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Ethics 101: Follow the Rules


Questions like “Why be moral?” or “What do we mean when we say something or someone is morally bad?” have been protractedly debated within the philosophical tradition. This series gives an overview of the traditional and contemporary discussion on the topic of Ethics and morality by focusing on the philosophical foundations of the moral phenomenon and the most relevant schools of thought trying to answer the question: “What should I do?”. Whether in assessing other people’s actions or our own, moral questions are part of our daily lives; their answers shape how we behave and expect others to behave. Thus, giving a philosophical and systematic answer to these questions gains relevance beyond the mere sphere of academic circles. The series explores how the moral question is not just about “good” or “bad” but also about what type of life we want to live and how we advocate for a world that reflects such life choices. The articles will present arguments for and against different schools of thought, showing different ways of behaving and thinking in everyday life according to those theories. Readers are expected to interiorize terminology and the conceptual depth of the development of ethical theory.

Ethics 101 is divided into six articles:

  1. Ethics 101: Follow the Rules.

  2. Ethics 101: It Is All about the Consequences.

  3. Ethics 101: Virtue over Goodness.

  4. Ethics 101: Are We More Moral Than Before?

Ethics 101: Follow the Rules

Deontology, a prominent ethical framework, distinguishes itself by its emphasis on the intrinsic nature of actions rather than their consequences. As opposed to teleological views, which base moral duty on the promotion of what is considered good, deontology, as expounded by Gerald F. Gaus, rejects such a consequentialist perspective. Ethics 101: Follow the Rules focuses on the definition and main characteristics of deontology, exploring its foundational elements and the distinct features that set it apart in ethical discourse.

Defined in the negation of teleology, deontology develops the idea that an ethical theory falls within its realm if there exists an action whose moral status depends on considerations beyond the overall goodness or badness of consequences. In a nutshell, one should follow the rules. In this context, ethical theorists such as David McNaughton and Piers Rawling offer a comprehensive framework for describing deontology, focusing on four fundamental elements: constraints, duties of special relationships, options, and the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative deontological views. Building upon these foundational elements, deontological theories manifest in various types, with Larry Alexander and Michael Moore categorizing them into agent-centered, patient-centered, and contractualist theories. Agent-centered deontological theories prioritize moral obligations from the perspective of the moral agent, focusing on intentions or actions as crucial components of agency. Patient-centered theories, on the other hand, ground themselves in rights, emphasizing constraints against using others without explicit consent. Contractualist deontology, viewed as a normative account, aligns with patient-centered principles, defining morally wrong acts as those forbidden by principles accepted in a social contract.

Bad infinity, Illuminato, 2020
Figure 1: Bad Infinity (Illuminato, 2020).

Despite the distinct advantages presented by deontology, such as aligning with shared moral intuitions and allowing for supererogatory actions, it faces theoretical challenges known as the "deontology paradox." This paradox questions the rationale behind certain deontological restrictions and their violation under specific circumstances. 

In the subsequent sections, specific types of deontological theories will be explored, such as agent-centered and patient-centered theories, and delve more deeply into the challenges and advantages posed by deontology in ethical discourse. The exploration will continue by examining the works of scholars like Gerald F. Gaus, providing a comprehensive understanding of deontology and its intricate nuances.

Definition and Characteristics 

Deontology characterizes itself for not putting special emphasis on the resulting state of affairs for the adscription of morality to certain actions. In the work of Gerald F. Gaus (2001), we can understand deontology as a negation of a teleological view of ethics, i.e. theories that justify moral duty based on the promotion of what is considered good. One interpretation of this view suggests that an ethical theory is deontological if there exists some action whose moral status depends on considerations other than the total goodness or badness of all consequences. This implies that even one judgment not solely dependent on overall good consequences renders a theory deontological. Different views within the deontological framework present that the right, the obligatory, and what is morally good are solely functions of what is non-morally good. Authors defending deontological perspectives assert other considerations, such as keeping a promise, justice, or divine/commanded authority, that may make an action or rule right or obligatory, aside from the consequences it brings into existence. From this general characterization, there are foundational elements used for describing deontology, as presented by David McNaughton and Piers Rawling (2007) in their thorough explanation of the theory. Four basic elements help us describe deontological theories in ethics. These are constraints, duties of special relationships, options, and the distinctiveness between agent-neutral and agent-relative deontological views (McNaughton & Rawling, 2007, pp. 425-427).

Perceptions Optiques (Illuminato, 2020)
Figure 2: Perceptions Optiques (Illuminato, 2020).


Deontologists assert constraints against harming others, prohibiting actions like lying, killing innocents, or torture, even when pursuing positive ends. The stringency of these constraints varies among deontologists, with some advocating absolute prohibitions. Thus, morally assessing an action will be dependent on how these constraints are followed, regardless at times of the consequences of the outcome brought about by the action. We can find a clear example, for instance, in Roman Catholic moral theology, which maintains the absolute moral prohibition of intentionally killing innocent persons. Similarly, philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, argue against lying, even to prevent murder or other negative state of affairs (Ibid, p. 425). Constraints may be overridden in certain catastrophic situations, leading to a requirement not always to maximize the good. This distinguishes constraints, which restrict actions, from duties of special relationships.

Duties of Special Relationship

For McNaughton and Rawling, duties deriving from special relationships involve commitments to others, whether explicit (e.g., promises), tacit (e.g., commitments to friends), or involuntary (e.g., duties to parents) (Ibid, p. 425). These duties limit freedom of action, directing actions toward specific individuals based on relationships. Unlike constraints that apply universally, duties derived from special relationships are owed only to those with whom one stands in such relationships. For example, commitments to family members may override actions that maximize overall good, emphasizing distinct aims based on relationships. From this perspective, action is determined by the constraints prompted by special relationships. Without aiming for the maximization of good, certain duties guide our actions just for the sake of the commitment that such relationships bring to the agent. 


Options in deontology provide agents with choices regarding whether to maximize the good. Once agents fulfill their duties, they have the option to decline additional actions, even if they could contribute more to the overall good. This concept of supererogation, i.e. doing more than what duty requires, acknowledges acts beyond moral requirements, a space not recognized by some consequentialist theories (Ibid). Deontologists acknowledge the demanding nature of morality but stress limitations on the duty to do good.

Balloon Seller (Illuminato, 2019)
Figure 3: Balloon Seller (Illuminato, 2019).

Agent-Relative and Agent-Neutral

The final dimension of deontology is the distinctiveness of agent-relative and agent-neutral deontological theories. An important feature of deontology has to do with its treatment of the relationship between what is right and what is good. Theories like consequentialism present that the good determines the right, with the amount of goodness as the sole determinant of an action's rightness. For this reason, an action is morally assessed depending on the amount of goodness that brings about as a consequence. Thus, the main elements to determine the goodness of action are primarily agent-neutral because the principles that guide action are independent of the agent as such. In contrast, deontology introduces agent-relative elements, emphasizing distinct aims based on relationships and constraints. Agent-relative moral reasons, as seen in duties of special relationship and constraints, diverge from the agent-neutral reasons. These types of reasons are distinct from agent-neutral reasons and are tied to the specific agent, creating obligations that may not extend to others. For instance, a parent is believed to have special obligations to their own child that others do not share. The agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction highlights how deontology aligns with common-sense morality, which recognizes special obligations, constraints, and options. While some critics challenge common-sense morality, many moral theorists consider it a valuable source of evidence, influencing various moral theories.

The characterization of the aforementioned distinctive features, McNaughton and Rawling (1998) argue, makes the fundamental structure of deontology radically different from other theories. The focus on constraints within deontology, such as prohibiting actions that harm others even in pursuit of positive outcomes, presents a distinct departure from approaches in ethics that focus on the goodness of outcomes as the parameter for acting. The discussion of the degree of stringency in these constraints, including absolute prohibitions advocated by some, highlights the consequentialist concern with the outcome and the potential for variations in moral rules (McNaughton & Rawling, 1998, p. 40). Additionally, the concept of options in deontology, where agents have the choice of whether to maximize the good, stands in contrast to the consequentialist framework, which mandates maximizing overall goodness. The acknowledgment of supererogatory acts reflects an allowance for actions that go beyond what a strict perspective on the actions’ consequences might prescribe.

Aurora (Illuminato, 2019)
Figure 4: Aurora (Illuminato, 2019).

Types of Deontological Theories

Based on the previous features of deontology, there is a diversity of ways in which these characteristics combine to give origin to different types of deontological views. For this characterization, it is useful to follow the categorization carried out by Larry Alexander and Michael Moore (2020), who present three main types of deontological theories. 

The first type is agent-centered deontological theories. These classify moral obligations based on the perspective of the moral agent rather than who receives or is the object of the action. These theories assert that individuals have both permissions and obligations that generate agent-relative reasons for action. At the core of agent-centered theories is agency, emphasizing morality's intensely personal nature. (Alexander & Moore, 2020) These theories place moral significance on keeping one's agency free of moral wrongdoing rather than focusing on the consequences of actions on others. There are various approaches within agent-centered theories, with some highlighting the role of intentions or other mental states, and others emphasizing the importance of actions.

Himma (Illuminato, 2020)
Figure 5: Himma (Illuminato, 2020).

One group of agent-centered theories focuses on intentions, asserting that our intended ends and means crucially define our agency. Intentions that involve evil ends or means are considered impermissible. This perspective aligns with the doctrine of double effect, often associated with Christian philosophers, which categorically forbids intending certain evils, even if they might prevent similar acts in the future. From this perspective, the mental state of the agent is relevant to the nature of the action that takes place. An unintended harm is not the same as an intended one, even if the consequences of both are materially the same. Another set of agent-centered theories emphasizes actions over mental states. According to this view, certain actions are considered impermissible, such as killing innocents. The distinction between causing and allowing, as well as between various types of causation, plays a crucial role, Alexander and Moore say (Alexander & Moore, 2019, p. 11). For example, allowing a death to occur may be different from causing it, and one might not be categorically forbidden to enable or redirect threats to others.

A third category combines both perspectives, arguing that both intention and action are necessary to constitute human agency. This view seeks to avoid the perceived overbreadth of obligations that may arise if either intention or action alone is considered sufficient for moral evaluation.

Anti-Oedipus (Illuminato, 2020)
Figure 6: Anti-Oedipus (Illuminato, 2020).

Despite the distinctions within agent-centered deontological theories, common criticisms arise. One major concern is the perceived moral unattractiveness of the self-centered focus inherent in these theories. The criticism argues that the emphasis on individual agency may lead to a neglect of broader consequences, potentially allowing the world to become worse overall. The distinctions introduced by doctrines like double effect and doing in contrast to allowing are also criticized for being morally unattractive or conceptually incoherent. These criticisms often drive individuals away from deontology towards consequentialism or patient-centered deontology. Some even propose a "control theory of agency," which argues that agency is invoked whenever choices could have made a difference, according to R. G. Frey (1995). However, this approach is criticized for being too broad and leading to counterintuitive and conflict-ridden deontological conclusions. Patient-centered deontological theories represent a distinct group within deontology, diverging from agent-centered theories. Unlike agent-centered deontology, patient-centered theories are rights-based and aim to be more agent-neutral in the reasons they provide for moral agents. These theories are grounded in the concept of people's rights, with a core right often defined as the right against being used as a means for producing good consequences without one's consent. This right specifically prohibits or presents constraints, the use of another person's body, labor, and talent without their explicit agreement. The central theme of patient-centered deontology revolves around the restriction of strong moral duties to actions that infringe upon individuals' rights. This limitation does not extend to resources necessary for producing good consequences, like bodies, labor, and talents. 

A distinctive aspect of patient-centered deontology is its handling of moral dilemmas compared to agent-centered versions. While agent-centered theories focus on the agent's mental state or the distinction between actions and causing harm, patient-centered theories emphasize whether the victim's body, labor, or talents were instrumental in producing justifying results. This perspective leads to differing evaluations of situations like the Trolley problem, where sacrificing one life to save others may be deemed permissible if the doomed person is not used in the process. Patient-centered deontologists diverge in their treatment of other examples faced by agent-centered deontologists, such as cases involving acceleration. The patient-centered approach, rooted in the prohibition against using others, would not permit actions that agent-centered theories might find justifiable in certain circumstances. However, patient-centered deontological theories encounter challenges, particularly in accounting for the wrongness of actions like killing or injuring, which are not done to use others as means. To address this, patient-centered deontologists may need to incorporate consequentialist-derived moral norms, acknowledging that killing or injuring is typically unjustifiable on a consequentialist calculus.

Patient-centered deontology is often conceived in agent-neutral terms, positing rights that give everyone equal reasons to respect them. Nevertheless, this can lead to a version of the paradox of deontology, questioning why violating one person's rights is not permissible if it is necessary to protect the rights of others. Some argue that patient-centered deontology might benefit from abandoning its agent-neutral stance and acknowledging agent-relative duties, providing each actor with reasons to refrain from violating rights.

Lastly, in contractualist deontology, according to Alexander and Moore, morally wrong acts are defined as those forbidden by principles that individuals in a described social contract would accept or that they could not "reasonably reject." Viewed as a normative account, contractualism is best understood as a patient-centered deontology, emphasizing obligations to others based on their consent. Yet, this approach raises challenges similar to historical social contract theories, questioning the moral foundation of consent as the primary principle.

Effluvium/Effluvio (Illuminato, 2020)
Figure 7: Effluvium/Effluvio (Illuminato, 2020).

Advantages of Deontology

From all that has been exposed so far, we can give a general view of its possible advantages. As previously mentioned, deontology, as a normative theory in ethics, tends to be characterized in contrast with other normative theories. More specifically, the advantages and faults of deontological theories are highlighted in light of consequentialist views. Nevertheless, this section will briefly present some of the advantages of deontology for its own sake, i.e. it will highlight the advantages of deontology not over other theories, but given its explanatory reach. Some of the main reasons for adopting a deontological position in ethics have been presented by Larry Alexander and Michael Moore (2020). 

In the first place, deontological morality permits agents to prioritize their families, friends, and personal projects, especially if it lacks a strong duty of general beneficence or imposes limits on such obligations. This characteristic helps deontological morality avoid the excessively demanding and alienating aspects associated with consequentialism, aligning more with conventional moral duties.

Moreover, deontological moralities, unlike many consequentialist perspectives, allow for supererogatory actions—those exceeding moral requirements. A deontologist can engage in morally praiseworthy acts beyond what morality strictly dictates, a possibility not afforded to consequentialists who consider any act not morally demanded as wrong.

Deontological theories excel in aligning with shared moral intuitions, as evident in varied responses to scenarios like Trolley, Fat Man, and Transplant. Finally, unlike consequentialism, deontological theories provide a basis for explaining why specific individuals possess the moral standing to criticize and hold accountable those breaching moral duties. Deontological duties, typically person-oriented rather than focusing on broad states of affairs, contribute to this distinctive feature.

Clash (Illuminato, 2019)
Figure 8: Clash (Illuminato, 2019).

The Deontology Paradox

We have seen thus far that deontological theories in ethics focus on following certain rules, either on the basis of respecting certain commitments or agreements made with other individuals under specific circumstances. These characteristics of deontology make it face certain theoretical issues, according to some authors, sometimes referred to as the “deontology paradox”. As Ulrich Heuer (2011) describes, the explanation of certain duties, as the ones advocated by deontology, makes it difficult to establish why certain restrictions posed by the theory should not be violated under certain circumstances. An example of this is the restriction of not killing innocent people. If the rationale behind such restriction is to preserve life, then why should we not violate such restriction in cases in which such violation would help us preserve more lives? A closely related question to this one encapsulated the paradox of deontology. The question as posed by Heuer is, why some restrictions should not be violated if doing so would minimize the violation of that very restriction? (Heuer, 2011, p. 236). The idea behind this paradox, Heuer argues, is that the duty not to violate certain restrictions clashes with the general idea of maximizing rationality. Going back to the previous example, if an agent aims to preserve life, should not be more rational to violate a restriction against killing if this would preserve more lives? 

Moby Dick (Illuminato, 2020)
Figure 9: Moby Dick (Illuminato, 2020).

The origin of this paradox, as argued by Alexander and Moore, is that patient-centered as well as agent-centered deontological theories are treated as being agent-neutral, this is to say that, for example, respecting other individual’s lives (for the sake of the own individual) is independent of the particular relationship that the agent might hold towards that individual. As a consequence, it would seem reasonable to understand patient-centered theories not as being agent-neutral. Thus, the paradox of deontology incarnates the tension between deontological restrictions and maximizing rationality, particularly within the framework of consequentialist thinking, which requires a more thorough explanation. 

Some philosophers, such as Samuel Scheffler (1982), argue that shedding influences such as maximizing rationality can eliminate the perceived puzzle associated with deontological restrictions. The core idea of maximizing rationality is that a rational agent should choose an option that better achieves their goal. Thus, if the goal is better achieved by violating a deontological restriction then, rationally, this is what should be done. Deontological restrictions, however, seem to violate this principle when, for example, the goal is to prevent harm, and the options involve choosing between fewer or more innocent people being harmed. The deontologist might seek an alternative explanation to avoid the paradox by framing deontological restrictions in terms of rights and duties (Heuer, 2011, p. 239).  For instance, one might argue that a person has a right not to be killed, leading to a corresponding duty not to kill them. This right could be grounded in the respect owed to individuals based on their inherent value and dignity. However, this raises a dilemma: if the deontologist acknowledges the same value and dignity in others, there seems to be a conflict in duties when faced with a choice between violating one person's right to prevent harm to others.

Heuer introduces two interpretations of rights to understand this paradox: the agent-centered restriction interpretation, where a person has a right not to be harmed or killed, and the minimizing-violations interpretation, which suggests that the right is contingent on preventing a greater number of similar rights violations (Heuer, 2011, p. 239). The minimizing-violations interpretation does not commit to consequentialism, as it focuses on minimizing rights violations rather than overall outcomes. The challenge lies in justifying the preference for the agent-centered restriction interpretation over the minimizing-violations interpretation.

Even if one accepts the agent-centered restriction interpretation, the paradox deepens when considering the duty to help and protect others from harm. If there is an obligation to help others, conflicts arise between the duty not to harm and the duty to prevent harm. The paradox persists, as the agent-centered restriction view of rights does not address this conflict, leaving the resolution unclear.

Alchemy (Illuminato, 2019)
Figure 10: Alchemy (Illuminato, 2019).

Deontology emerges as a distinctive ethical framework characterized by its emphasis on the intrinsic nature of actions and a steadfast commitment to moral principles. Defined by the negation of teleology, deontology stands in opposition to theories that justify moral duty solely based on the consequences of actions. The foundational elements of constraints, duties of special relationships, options, and the agent-relative/agent-neutral distinction provide a comprehensive framework for understanding deontology's ethical principles.

The advantages of deontology, such as its alignment with shared moral intuitions and the allowance for supererogatory actions, underscore its significance in ethical discourse. However, the theoretical challenges encapsulated in the "deontology paradox" prompt critical reflections on the tension between deontological restrictions and the pursuit of maximizing rationality within a consequentialist framework.

As we explored the specific types of deontological theories, such as agent-centered and patient-centered theories,  the complexities and nuances of deontology became more apparent. Whether prioritizing moral obligations from the perspective of the agent or grounding itself in rights and constraints, deontology continues to shape ethical discourse and provoke scholarly inquiry.

In further examinations of deontological theories and their applications, it becomes evident that the realm of deontology is rich, diverse, and subject to ongoing philosophical debates. The juxtaposition of advantages and challenges invites a nuanced understanding of deontology's role in shaping moral frameworks and contributes to the broader dialogue on ethical theories. 

Bibliographical References

Alexander, L. and Moore, M. (2021) Deontological Ethics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Zalta E.N.(ed.)

Frey, R.G. (1995) Intention, Foresight, and Killing, in Intending Death, T. Beauchamp (ed.), Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall.

Gaus, G. F. (2001) What Is Deontology. Part One: Orthodox Views. Journal of Value Inquiry 35 (2001): 27–42.

Gaus, G.F. What is Deontology? Part Two: Reasons to Act. The Journal of Value Inquiry 35, 179–193 (2001). 

Heuer, U. (2011). The Paradox of Deontology Revisited, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, M. Timmons (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 236–267. 

McNaughton, David & Rawling, Piers (1998). On defending deontology. Ratio 11 (1):37–54. 

McNaughton, David, and Piers Rawling (2007), ' Deontology', in David Copp (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, Oxford Handbooks (2007; online edn, Oxford Academic, 2 Sept. 2009),

Scanlon, T.M. (2003) The Difficulty of Tolerance: Essays in Political Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Illuminato, S.M. (2020) Enantiodromia. Image retrieved from

Figure 1: Illuminato, S. M. (2020) Bad Infinity. Image retrieved from

Figure 2: Illuminato, S. M. (2020) Perceptions Optiques. Image retrieved from

Figure 3: Illuminato, S. M. (2019) Balloon Seller. Image retrieved from

Figure 4: Illuminato, S. M. (2019) Aurora. Image retrieved from

Figure 5: Illuminato, S. M. (2020) Himma. Image retrieved from

Figure 6:  Illuminato, S. M. (2020) Anti-Oedipus. Image retrieved from

Figure 7:  Illuminato, S. M. (2020) Effluvium/Effluvio. Image retrieved from

Figure 8: Illuminato, S. M. (2020) Clash. Image retrieved from

Figure 9:  Illuminato, S. M. (2020) Moby Dick. Image retrieved from

Figure 10:  Illuminato, S. M. (2019) Alchemy. Image retrieved from


Steele Nickle
Steele Nickle
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Follow the Rules focuses on the definition and main characteristics of deontology, exploring its foundational elements and the distinct features that set it apart in ethical discourse.

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