Understanding ethical systems: Deontology

February 9, 2021

In the final three articles in this series, we’ll compare and contrast the most dominant ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the standard of biblical ethics. In the first article we defined biblical ethics as the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and considering moral events in terms of conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why). As we’ll see, the problem with each of these other approaches is not that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are incomplete. 

A concise, though admittedly simplistic formulation, would be that deontology is concerned with the “what,” virtue ethics with the “who,” and consequentialism with the “why.” Because all three of these elements—the what, who, and why—are essential to biblical ethics, we can learn from each of these ethical systems. But while they have much to offer, we should always keep in mind that on their own they are incomplete.

What is deontology?

Deontology is derived from the Greek word deon, meaning that which is binding, right, or proper. This system focuses primarily on right conduct or duty—“what we should do.” Deontology is thus a theoretical approach to ethical questions in which moral obligation is seen as arising from certain unvarying rules and principles, which are universal, and that people have an obligation or duty to follow irrespective of consequences. Such rules and principles are unchanging and deserving of our obedience because the moral status of actions is rooted in something that can (and should be) universally acknowledged, such as reason or the commands of a divine being.

Deontologists recognize that what is “right” and what is “good” are not always the same thing, and that priority must be given to that which is right. To use one of the most infamous examples, some deontologists believe that lying is wrong no matter what the circumstances—even to protect innocent life. If during World War II Germany you are hiding a family of Jews in your basement and are asked about it by the Nazis, you are morally obligated to do what is right (i.e., tell the truth) even if that conflicts with the good (e.g., protecting the lives of innocent people).

Such a conflict arises because most deontologists include two important classes of duties, the adherence of which takes priority over consequences. The first class are duties that we owe to all people, such as to not cheat, torture, murder, or lie (even to Nazis). The second class are duties that arise from natural or chosen obligations, such as the duties of parents to children (and vice versa), debtors to creditors, workers to employers, etc. This last category is sometimes referred to as agent-relative duties because we have some duties that are not shared by all people. You have duties to your own particular children that fall on you because they are your children and that would not apply to persons outside your family. 

What is divine-command theory?

Divine Command Theory is the view that what makes a moral action right or wrong is dependent upon God, and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands. Divine Command Theory includes the claim that morality is ultimately based on the commands or character of God, and that the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires.

Because obeying divine commands are essential to biblical ethics, and because divine command theory is often associated with deontology, some Christians believe that deontology must be the preferred ethical system for Christians. The problem with this claim is that while divine commands are indeed necessary for a truly biblical ethics, divine commands are not merely another form of deontology. There can also be divine command consequentialism (e.g., a command by God to act in a way that results in a particular outcome (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:1-6))  and divine command virtue ethics (a command by God to become a certain type of person, (e.g., Matthew 5:48)). Indeed, the divine commands found in Scripture are applied at various times to conduct, character, and goals.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of deontology?

The primary appeal of deontology, as philosophers David McNaughton and Piers Rawling note, is “that it seems to capture the essential outlines of our everyday moral thinking.” A theory of ethics should indeed help us determine moral conduct, and deontology provides a compelling claim that what we should do is what is right. Knowing that our actions are morally correct as long as we are following a specific duty—which for Christians is the duty to obey God’s commands (John 14:15)—has an elegant simplicity.

The weakness of deontology is that it makes too strong a distinction between what is right and what is good. Christians must acknowledge, as they psalmists tell us, that God is both always right (Psalm 7:11-13) and always good (Psalm 100:5). The two are not in conflict, even though we may not always know how they are reconciled. Because deontology tends to ignore or minimize the character (the who) and goals (the why) of moral events, it can fail in leading us to do all that God has commanded us to do and be.

Another potential failure is that it can mislead us about what truly constitutes agent-relative duties. Consider, for example, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Luke tells us that an expert on the Mosaic law who wanted to “justify himself”  asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” The expert on the law was expecting to hear that his duty was to a specific and limited group, and not a universal duty that could be applicable to all people. But Jesus told him the Parable of the Good Samaritan which compelled him to admit the neighbor to the victimized man was “The one who had mercy on him.”

Attempting to apply the duty to be merciful in a strict deontological system, though, would cause conflicts with other duties such as seeking justice. In failing to account for the character and consequences, the deontologist may fail to apply a robustly biblical ethics.

For the Christian, deontology can help us better understand the importance of universal  principles and moral duties. We just need to balance this system with the other two sides of the moral events triangle to ensure that we are following a true “divine command” theory.

In the next article in this series, we’ll consider consequentialism, and compare and contrast it to the biblical standard.

For further reading

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More