Deontological ethics, as far as I'm aware of derives morality from the actions rather than the consequences. But what if the action in question isn't necessarily right or wrong?

Suppose Kant walked into an ice cream store. He knows that his favorite flavor is chocolate, his mother and father both like vanilla. Both flavors being provided in the store. He knows that he can only afford one unit of ice cream, of which he will proceed to share with his two parents.

How would one determine morality in this sort of situation using deontological ethics?

  • (1) by derives morality from the actions , do you mean determines? (2) Also, why do you believe every situation must be question of morality? Can you explain where you're getting that assumption. (3) while deontology is often used to label Kant, the question might have a different answer if you mean some modern deontologist vs. kant. – virmaior Jun 5 '16 at 23:40

For Kant, if the action has no moral worth, then it is morally neutral.

In your example, as James Kingsbery pointed out, there may be hidden duties like that of honoring your parents, which would make it so you have an obvious right thing to do. But if we take the example at face value, in such a case you are merely acting on your desires, and your action therefore has no moral dimension.

In this connection it may be worth remembering that actions that are performed merely from desire are not actually free actions for Kant. So in choosing your ice cream you are just like a rock rolling down a hill - totally causally determined and without any moral features.

Final addendum points: Evil actions are also conditioned by desire, but in those cases one's desires actually contradict the moral law, as opposed to the ice cream case, where they do not impact it at all. Also, I should say that this answer is focused on Kant, and may not generalize to other deontologists. Thank you.


It obviously depends, as there is variation within deontologists.

  1. If there is no particular duty one way or the other, it very well might be entirely up to personal preference.
  2. The action might be a specific case for which there are more general duties that are applicable (eg: "Honor your Father and Mother... by letting them pick the ice cream flavor."), in which case there is a right-and-wrong decision.
  3. There might be competing duties, in which case it will depend on the exact deontological framework.
  • 1
    Regarding 3: Obligationes non colliduntur - Duties do not collide (MM, Ak. 6:224). Deontological ethics try to avoid these cases exactly by deriving from a single principle – Philip Klöcking Jul 6 '16 at 20:54

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