At the Door: Deontology and Duty

When asked “what would you do?” when the Gestapo is at the door asking if you are harboring any Jews, the answer is actually a simple ethical answer to a simple ethical question (Paul and Elder, 25). Lie! Lie to the officer, slam the door and go enjoy some lekach with your new Jewish friends. This response is almost universal among the general population at present, but those same people who would boldly claim they would lie, would also assert that lying is wrong (West, 2015). And, if they are familiar with consequential reasoning, would say that the means never justify the ends. But how can this be? Why is lying wrong most of the time but right when the authorities are at the door? Now, we have a much more interesting and complicated question to answer.

The major distinction between the opposing ethical views, consequentialism and deontology, is generally that the former judges right and wrong by consequences and the latter judges by the action. With this in mind, it is easy to imagine how one can confidently claim, without any other information, that one ought not to lie, murder, steal, cheat, etc – therefor deontology is a better ethical system. But if one were to be placed in a situation where lives depended on a lie or depending on killing someone else – the question is not so simple. When being tortured in Vietnam and asked for names, John McCain lied and gave the names of the starting lineup for the Greenbay Packers (Wilcox, 2018). In the search for a mythical El Dorado, Aztec natives lied to conquistador Francisco Coronado leading him far north on a wild chase far away from them to save themselves (Brinkley, 16). And during World War II, many across Europe lied to the Gestapo and gave shelter to Jews. In these situations, it becomes more and more questionable if lying in every situation is wrong. Because the last example is given most commonly to challenge strict deontology, it deserves a closer look. The goal of this essay is to review strict deontology and consequentialism and compare it to deontology in a position of public trust.

A consequentialist, in this situation, find themselves rather comfortable. They can easily lie and protect their stow-aways all while feeling like they are a good person. A virtue ethicist of the Aristotle breed would find that saving people and doing good for the community and general will would agree to the habit of lying to a foreign totalitarian police force in order to saves lives. But a deontologist finds herself  in a difficult situation if she were to interpret it strictly because, as this problem highlights is “how to account for the significance of numbers without giving up deontology and adopting consequentialism, without resurrecting the paradox of deontology” (Alexander, et al., 8).

Deontology holds that “certain acts are right or wrong in themselves” (Honderich, 187). This is not incorrect. There are actions which, to most rational people, in most places in most situations, most of the time are objectively good and bad. The problem with reasoning with deontology is when it is set in stone and judges right and wrong based on the act with little concern for consequences, general well being, or human nature. The best example is with biblical scripture which apparently sees lying as punishable by death (Acts 5:1-10). But theological reasoning as well as cultural reasoning is ultimately flawed in that, though they are held dearly by their believers and members, they are not founded in pure reason and sets an impossible bar for being ethically good, and require little ethical reasoning in that “these traditional ways of believing adopted by social groups or cultures often take on the force of habit or custom. They are handed down from one generation to another. To the individuals in any given group, their particular beliefs seem to them to be the ONE way or the only REASONABLE way” to act (Paul and Elder, 9). Religious, cultural, and strict deontology offer an inflexible set of rules that, in time become quickly outdated. The ten commandments, for example, could be revised and improved by anyone in the twenty first century within minutes and with very little effort (Hitchens, 2010). Ethical principles so set in their ways only present people with an absurd and impossible standard that could possibly lead to wrongs and evils in some cases – like when one is hiding Jewish hide-aways from the Gestapo, for instance. A great example of the more strict theologists and deontologists is over at “Answers in Genesis” where they claim that, when the Gestapo is knocking at your door, it is best to not lie and rat out the Jews (Hodge, 2009).

But there are some rules that seem to be universally good or bad. Philosophers such as Micheal Shermer and Sam Harris, are asserting that there can be a science-based moral system with universal standards that can be observed across multiple and diverse cultures that are true, “for most people in most circumstances most of the time” (Shermer, 180). This is especially true in social morality which exists, “to sustain cooperative social relationships, and morality can be objectively evaluated by that standard” (Harris, 2010). So there seems to be a way to improve on strict deontological reasoning by considering moral duty. These additional consideration offer a well-reasoned alternative that can and should be applied to ethical situations – especially when it involves breaking standards that would otherwise be bad to break. This leads to a very different kind of deontology that insists one act with a sense of virtue, consequence, and moral norm in mind. 

Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, a deontologist himself, seemed to understand the need for this addendum when he awoke from his dogmatic slumber and wrote about the categorical imperative, a universal maxim in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals which states that one ought not to act in a way they would not wish to see applied to everyone. This brings deontology to a whole new light. Assuming that most would lie, it is absolutely ok to lie to the Gestapo officer knocking at your door. But why is it more ok now? This universal maxim allows one to add reason to an otherwise inflexible theory. Why wouldn’t we want others to lie to the officer? Well you can “make some inferences about a man’s character if you know something about the conditions in which he has survived and prospered” (Dawkins, 2) People, through evolution and group collaboration, are naturally altruistic and can empathize with others – we can put ourselves in the place of others and feel a compulsion to help (Konner, 2015). It is for this reason that people find themselves with a compulsion to help others –  this altruism is something of a moral duty people find that they have. 

It is in this light that deontology has real weight. Those who are put in a position where they must act in a way that is usually bad find that these acts are justified because of their duty to people. Deontology values “conformity with a moral norm” and claims that the Right thing to do has “priority over the Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce” – but what about our case where most people would lie to the officer to save the Jews (Alexander, et al., 1)? The need to protect the Jews becomes a moral norm in that most will accept that lie. Additionally, people would commonly assert that it is not only ok to lie, but in this situation, people should lie. This is a moral obligation, “for a particular agent to take or refrain from taking some action” (Alexander, er al., 2).  Most find it acceptable to break the law because of our duty to our fellow man “for the moral duties typically thought to be deontological in character…are duties to particular people, not duties to bring about states of affairs…” as with consequentialism (Alexander, et al., 9).

So far, we see that in personal events, operating in a vacuum, deontology provides an unnecessarily strict and absurd standard for right and wrong. But with obligation, this ethical theory provides people a way to operate in a predictable, appropriate, and agreed upon way to operate. This “agent-centered” theory includes “both permissions and obligations that give us agent-relative reasons for action” (Alexander, et al., 2). As one can imagine, this is a great theory for those in the public sector and in positions of public trust. It offers a specific job and duty for people who are granted responsibility of some sort. Police officers, city officials, teachers, and religious leaders all have a certain way with which the community and public expects them to act – anything to the contrary is met with public scorn and outrage, as can be seen with some police officers across the nation. Agent obligations have a much more defined universals than the general population in that it provides shared expectations – where as the particulares seem to be much less defined leading many public administrators into what Max Weber described as Der Eiserne Kafig, or “the Iron Cage” where they begin to suffer from a “cripppled personality” from being restricted by too much bureaucratic rules dictating their actions and decisions (Brady, 526) (Fry and Raadschedlers, 42). 

In addition to this agent obligation, there is also a patient-centered theory that adds a humanitarian side to deontology which advises that, “if an act is otherwise morally justifiable by virtue of its balance of good and bad consequences, the good consequences are achieved without the necessity of using anyone’s body, labor, or talents without that person’s consent” as a means to an end (Alexander, et al., 6). So together, an agent and patient-centered view of deontology seems to consider the outcome of people without technically switching over into consequentialism. In this version of the theory, it is “suitable for a certain profession or for public office” because it is, “based on a moral duty” and it is best suited for the public sector because their rules are “sanctioned only by public opinion” (Constantin, 1). It is to be expected that “the public official expresses his own will…” but also hold close to the value that he represents the public interest and act “accordingly with the general interest of the community represented by them (Constantin, 2). The bottom line of a public professional is a deontological commitment to professionalism, while holding themselves to the agree-upon public standard. That is, their obligation is far from strict deontology, “it is, instead, the felt responsibility to do right in each particular situation for each member of one’s community” (Brady, 531). 

In a way, deontology as used by public administrators is a pragmatic way to create and act on a set of predictable and agreed upon morals and ethics in order to “set free and develop the capacities of human individuals without regard to race, sex, class, or economic status” because this is the “moral meaning of democracy” as it sets out to not only act in a way most members of society would find agreeable, but to create an environment where those members can thrive (Campbell, 9). Values and personal desires are core to what it means to be human and those are often “localized, even individualized” depending on the society and culture one is in (Brady, 533). It is this obligation and duty that allows deontology to consider people over authority or even the law.

Returning back to the problem at hand. When the Gestapo comes knocking, in a personal situation, consequentialism serves best in getting that officer away to save lives. And although deontology offers some leeway like Kant’s universal maxim, it really thrives in a position of public trust. In the public sector, with established behavior, one is expected to hold office with the public’s trust in mind keeping in mind the law and the values of those they represent. The public official would be an obscurant and lie to the officer because of the standard by which they operate demands they represent their community’s general will – and it is in this way that democracy thrives for the individual.


Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael “Deontological Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta. November 21, 2007.

Brady, N. F. “Publics Administration and the Ethics of Particularity” Public Administration Review Vol. 63, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 2003), pp. 525 – 534.

Brinkley, A. “American History: A Survey” 10th ed. McGraw-Hill: Boston. 

Campbell, J. Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative Intelligence (Chicago: Open Court, 1995).

Constantin, E. “Deontology in Public Administration” Spiru Haret University

Dawkins, R. (2006) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fry, Brian R., and Jos C. N. Raadschelders. Mastering Public Administration: From Max Weber to Dwight Waldo. Los Angeles: Sage, 2014.

Harris, S. “Sam Harris Talks ‘The Moral Landscape’ in NYC” Center for Inquiry, October 13, 2010. Accessed October 9, 2019 from

Hitchens, C. “The New Commandments” Vanity Fair March 4, 2010. Accessed from

Hodge, B. “A Righteous Lie?” Answers in Genesis November 13, 2009. Accessed October 9, 2019 from

Honderich, T. (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Konner, M. “The Evolutionary Roots of Altruism” The American Prospect May 22, 2015. Accessed October 9, 2019 from

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning (2nd ed.). Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Shermer, M. (2015). The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 

West, S. (2015). Philosophize This! Episode 58 – Kant pt. 3 – Deontology vs. Consequentialism [Audio Podcast]

Wilcox, C. “John McCain, Brave Warrior, Occasional Maverick, and Statesman” Alijazeera August 27, 2018. Accessed October 9, 2019 from

Featured Image” “The Witching Hour” (1977) Andrew Wyeth

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