Deontological Ethical Theory Explained


The deontological ethical theory is the idea that a person’s ethical position will judge the morality of a decision or an action. It is a rules-based proposition and can be described as an “obligation.” Individuals are bound to certain duties because of the rules, but the rules must follow a form of acceptable ethics in order to be followed.

Each person has certain deontic relationships that carry authority over them in some way. For some, it may be a teacher/student relationship. Others may have an employer/employee relationship. In families, the parent/child relationship could sometimes be described in this way as well.

When there is a deontic authority present, then an obligation forms within the relationship of all parties. There is a duty to provide reliable knowledge and there is an obligation to accept that knowledge and then act upon it.

Can People Be Forced to Act Upon Knowledge They Reject Ethically?

If you’ve ever watched a TV show or movie that involved military conflict, then you’ve likely seen the crisis of conscience a character has regarding a decision they must make. They’ve been given an order to follow that they fundamentally disagree with on an ethical level. Because of this disagreement, they’ve objected to the order. The commanding officer demands compliance.

Under deontic authority, there is this belief that in an employer/employee relationship, which would be the relationship of a commanding officer and a direct report would have, the employee is obliged to accept and obey the rules no matter what. Regardless of the reliability of policies or procedures or the questionable ethics of an order, the employee must follow orders and complete tasks, despite the fact that it goes against their personal ethics.

This is incorrect. People cannot be forced to act upon knowledge that they reject on an ethical level. They can reject the deontological ethical theory and chart their own course, choosing to sever the relationship in question rather than follow an order or idea that seems inappropriate.

Is There a Greater Good Which Changes Our Ethics?

Under the contemporary deontological ethical theory, there is this idea of the “greater good.” It is succinctly stated by Spock on Star Trek many times: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” This is a reflection of the Principle of Permissible Harm.

Every action, idea, or order creates a deontological constraint that must be analyzed by the individual who is faced with a choice. They can agree with the ethics of the decision and follow along. They can also disagree with the ethics of the decision and choose to follow along anyway… or refuse to follow.

In the Principle of Permissible Harm, it becomes necessary to harm other people in order to save more. The harm must be an effect of the greater good for it to be considered permissible. We have moral differences that keep us from killing people to harvest their organs to save the thousands that are on organ transplant wait lists. This means an individual must justify their actions to follow along with questionable ethics in a deontic relationship. This justification then often has spiritual consequences for the individual.

Commands from God: The Ultimate Deontic Relationship

In today’s world, people are claiming that God has told them to commit various acts – and they are often not “positive” acts. Shouting about the greatness of God while discriminating against other people seems right to those who believe that God has decreed their actions to be right. Moral obligations arise from the perception of God’s commands, but there must also be a purpose behind their actions.

The actions must be reflective of the “commands” being experienced. So if God calls on a person to pray every day, but the individual is praying because they want to win the lottery and nothing more, then the choice would be considered immoral instead of moral. The purpose isn’t to pray, but to have God give them a ton of cash.

For many people, Godly commands tend to dictate how they live their lives. People define their morality from their holy books, even if they have never really read them. This means their morality is often dictated by the human interpretation of those books from others instead of that individual’s personal perspective.

So what may seem like a command from God is really just another human deontic relationship in disguise.

This is why recognizing these relationships is important to each individual. There is always a choice to follow personal morality standards. Sometimes that means walking away from a job or defying an order. There may be a greater good, but the deontological ethical theory doesn’t say who gets to define what a “greater good” happens to be. That means it is up to each person and their own interpretation of morality to draw a line between right and wrong.