What Is Immanuel Kant’s Deontologism?

The deontologism of Inmanuel Kant,  from the Greek deon (obligation) and logos (science), is a doctrine of ethics that indicates that morality is a matter of duties and obligations. 
According to deontologism, human beings have a moral duty to act according to a series of principles that establish the difference between good and evil.

For deontologism, the consequences of actions do not matter but the actions themselves. 
This means that, if a morally incorrect action ends in a morally correct act, the action is still incorrect.

Kant phrases

Immanuel kant

On the contrary, if a morally correct action degenerates into a morally incorrect conclusion, this does not mean that the initial action is no longer good.

In this sense, deontologism is opposed to other philosophical currents, such as teleological theory and the doctrine of utilitarianism, which respectively state that (1) if the result is morally good, then the generating action is moral and (2) if the result guarantees happiness, then the generating action is good.

Most of the works on the doctrine of deontologism come from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), European philosopher and scientist, and his work framed in rationalism; His works on this subject include: “Bases for the metaphysics of morality” (1785), “Critique of practical reasoning” (1788) and “Metaphysics of morality” (1798).

Through deontologism, Kant tried to establish the source of morality, concluding that the origin of morality lies in the human capacity to reason.

Immanuel Kant and rationalism


Immanuel Kant posed a fundamental question for rationalism and deontologism, namely: what is the source of morality? In other words:

What do people’s actions have that make them susceptible to being interpreted as right or wrong?

To answer this question, Kant established three cases in which actions cannot be classified as correct or incorrect:

  1. Actions carried out by plants and inanimate objects.
  2. Actions carried out by animals that follow their instincts.
  3. Actions carried out by humans unintentionally.

Taking into account these three statements, Kant concluded that the source of morality is our ability to make rational decisions and our freedom of action (understood as free will).

From this it follows that morality applies to all rational series and does not come from pleasure, desire or emotions.

Kant and the morally good


Immanuel Kant pointed out that morality is not related to desires, nor to emotions. Therefore, actions that are carried out based on desires and obtaining pleasure are not morally correct even though they can generate good actions.

Thus, Kant established the difference between the morally good and the good in general. While the morally good depends on the good will of the people, the good in general depends on the needs and desires.

For example, a good umbrella is one that protects you from the rain; This does not mean that the umbrella is moral, since only rational beings can be moral.

Likewise, Kant establishes that an act has no moral value if it is not done for the sake of morality. Let’s take the following example to illustrate this concept:

There are two merchants: one who sells the merchandise at a fair price because it is the right thing to do, and another who sells the merchandise at a fair price because he fears that if he does not, the authorities will close his business.

In these two cases, only the first merchant is moral because he acts in the name of morality.

Actions and intentions


Deontologism indicates that there are actions that are correct and actions that are incorrect. But how can we distinguish between right and wrong?

For example, suppose a homicide was committed. According to deontologism, we cannot immediately tell if it is a moral or immoral action, since not all homicides are morally equal.

If the person intended to commit murder, then the action will be immoral; But if the person committed involuntary manslaughter, then it cannot be said that it was morally right or wrong.

Actions are the result of our choices, therefore, actions must be understood in terms of choices.

This means that elections are made for a reason and with a purpose in mind. In this sense, deontologism indicates that it is not possible to know what type of action it is until the intention is known.

Kant and the maxims

Immanuel Kant considered that every time human beings take an action or make a decision, they do so following a maxim. Hence, in Kant’s terminology, maxims equate to intention.

The maxims are the personal principles that guide us. For example: I will get married just for love, I will have fun no matter what, I will borrow money even though I know I cannot pay it back, I will do all my homework as quickly as possible, among others.

For Kant, the key point of morality lies in what kinds of maxims are used when making moral decisions and what kinds of maxims should be avoided.

According to the philosopher, the maxims that we must follow must have the capacity to be applicable in any rational being, without being subordinate to a particular interest.

Deontologism and other philosophical doctrines

Deontologism is opposed to the teleological theory, according to which a moral act is one that generates a morally correct conclusion. In deontologism, the consequences do not matter, what matters is that the first action is moral.

In turn, the doctrine of deontologism differs from utilitarianism, a theory that states that the object of everything is happiness and justifies any action that is carried out to achieve happiness. That is, utilitarianism proposes to follow personal desires and not reason.


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  3. A Short Overview on Kantian / Deontological Ethical Theory. Retrieved on June 20, 2017, from romnetmanassa.wordpress.com.
  4. Misselbrook, D. (2013). Duty, Kant, and Deontology. Retrieved on June 20, 2017, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
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