Acting dutifully and acting well

Dzmeb asked:

To act out of duty, is it necessarily to act well?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this, I would hold that some philosophers are of the opinion that one may do one’s duty without necessarily acting well. I will attempt to demonstrate this by using an example inspired by the philosophical creed of deontology.

Now, imagine you are in Calais and have just bought some lovely croissants from a boulangerie. Then, you come across a starving refugee in the street. You give a croissant to the refugee and thereby save her life. Here, I would think that most people would agree that saving another’s life is acting out of duty.

On the face of it, you have acted well. But the question remains, have you actually acted well? To explain, if you gave a croissant to the refugee because you felt sorry for the refugee and it makes you personally feel better, then you have really used the refugee as a ‘means to an end’: you have used the refugee in a process that gratifies your own needs.  In essence, you have acted well but only because your self-interest accidently coincided with acting well.

For some philosophers, it would be better if you intended to consistently treat others as ‘ends’ in their own right: in the scenario described, this would occur if you appreciated refugees as persons, wished for them to flourish, and donated a croissant to contribute to this. Therefore, for some, treating people as ‘ends’ and acting accordingly would constitute living ‘well’. That said, it should be noted that this reasoning has its detractors as those adhering to this sort of reasoning are often criticised for being impractically rigid, not providing a theory sophisticated enough to prioritise between differing situations, and also attempting to distance persons from their intuitions and emotions.

Overall, an enormous amount of literature has been written on this type of thinking and the most perfunctory surf of the internet will uncover many situations of this ilk with accompanying discussions. However, if this has whetted your appetite for such philosophising, then the reader may like to visit the entry for ‘Deontological Ethics’ in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

In concluding, I would hope that a point has been made quite clearly: that according to some philosophers, one may act dutifully whilst not necessarily acting well.

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