Wednesday, January 16, 2013


No, no! It’s not another variant of ontology, the last being a discourse or theory about being, in Greek onto. Therefore with ontology we have onto-logia. The word under my microscope today, however, parses apart a different way: deon-logia. Here the Greek word is deon meaning “that which is a binding duty.” Therefore deontology is the science of moral duty.

I came across this word by what may seem a highly indirect route. Michelle is studying therapeutic hypnosis in a course sponsored by the hospital where she is a midwife. And she sent us a paper, in which that word occurs in the abstract†. The sentence:

This common definition of therapeutic hypnosis needs updating in order to enable the therapists who offer it to their  patients to adjust their relational aptitudes to the scientific, deontological, and ethical needs of the contemporary therapeutic relationship.

The word is most closely related to Kantian ethics, characterized as focused on the actions and will of the agent rather that the consequences of an action. Deontology is therefore associated with the rules of absolute morality—on inputs by the agent rather than the outputs of the action (ht to Charles D. Kay). Therefore deontology is contrasted to pragmatism.

Now it amused me that in a recent post, before Michelle’s link arrived, I was committing deontology (in “Virtue and Time” link) without knowing that I was doing it. And it amuses me further than in a highly scientific context, the author would point to fundamental morality by using a very scientific-sounding word. But when it comes to reality—like really healing people—it turns out that morality is indispensable.
†Eric Bonvin, Therapeutic hypnosis: a relational art using attention with the intention to treat (link).


  1. Excellent word! It comes up quite a bit in my Ethics course, in which we study three major approaches to ethical reasoning: consequentialism, virtue ethics, and deontology.

    The medicine-ethics link is one of those things that seems to have faded out in our day. The ancient Greeks saw medicine and ethics as doing exactly the same thing -- they heal and preserve, with medicine just doing it for the body and ethics for soul and society. And, of course, in many cases you can't really do one without the other.

  2. Regarding medical uses, Brandon, your comment reminded me of Viktor Frankl's psychology (logotherapy) where he makes the identical argument.