Monday, December 10, 2012

The concept of duty in Kant's moral philosophy

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The concept of duty in Kant's moral philosophy
Date: 24th December 2008 12:49

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 15 December, with your essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives paper, on a title of your own composition, 'What is Kant's concept of duty? Critically assess the role that it lays in his moral theory.'

Your outline of Kant's moral theory and your account of Kant's concept of duty are lucid and informative. Actually you give more than just Kant's 'concept of duty' by offering an explanation of Kant's system of duties -- the 'General duty of self-perfection' and the 'General duty to promote others' happiness' and the corresponding lower levels of 'system of duties' and 'duties in specific situations', including an explanation of the difference between 'perfect' and 'imperfect' duties.

You chose the question, but it is important to keep track of whether we are talking about Kant's concept of duty as such and the criticisms that might be levelled at it, and Kant's attempts to derive a complete system of ethics a priori from the categorical imperative.

There is no mention here of Kant's four formulations of the categorical imperative and their role in accounting for his conception of duty -- specifically in relation to the conception of a person as an 'end in themself' and his teleological vision of a 'kingdom of ends'. Instead, you go straight to criticisms that have been made of Kant's conception of duty.

The main problem here is that the criticisms take Kant's position and attack it on the grounds that it violates our intuitions, or fails to motivate people to act morally rather than engaging with Kant's argument -- as one needs to do.

In my email to you last time, I suggested that a defence of Kant might be mounted along the lines of an argument that a person's inclinations and feelings are not simply a 'given', which you ignore or push to one side when you are acting from the pure thought of duty. A person can be morally responsible for the way they feel. We can criticise the racist (e.g.) for having racist feelings. It's not their fault that they were brought up in a racist home, but it is a moral duty to improve oneself and overcoming racist beliefs and attitudes is one of the ways of doing this. No-one would give the time of day to someone who said, 'I can't help having racist reactions. When I see a mixed-race couple I feel sick.'

The best example I have seen of a philosopher who engages with Kant's theory of duty is F.H. Bradley in his 'Ethical Studies', Ch. 4 'Duty for Duty's Sake'. Bradley offers a brilliant and devastating critique. Through Bradley's lens, Kant's attempts to derive a system of ethics from the categorical imperative appear as a mere mirage. The only way Kant can inject content into the categorical imperative is by illicitly importing it from outside. Bradley, seeing Kant through the eyes of Hegel, may have been overstating the case but by any account deserves to be reckoned with.

I'm sorry to say, I didn't find any of the criticisms you cited in part 3 of your essay convincing.

You say, 'it seems question-begging to assume that any moral agent is required, in her rational cognition, to subject all moral decisions to one criterion.' Far from begging the question, Kant argues that the categorical imperative is the only possible moral principle (for reasons I gave last time). Kant is not required to give empirical evidence (as you seem to suggest) that this is how all, most or even some people make real-life moral decisions. Many might not realize that, in acting out of a sense of moral duty we are in fact measuring the maxim of our action against the categorical imperative. This does not mean we can't act from a sense of duty (and not merely 'in accordance' with duty). The point here is about implicit knowledge. The aim of moral philosophy is to make such implicit knowledge explicit. It is basically the same as the point made about Aristotle's Logic, that men reasoned logically before they had ever heard of Aristotle.

You discuss Philippa Foot's account of morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives (in citing the paper you left out the 'hypothetical') but it is by no means clear that Foot is responding directly to Kant. The assumption of her paper is rather that Kant's case has not, in fact, been adequately made in which case the question moral philosophers need to consider is where we go from there. (I do urge you to read McDowell on Foot, not a defence of Kant but rather an ingenious theory of how moral attributes can be understood by analogy with Lockean 'secondary properties'.)

A howler: you say, about the talented doctor who 'devoted her life to serving those in need' 'lived a life devoid of moral worth according to Kant'. But you have already explained that it is possible to do an action out of duty which one would have done anyway from inclination. Our good doctor might for all you know be an avid student of Kant. Of course, she might not be in which case (or maybe anyway) there is a difficult question of discovering her true motive. Kant has the answer here: put the doctor in a situation where her 'satisfaction from helping others' evaporates due to some personal tragedy and then see what she does.

The general point about the use of counterfactual suppositions is that they illuminate the truth conditions (meaning) of claims that cannot always be empirically verified (in the present case, it would not be ethical to attempt to verify them by deliberately changing the doctor's situation and seeing how she responds). This is the best way to respond to the objection that it is 'impossible to tell' whether or not someone is acting from duty.

Regarding the hospital visit from your Kantian friend Smith, there does not need to be any desire to act for your sake. He knows that you would be pleased to see him (even if this requires a certain effort on his part to keep his true feelings 'in reserve'). Maybe he is your only friend, or the only one who is near enough to visit you. This is admirable, in its way. I agree that you would enjoy the visit more if he really wanted to visit you, but (Kant would argue) ethics is about doing the right thing. When someone does the right thing by you that you should appreciate the action for its intrinsic worth.

Regarding your criticism that 'Kant's concept of duty can misguide' based on the Eichmann example, a defender of Kant would say that Eichmann presents a travesty of Kant, which only a self-deluding fantasist could believe. However, what is more troubling for Kant is the very real prospect that perfect duties can collide. There is no provision in his theory for this, other than to say that when the Kingdom of Ends is finally realized, it would be impossible for this to happen.

All the best,

Geoffrey