Deontological (duty-based) ethics are concerned with what people do, not with the consequences of their actions.
- Do the right thing.
- Do it because it's the right thing to do.
- Don't do wrong things.
- Avoid them because they are wrong.
Under this form of ethics you can't justify an action by showing that it produced good consequences, which is why it's sometimes called 'non-Consequentialist'.
The word 'deontological' comes from the Greek word deon, which means 'duty'.
Duty-based ethics are usually what people are talking about when they refer to 'the principle of the thing'.
Duty-based ethics teaches that some acts are right or wrong because of the sorts of things they are, and people have a duty to act accordingly, regardless of the good or bad consequences that may be produced.
Some kinds of action are wrong or right in themselves, regardless of the consequences.
Deontologists live in a universe of moral rules, such as:
- It is wrong to kill innocent people
- It is wrong to steal
- It is wrong to tell lies
- It is right to keep promises
Someone who follows Duty-based ethics should do the right thing, even if that produces more harm (or less good) than doing the wrong thing:
People have a duty to do the right thing, even if it produces a bad result.
So, for example, the philosopher Kant thought that it would be wrong to tell a lie in order to save a friend from a murderer.
If we compare Deontologists with Consequentialists we can see that Consequentialists begin by considering what things are good, and identify 'right' actions as the ones that produce the maximum of those good things.
Deontologists appear to do it the other way around; they first consider what actions are 'right' and proceed from there. (Actually this is what they do in practice, but it isn't really the starting point of deontological thinking.)
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