Deontology is the theory that a person should do his duty, based on whether the action taken is itself right or wrong under the applicable laws. In essence, fulfilling one’s obligations is ethical, no matter what the impact will be on society. Deontology is comprised of two components, which are the reversibility principle and the universality principle. These two principles are explained as follows:

  • Reversibility principle. This holds that you should treat others as you would want them to treat you. This rule is quite useful for forcing people to view a potential action from the perspectives of those who will be impacted by it.

  • Universality principle. This holds that certain duties apply in all situations, including the following:

    • To not physically harm others. Thus, one should not engage in the torture of others, even if doing so would extract information that could save many lives.

    • To respect the privacy of others. Thus, one should not engage in any intrusive observation, such as the electronic monitoring of employees in the office, even when the intent is to spot instances of employee theft.

    • To respect the property rights of others. Thus, one should not attempt to copy or steal intellectual property or other assets, even when the owner of those assets is in a competitive position that could severely impact one’s own company.

    • To respect the right of free association. Thus, one should not try to prevent people from gathering to engage in a political protest, even when there is a risk that the gathering could trigger a riot.

    • To tell the truth. Thus, one must always make accurate financial disclosures, even when doing so could have severe financial repercussions for the reporting entity.

    • To treat others equally. Thus, the treatment of multiple parties under the law would be the same, irrespective of their economic circumstances, religion, national origin, and so forth.

While the precepts of deontology can provide guidance for how to act in certain situations, it suffers from not providing guidance when some of the duties are in conflict with each other. For example, in a situation where it would be necessary to break into a neighbor’s home in order to keep a parent from assaulting his children, the first action breaks the imperative to respect the privacy of others, even though taking this action would prevent injuries to the children.

Related Courses

Behavioral Ethics
Ethical Frameworks in Accounting