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Deontology at the Threshold

Larry Alexander

University of San Diego School of Law

San Diego Law Review, Vol. 37, Pp. 893-912, 2000

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.

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Date posted: December 12, 2000  

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Larry, Deontology at the Threshold. San Diego Law Review, Vol. 37, Pp. 893-912, 2000. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=253676 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.253676

Contact Information

Lawrence Alexander (Contact Author)
University of San Diego School of Law ( email )
5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-2317 (Phone)
619-260-4728 (Fax)
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