Deontology is one type or kind of non-consequentialist duty ethics. It focuses upon what actions can be said to be right or wrong, that which ought to be done or that which ought not to be done by a moral agent, according to the duty reason demands of the actor. While utilitarianism focuses upon the consequences and only the consequences to make this calculation, and is not concerned with the intention of the actor; deontology focuses upon the demand of reason -- it is not at all concerned with consequences -- and is also concerned with the intention of the actor.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): "A dutiful action's moral worth is not found in the purpose or end or consequence aimed at or achieved. Moral worth is in the maxim by which the action is determined." Note carefully that while intentions are important, they are not themselves the ethical justification for any action. That is, one cannot say that one was doing the right thing simply because one meant well or intended to do the right thing by doing it. Deontology is not subjectivist, saying of an action it is our duty when we think it is, or that it is okay to do because our intentions are good. Whether an action is right or wrong is determined objectively, apart from our intentions. Only then, once we know what we ought to do, should we intend to do it. Then our action has moral worth because we subjectively intend to do what we objectively ought to do. But if we intend to do what we ought not to do, it is wrong, even if our intention was only to do the right thing. In short, we can be mistaken about our duty.
How do we know, then, what our duty is in any particular case? Kant reasoned that our actions ought to be guided by what he called "the categorical imperative." It is categorical in that it applies universally, to everyone in all relevantly similar situations; it is imperative in that it is a command of reason, it is not simply a "suggestion" that might be ignored; it is singular, in that there is only one categorical imperative for reason to discover and apply. He developed several slightly different formulations of this one categorical imperative, though he insisted that they all amount to making the same rational point about moral action. For the categorical imperative is the command of the moral law. Our duty is to do what the moral law requires, and we should do it just because the moral law requires it -- out of respect for the demand of the moral law. [Note: be careful not to confuse this claim with obeying the law of the state; doing what is legally required is not necessarily the same as doing what the moral law requires.]
Kant's Categorical Imperative(s)
Below are three slightly different phrasings of Kant's categorical imperative:
Notice the emphasis on "maxim" in these first two formulations. These imperatives are basic principles. They do not directly tell us how to act in specific situations. We must align our maxims -- our reasons for action -- with these formulations of the imperatives. Any maxim must align with all the formulations here. That is, it must be consistent with the logical concerns of 1a and 1b, as well as respect of persons in 2, or harmony in 3. A maxim that does not align with any one of these fails to be a proper guide for action, and an action demanded by that maxim cannot be called our duty. So you can think of these imperatives as tests: any maxim must pass all these tests before you can say you know what your duty is. More about this, with specific examples, in class.