Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos


  • Deborah C. PoffEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_399-1



Deontology is a moral theory developed by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Deontology stipulates that what is morally good are moral maxims or moral rules that are capable of being rationality intuited, are universalizable and are true, and, to be followed through duty, are independent of the consequences of following the moral maxims.

Deontological Theory

Deontology is one of key theoretical moral theories that guide not only traditional Western moral theory but also influence the contemporary discussions and debates in business and professional ethics (see Virtue Ethics and Utilitarianism for alternative key moral theories). Immanuel Kant, the father of deontology, was a moral absolutist. He believed that moral maxims or ethical rules were rationally intuited as principled value statements that were recognizable by virtue of the universalizability of such maxims or rules. The most fundamental of these is the maxim that human beings [as moral agents] must always be treated as ends in themselves and never as means to an end. This “universalizability” principle entails that what is morally true as a moral truth is true anywhere, at any time and in any place. This places deontology as at odds with utilitarianism and at odds with any theory which involves some type of moral relativism.

A basic assumption of Kant’s moral theory is that human beings are capable of reason and are also free to choose between alternatives. These facts are necessary conditions for moral decision-making. Another basic assumption is that there are two kinds or types of rules. One type of rule is one that I can make for myself but which is not morally required nor does it belong to categorical imperatives as he refers to moral rules. I can decide to abstain from alcohol for health reasons, for example, but that does not require that everyone must abstain from drinking alcohol. This is significantly different from moral laws or rules for which there is a moral duty to follow. As Kant notes:

…[A]n action that is done from duty gets its moral value, not from the object which it is intended to secure, but from the maxim by which it is determined. Accordingly, the action has the same moral value whether the object is attained or not, if only the principle is independent of every object of sensuous desire. (Kant 1995, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 47)

Since human beings are capable of free choice, of rational intuition, and of acting from duty, then exercising moral choices, arrived at through ratiocination and done as an act of duty, is behaving in a manner that is moral. These essential abilities of human beings consequently require that one follows moral maxims and that this is done independent of desires or outcomes. Again, Kant states:

In all cases I must act in such a way that I can at the same time will that my maxim should become a universal law. This is what is meant by conformity to laws pure and simple…. [Further], the principle, that humanity and every rational nature is an end in itself, is not borrowed from experience…because of its universality it applied to all rational beings….

Business Ethics and Deontology

One of the mantras of contemporary business ethics is that business ethics is good for business. This is clearly not what Kant intended when he developed deontology. This approach is premised on the assumption that business exists essentially for the purpose of maximizing profits either for owners or for shareholders. If acting ethically results in greater profits because some consumers care about the ethical standards followed in the production of the goods that they consume, then it makes sense to act ethically. But, Kant would argue, as would many other ethical theorists, acting ethically only for the economic payoff is not moral behavior. It may be strategic behavior, and it may be a good example of acting in accordance with rational self-interest, but it is not moral action. This approach also implies that if acting ethically does not improve the bottom line financially, then it is justifiable not to act ethically. Kant would argue that such a starting position can certainly never lead to any universalizable principles or laws but only to ad hoc, partial, and perversely self-interested behavior. Kant’s approach would argue that, independent of the consequence, one should operate in accordance with fundamental moral principles. Acting in accordance with strategic, rational self-interest is not acting in a manner that makes it possible of universalize my action because it is not possible to universalize individual self-interest. Kant made this argument as a logical argument although some critics have argued that it is an implicit appeal to consequentialism since every person following their own self-interest would lead to an untenable and unsustainable world.

Underlying all such discussions are at least two questions. (1) What is the purpose of business? (2) Why should we always be moral?

What Is the Purpose of Business?

Twentieth-century economist Milton Friedman (2005, 18) argued that the purpose of business was to maximize profits for the owners of the corporation or stockholders and obey the law. Anything else, he called “pure and unadulterated socialism.” While individual persons are moral agents in their personal lives, as executives in corporations, they are agents for their principals (owners or stockholders) within the limited and constrained understanding of artificial persons which are the corporation. On this latter point Friedman stated:

Only people can have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but ‘business’ as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense.

What Would Kant Say About This?

Independent of what we think about all of Friedman’s argument about the purpose of business (see article on Friedman and social responsibility), it seems plausible (although some may disagree) that he would not accept Friedman’s limited notion of the responsibility of artificial persons. While the notion of artificial persons was not addressed by Kant and predates legislation that introduced the notion of artificial personhood which served to limit or mitigate the personal liability of individual owners and stockholders of a company, it seems fair to speculate that he would always hold individuals who own companies to be moral agents responsible for their moral decision-making. Persons do not hang up their moral personhood when they enter the workplace and pick it up again when they leave work.

Why Should We Always Be Moral?

It is part of the essence of what it means to be human and includes the fundamental moral principle that human beings must always be treated as ends in themselves. Thus strategic, profit-driven reasons do not absolve us to dutifully follow the moral maxim. A clear limitation of this theory from an animal rights and environmental ethics perspective is that this categorical imperative does not extend to other sentient beings or to the environment.



  1. Friedman M (2005) The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. Reprinted in Business Ethics in Canada edited by Deborah Poff, 4th edn. Pearson Prentice Hall, TorontoGoogle Scholar
  2. Kant I (1995) Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, translated by Lewis White Beck in Ethics for Modern Life, edited by R Abelson and ML Friquegnon. St. Martin’s Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.OttawaCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Deborah C. Poff
    • 1
  1. 1.Leading with IntegrityOttawaCanada