In the Preamble to the Declaration of Human Rights it says, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” After the World Wars, the United Nations wrote this first line with the intent of preventing the sort of horrors that were endured during the global wars. But where did the idea of rights originate? What is their philosophical grounding?

One answer that is commonly given is the ideas proffered by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is probably the most famous western deontological ethicist. Deontological ethics, broadly, is concerned with what duties an individual has to other people in his community, and the world. You may be familiar with the ten commandments, one of which is “do not murder.” This is a deontological prescription, for it issues a duty of prohibition on the unjust killing of another.

Immanuel Kant had a developed and nuanced view of what our duties are and how they work, but given its complexity, I won’t go through it here, as it isn’t necessary for the purposes of this class. What we can say for now, however, is that Kant seemed to take four essential claims to be true: 

  1. That people are ends in themselves
  2. That no persons should be treated as a mere means to some end
  3. That we have duties not to treat people as a mere means to an end
  4. That our intentions motivated by duties are what matter, morally, and not consequences


Let’s start by unpacking the first claim. A person is an entity with rational standing, it is the sort of thing that is reasons-responsive. A dog cannot respond to reasons. You can’t talk with the dog and give it reasons to urinate outside instead of on the carpet. It’s not like you can say, “alright, dog, urinating inside is really annoying, so please do it outside,” and he replies, “I agree, your annoyance is a good reason to urinate outside. I’ll do that starting today.” All you can do is train the dog to urinate outside — perhaps with a kind of pavlovian conditioning — but you can’t reason with it.

Human beings are reasons-responsive creatures. We can be talked with and listened to, and we can weigh one reason to do things over another. If you’re deliberating about how to spend your money with your spouse, you can choose the house-repairs over a new car by arguing that the former is more prudent than the latter. “Honey,” you might say, “we need the house repairs more because the house is falling apart,” and she may nod her head in affirmation of you reason. In this way, you two have weighed reasons and come to an agreement.

An end is distinguished from a mere means as the former is something that has value in itself while the latter has value as a way of obtaining an end. So, for example, you might think that pleasure is an end, that we seek to obtain it just to have it; it has value for its own sake. Assuming this is true, now suppose the flavor of an apple brings you pleasure, but in order to pick one off of a tree you need a ladder. The ladder, here, would be a means to obtain the end — a way of getting to eat the apple and experiencing its flavor. The ladder, the tool, doesn’t have value for its own sake, it only has value insofar as it helps you get that tasty apple. The pleasure from the apple is an end, the ladder is a means.

Kant held that people are ends in themselves. They have value for their own sake which doesn’t depend on anything else. In this way, people are not means or tools to be used for some other purpose. Since we have value for our own sake, we human beings have dignity.


It is for this reason that Kant holds (2), that persons should never be treated as a mere means to some end. If you were to use someone, it would be to violate the dignity of persons that we all would agree is important, treating them in a way contrary to their nature. Here’s a case of using people as a mere means to illustrate, often called the organ transplantation case:

Suppose that you go to the doctor for a routine check-up. He takes a look at you and determines that you are quite healthy. But the doctor also notes to himself that he has five patients in the rooms next door, and each one desperately needs a different organ. One a lung, one a heart, one a kidney, etc. So he decides to harvest your organs in order to save these five people, without your consent. In such a case, he has used you as a means to the end of saving the five people. 

Would you consider this permissible? If so, you might be a die-hard utilitarian.


This leads us to (3) — that we have a duty not to treat people as a means to some end. It may be tempting to use people as tools for our own benefit. If I just steal from one person who has a million dollars I will be much better off. But, of course, such an action would be to use that person as a means to my end, whatever it may be. Since Kant holds that we should never treat someone as a mere means, it would follow, for Kant, that this is a duty — an absolute prohibition.

That we are persons, that we have dignity as ends in ourselves, and so we have a duty to not treat people as means is what grounds our contemporary notion of human rights. They are protections for the individual against the state and others, ensuring it does not use its citizens as mere means, as was witnessed in the world wars.


The final point for Kant is that when it comes to evaluating whether someone has done something good, it is their intention that matters, not the consequences. If you were motivated by duty, for Kant, then your action was good. As he says, your action “shines like a jewel.”

Here’s an illustration: Suppose that you really thought that not taking someone’s apple is a duty that you have, so you don’t do it. But unbeknownst to you, that person is allergic to apples and doesn’t know it, and had you taken the apple, you would have saved his life. For Kant, that you intended and were motivated to act from duty, even though the consequences were bad, made your action good; it had inherent moral worth.

We tend to think this way in many ordinary contexts when we say things like, “his heart was in the right place,” or “he meant well.” This expresses our tacit agreement with Kant that sometimes, at least, the consequences are less important than someone’s intentions.

It is important to note, however, that Kant draws a distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty. To act from duty is to be motivated by duty, but to act in accordance with duty would be to do your duties by coincidence, so to speak.

Suppose Jim and John both are confronted with the option to steal from Jeff. Jim decides not to because it would violate the dignity of Jeff — it would treat him as a mere means. But John doesn’t steal from Jeff simply because he’s lazy — stealing from Jeff would just take too much work. Both Jim and John didn’t steal, but while Jim acted from duty, Jeff only acted in accordance with it.

It is in this way that deontology is in complete opposition to utilitarianism and consequentialism, which hold that the right thing to do is determined by the outcome of one’s actions, not an individual’s intentions. The latter are irrelevant for the consequentialist, but paramount for the deontologist. It is only when an agent is motivated by duty that his actions have moral worth.

Follow-up questions:

(1) What makes an action right or wrong, for the deontologist?

(2) What is the moral target of concern?

(3) What is the good that we seek to obtain?

(see below for answers)

Kant’s work:


(1) When the action is motivated by duty or not

(2) An individual’s intentions (or motivation)

(3) The Good Will (“it shines like a jewel”)

One thought on “Deontology

  1. A very informative essay.
    To extend it. We are officially deontologists. This is a play on words. Think about our daily lives. Almost every moment of it is regulated by a myriad of laws, national, state and municipal. As you drive to work in the morning your progress is regulated by a number of laws and this is true for the most part of our day, whether it be at home, at work or travelling. And to make it worse we have legislatures whose main job seems to be to promulgate ever more laws. It is as if our live are increasingly becoming ‘cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in'(Macbeth) by more and more laws.

    And it is our duty, as law abiding citizens, to obey these laws. This is deontology, writ large.

    The public spaces of our lives are regulated by deontology which is why I say we are officially deontologists. From conversations with many people, especially young people it has become apparent to me that the private spaces of our lives are regulated mainly by a very simple form of consequentialism.

    Now we should act out of duty when observing public laws but, as observation shows, people observe laws out of fear of consequences. Thus we are motivated in the main, both in our public lives, and our private lives, by consequentialism.

    That is a sad state of affairs. Virtue ethics has become a footnote in moral history.

    By the way, virtue ethics is central to Catholic moral theology, not deontology.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s