Philosophy Notes: McNaughton and Rawling, “Deontology”

These are a version of notes I took for my applied ethics students on
David McNaughton and Piers Rawling’s article “Deontology,” printed originally as article 2 of Hugh LaFollette’s Ethics in Practice: Third Edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007).


The two classes of ethical theory that we are covering before we move into applied issues are consequentialism and deontology. Last time, we looked at Vallentyne’s article on consequentialism. Now we turn to McNaughton and Rawling’s article on deontology.

McNaughton and Rawling

McNaughton and Rawling’s (hence MR) article does several things:

  1. It describes three sets of things—(1) options, (2) duties of special relationships and obligations, and (3) constraints—which deontology supposedly allows but consequentialism does not.
  2. It claims that what is distinctive about the three things above is agent-relativity.
  3. It claims, therefore, that agent-relativity is the defining feature of deontology, while  agent-neutrality is the defining feature of consequentialism.
  4. It describes three examples of deontological ethical theories: Kantian ethics, Rossian ethics, and particularism.
  5. Ultimately, it defends the legitimacy of options and duties of special relationships (and obligations), but rejects constraints.

These notes will discuss the first three items in the list above.


The term options is unfortunate, because it is vague. What MR have in mind can be characterized in two ways, which amount to the same thing: to say that one has an option is to say (1) that (sometimes) it is morally permissible for one to produce less than the maximal amount of good one is able to, or (2) that (somtimes) it is logically possible for one to produce more good than one is morally required to.

MR contend that consequentialism always requires one to produce as much good as possible, so if consequentialism is true then one never has options. Deontology, on the other hand, is not centrally concerned with how much good one’s actions produce, so it does allow options. MRs position here clashes interestingly with Vallentyne’s account of consequentialism, because in Vallentyne’s account many consequentialist theories do allow for options. To Vallentyne, only maximizing forms of consequentialism (such as utilitarianism), preclude options, while other forms of consequentialism require only that one produce good beyond some threshhold; once one passes that threshhold, one has the option to produce even more good, but such actions are supererogatory rather than morally required. I will leave it to you to decide whether you think MR might have something deeper in mind that cannot be captured by any consequentialist theory.

Duties of special relationships and special obligations

Consequentialism does not ascribe any inherently special status to friendships or familial relationships; from a consequentialist perspective, whether or not one ought to treat one’s friends and family differently than complete strangers on the other side of the world depends on what the consequences would be either way (see my notes on Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” for an example). Likewise, consequentialism does not ascribe any inherently special status to institutions like promise-keeping; from a consequentialist perspective, whether or not one ought to keep one’s promises depends on the consequences of doing so or failing to do so.

All of the above seems wrong to MR. MR believe that one ought to give special treatment to one’s friends and family even it ends up making the world worse than it otherwise would be. Likewise, MR believe that one ought, at least in general, to keep one’s promises even when one can produce more good in the world by breaking a promise. Furthermore, they believe that the reason one ought to do this has nothing to do with the utility of special relationships and promise-keeping as general institutions; for instance, even if the world would be better off if no one kept their promises, MR would say that one still would have an obligation to keep one’s promises.

MR’s extended treatment of friendship, towards the end of the article, is supposed to drive home the point: true friendship seems to give us fundamental, not derivative, obligations to our friends. If we decide to honor our obligations to our friends only because, at root, doing so will produce some amount of good in the world, then we are (say MR) missing the whole point of friendship. But, consequentialism appears to analyze the friendship in precisely this way. If we agree that true friendship, as defined by MR, is part of a moral life (or even that it can be), then this presents a problem for consequentialism.


Is it permissible to murder one innocent person in order to prevent the murder of a thousand innocent people? Are there things that just never can be done, no matter how good the consequences are? MR end up saying “no,” and argue that this answer is compatible with a kind of deontology, but many deontologists take such inviolable constraints on action to be a defining difference between deontology and consequentialism. I won’t test you on whether you understand the details of MR’s argument against constraints, because it seems to me to be a deceptively slippery argument; I would, however, like you to think about it, as I encourage you to think about everything in this class.

Rule consequentialism may seem to place some constraints upon actions, but MR emphasize that these are not the kinds of constraints they have in mind—MR want fundamental constraints. Rule consequentialist constraints are not fundamental: they emerge from a deeper principle which does not itself accept constraints. Suppose, for instance, that we had a world with no murder, but we also figured out that general well-being would significantly increase if there were one random murder per year. If the world worked that way, at least some varieties of rule consequentialism would encourage periodic murder instead of forbidding it—the only reason no rule consequentialist theory actually encourages period murder is because the world presumably does not work in the way our thought experiment describes. This, clearly, is not good enough for MR.

Agent-relativity and agent-neutrality

MR believe that all three of the factors discussed above can be summed up in terms of what they call agent-relativity. The essence of agent-relative theories is that they allow the decision-making agent to accord fundamental (not just derivative) importance to their status, their interests, and their relations. By contrast, agent-neutral theories require one to remain fundamentally (in MR’s sense, explained in the previous paragraph) neutral between one’s own status, interests, and relations, and those of everyone else.

As MR explain, options do not have to be agent-relative, but they often are, since one of the reasons for introducing options is that the requirement that one always maximize the good is too demanding on individuals. It is not just (as consequentialists might argue) that being required always to choose the very best will make one less efficient at producing good in the long run; rather, the idea is that one ought, simply as a fundamental matter of right, to be able to pursue one’s own good, even at some (but not too much) cost to the greater good.

Special relationships and special obligations are agent-relative: one is required to favor one’s own family and friends over strangers to some degree, even at some cost to the greater good. Likewise, to make a promise to someone is to give that person a special claim on one’s actions, even if the greater good could be served by breaking that promise.

Finally, constraints are agent-relative because they quite simply forbid the agent from doing certain things even if the consequence is that other people will end up doing more of whatever is forbidden. A constraint on murder would forbid you to murder someone, even if you could prevent a million murders by doing so: for deontological theories that embrace this kind of constraint, the important thing is not how many murders occur in the world, but whether or not you commit one.