The problem we all have with deontology

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I am a virtue ethicist in the sentimentalist mode, but this essay is not going to be about the advantages virtue ethics or moral sentimentalism may have over other approaches to ethics. It's about a problem, or set of problems, that all major theories of morality share: a problem about deontology. The problem is the problem of justifying deontology, something that Kantian ethics notably seeks to do, but that recent (and not-so-recent) Aristotelian virtue ethics has largely avoided. And, of course, consequentialists don't think deontology can be justified, and that, very briefly and according to the rest of us, is their problem. What I want to show here is how difficult it is to justify deontology. I don't think Kantian ethics succeeds in doing so, but I also believe that Aristotelian virtue ethics would have very difficult going if it tried to justify deontology. Finally, there is sentimentalist virtue ethics, and, perhaps surprisingly, there are things the sentimentalist can say by way of defending deontology. But we shall see that there are some serious problems, nonetheless, with such a defense. What do I mean by “deontology”? Well, I can't define it, but I can make some suggestions toward clarifying what most of us philosophers understand by the term. Moral views or theories that are deontological can contain non-deontological elements, but they all entail that it is sometimes right (or even obligatory) to perform actions whose consequences, impartially considered, would be worse or less good than those of some other act available to a given agent.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPerfecting Virtue: New Essays on Kantian Ethics and Virtue Ethics
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages11
ISBN (Print)9780511973789, 9780521515252
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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