Deontology at the Threshold

21 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2000

See all articles by Larry Alexander

Larry Alexander

University of San Diego School of Law


Deontologists believe that agents are morally constrained in ways that preclude always being able to maximize good consequences and minimize bad ones. For example, deontologists would deny that one is morally permitted to torture an innocent person, even if doing so will save three other innocent persons from torture.

On the other hand, most deontologists concede that if the good or bad consequences of violating these deontological restrictions become sufficiently weighty, the restrictions give way and the agent is morally permitted to act as a consequentialist. The point at which consequences overcome the deontological restrictions is the deontological threshold, and those deontologists who think there is such a threshold -- for example, Michael Moore, Thomas Nagel, and Robert Nozick -- are threshold deontologists.

Threshold deontology has been almost completely neglected in the deontological literature. In this article, I examine aspects of threshold deontology, in particular pointing out peculiarities attributable to the presence of any deontological threshold, and raising a general question, previously raised by Anthony Ellis, of whether such a threshold can be rationally defended.

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Lawrence, Deontology at the Threshold. Available at SSRN: or

Lawrence Alexander (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

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