The word deontology derives from the Greek words for duty (deon) and science (or study) of (logos). In contemporary moral philosophy, deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. This then means that deontology is guideline on what is morally acceptable.
This theory was introduced by Immanuel Kant in the late 18th Century. He was the first great philosopher to define the deontological principles.
Kant held that “nothing is good without qualification except a good will, and a good will is one that wills to act in accord with the moral law and out of respect for that law rather than out of natural inclinations.” He argued that the “highest good” must be both intrinsically good (good “in itself”), and good without qualification (when the addition of that thing never makes a situation ethically worse). He concluded that there is only one thing that is truly good: a good will chosen out of a feeling of moral duty.
Kant then introduced three formulations of his categorical imperative.
1. ‘Act only by that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it be a universal law’. In other words, this maxim means that before performing a certain act, one should ask themselves whether it is morally right.
2. ‘So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end in itself, never as a means only’. Other people should never be seen just as a means to an end
3. The ethos of medicine: who would deny that a doctor has duties? The GMC publication Good Medical Practice is a prime example of duty-based guidelines. It spells out my specific duties to behave only in certain sorts of ways to my patients.
From the above formulations, deontologists believe that a situation is good or bad depends on whether the action that brought it about was right or wrong . What makes a choice “right” is its conformity with a moral norm: Right takes priority over Good. For example, if someone proposed to kill everyone currently living on land that could not support agriculture in order to bring about a world without starvation, a Deontologist would argue that this world without starvation was a bad state of affairs because of the way in which it was brought about.
Criticisms of Deontology
Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002) points out that Deontology forbids some acts that maximize welfare. The example usually used is that of a trolley hurtling towards five innocent and immobile people at the end of a track, where to save the five is to throw one innocent.
Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham have also criticized Deontology. He argues that deontology is under the notion of popular morality. He also emphasis that deontology principles are attributed from natural law that are subjective. In line with Bentham’s argument, I would also like to say that morality is subjective. It is difficult to calculate what is morally acceptable.
John Stuart Mill, another 19th Century Utilitarian, argued that deontologists usually fail to specify which principles should take priority when rights and duties conflict. The Deontologists cannot therefore, offer complete moral guidance.