, while deontology always advocates the Right over the Good.
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The deontological model of ethics determines the correctness of a moral action by determining if it follows moral norms. There is no subjectivity and a moral rule is always be obeyed without any thought. For instance, Kant gave the example that it is wrong to lie even if it could save a person’s life.
The agent-centered theory of deontology states that people’s moral choices are determined by personal obligation and permission. For instance, a parent is obligated to treat his or her child as more important than other people; however, other adults have no obligation to treat that parent’s child any differently than anyone else. Since people can have personal obligations that are different from other people’s, they also have permission to protect their obligations at the expense of others. In this theory, a parent has permission to save his or her own child even if it means causing negative or tragic consequences for other people’s children. Critics of this theory believe it promotes narcissistic behaviors because its purpose is to keep personal agendas in check at the expense of others.
The patient-centered theory centers around the rights of individuals rather than personal duty. It states that individuals have the right to not be used for moral good against their wills. For instance, a murderer cannot be killed without his or her permission even if it would save several lives.
In the threshold theory of deontology, certain exceptions can be made to prevent moral catastrophe. A threshold can be established in which a moral can be theoretically disobeyed. For instance, a person can be tortured if it would prevent the mass killing of thousands. The theory is intended to prevent fanaticism; however, critics believe there is no set threshold that is stated in the theory. which could cause disagreement as to what constitutes a moral catastrophe.
Promoters of deontology philosophy believe it is beneficial to individuals because it gives them special permission to put the well-being of family and friends above others. They also consider it to be more flexible than consequentialism, which can advocate a person sacrificing family if it would result in a positive result for the masses. Critics state that deontological ethics can cause people to be immoral and lack compassion and that the philosophy is irrational.