Deontological ethics are built around certain rules, duties, and principles which one must follow in order to be a moral being.

Given such a duty, is the enforcement of these duties in and of itself another duty?

For example, imagine an ethical deontological framework which begins with only one rule.

You may never lie.

Do we then automatically have another duty which says

You must teach others to not lie.

And then automatically another duty which says

You must teach others to teach others not to lie.

And so on?


Take it as a fairly simple test case in Kant. Could we universalize this?

If everyone were responsible for ensuring others' morality you would end up with a degree of meddling that most folks could not wish for. (We already see how intolerable the culture's judgement of people's parenting is, and this would make everyone effectively the parent of everyone else.) Also, given that most duties are contingent anyway, and related maxims can be stated many different ways, our autonomy to reach the truth by our own path would lead to constant problems with interpretation.

So no. At least according to one of the most popular deontologists, making others do their duty should not be a direct duty.

Making sure that institutions to which you contribute encourage others to do their duty is another thing entirely. The notion of a community, generally a state, allows for a limited and codified kind of meddling which people have accepted voluntarily or according to tradition and character.

So somebody in the community should enforce a given shared interpretation of a minimal compliance with duty. And you should cooperate with that process. But each of us independently should not. Vigilantism is not in order. You are not obligated go out and search for ways to prevent murder. But you should require that your state do its best at this, to the extent you are able.

This is much simpler, and not recursive, only reciprocal. We are to properly judge the state so that it judges everyone else's morality properly.

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Technically, “deontological ethics” is just a meta-ethical classification for ethical theories that evaluate the morality of an action according to a general rule/rules. (Though it is often used to refer to Kantian ethics, in particular.) If “follow these rules” is one of the rules of the theory, then following the rules would be a moral duty.

More generally, though, I think what you’re getting at is the “binding force” of normative claims. This would be shared by most (if not all) ethical theories that ascribe to an objective view of moral obligation (as well as some non-objective theories).

See the SEP subsection of the entry on Metaethics titled “Morals, motives, and reasons” for more information and further references.

To elaborate on how this would connect with one's attitude towards others, especially whether there are duties to enforce "the moral code", there are a number of interrelated issues. A few issues come to mind:

  1. Prescriptive Universals: a view, sometimes called "moral universalism", is that the moral claim of realist theories are universal. This can mean several things: 1) they apply at all times, under all circumstances; 2) they apply to all relevant similar actions; and, most relevantly, 3) they apply to all people.

  2. Tolerance: assuming that the moral rules are relevantly universal, the question of whether we have a duty to enforce them in the actions of others is closely tied to whether tolerance of conflicting views is obligatory, or even permissible. If it's not permissible to tolerate wrong action, then according to many views we would be obligated to (at least attempt) to prevent such action.

  3. Moral Disagreement: there is disagreement over what is right/wrong, the pertinent question in this context is what the appropriate reaction to such disagreement is. Is it to "agree to disagree" (i.e., tolerate dissenting views), or can one side justifiably enforce their position?

  4. Contractualism: Some contractualists hold that we have a duty to prevent wrongs. Since violating the moral rules would be committing wrongs, we have a duty to prevent them. For example, there is Scanlon's Rescue Principle:

    If we can prevent something very bad from happening to someone by making a slight or even moderate sacrifice, it would be wrong not to do so (Scanlon 1998, p. 224).

A stronger version is Ashford's Stringent Principle:

If we can prevent something very bad from happening to someone by making a great sacrifice (e.g., giving most of our income to aid agencies and spending a lot of our spare time on campaigning and fund-raising), it would be wrong not to do so (Ashford 2003, p. 287).

Similarly, in the entry on supererogation, the contract theorist Richards is described as giving the following account of supererogatory action (intuitively, an action that is "good to do" but which would be permissible not to do):

Thus, for instance, contract theorists (Richards 1971) describe principles of supererogation as those that ideal contractors in the original position would consent not to enforce in society. Supererogatory behavior is a requirement, but punishing those who do not fulfill the requirement would be too costly in terms of the relative pain incurred to the agent as against the benefit to the potential beneficiary. Failure to act supererogatorily is blameworthy and wrong, but lends itself only to informal criticism rather than to institutionalized sanction. Supererogation is justified only in qualified, circumstantial terms relating to the limited effectiveness of its enforcement. It has no intrinsic value.

This presumes a duty to enforce, but accepts that it has limits. The duty to enforce must be weighed against the cost of doing so.

While it's debatable whether this is a form of deontology (I could imagine definitions under which it wouldn't be) it is worth noting that it often takes inspiration from Kantian ethics, and that a similar "weighing problem" also arises in the Kantian setting. What are we to do when two duties conflict? Kant claimed that this didn't ever occur with "strict moral laws", but allows a wider sense of "duties of virtue" where such duties can conflict and our duties can be defeasible. In the case of a conflict between these "wider obligations", Kant discusses the "grounds of obligation" and says that the stronger ground prevails. Ranking the "grounds of obligation" according to strength requires something like a weighting of these various grounds. (See "Kantian Dilemmas? Moral Conflict in Kant's Ethical Theory" by Jens Timmerman; especially section 4, starting on page 51, for more discussion.)

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  • This fails to contain an actual answer. It is useful but it neither supports, challenges or deconstructs the actual question. – user9166 Jan 12 '18 at 17:10
  • @jobermark Care to elaborate? Is it because I didn't also add whether the "binding force" applies to others? Absent specification of an ethical theory, all that can really be said is "it depends". – Dennis Jan 12 '18 at 17:14
  • @jobermark Ok, you've edited your comment to add more assertions. None of them are explanations. "Constructive criticism" is always appreciated, I don't see how bald assertions help anyone. – Dennis Jan 12 '18 at 17:15
  • Read the question. Can an answer to that question, as stated, (including even a reason why it should be asked otherwise) be derived from the contents of your post? If not, what you are giving is not an answer. This is not a 'bald assertion' is is a straightforward observation. Vocabulary is not a theory. – user9166 Jan 12 '18 at 17:30
  • Even if your answer is 'it depends', it would usually indicate what sorts of things upon which you really think it would depend. A long comment does not become an answer without addressing the question. – user9166 Jan 12 '18 at 17:32


I here take this to be the view that there are constraints that prohibit the performance of actions of certain types, such as murder and lying, regardless of how much good they will do; and requirements that prescribe the performance of actions of certain other types, such as saving the life of a mass murderer when one is reasonably able to do so, regardless of how much harm they will do.

The easy bit

It's perfectly straightforward that deontological duties logically generate deontological duties 'ampliatively' : e.g. 'You must never lie' implies 'You must never lie (to a child)'; and 'specifically' 'You must never lie' implies 'You must not lie (to Mary about meeting her next week)'.

The difficult bit

Where I find difficulty in your question is in seeing how your iterative duties are generated. How do you get from (a) 'You may never lie' to (b) 'You must teach others not to lie' ? The first does not logically imply the second. To get from (a) to (b) logically you need an intermediate premise :

You may never lie

Whatever you may not do you have a duty to teach others not to do

Therefore : You have a duty to teach others not to lie

But then a problem arises about the derivation of the intermediate premise :

Whatever you may not do you have a duty to teach others not to do

Where does this come from ? How do you derive the premises to deduce this as a conclusion ? And if you can derive 'Whatever you may not do you have a duty to teach others not to do' from premises, what are these premises and how in turn do you derive them ?

To prevent a regress, you need 'Whatever you may not do you have a duty to teach others not to do' as a duty in its own right on a level with 'You may never lie'. The question then is : how to vindicate 'Whatever you may not do you have a duty to teach others not to do' as a duty in its own right ?

This takes you into moral epistemology. Do you know duties by intuition ? From divine command ? From Sittlichkeit, the morality of your historically specific ethical community ? Only you can answer these questions ?

Your Question is a good one, it's unobvious and makes one think. Well done.

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