Duty

[It] is a duty to preserve one’s life; and, in addition, everyone has also a direct inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care which most men take for it has no intrinsic worth , and their maxim has no moral import. They preserve their life as duty requires, no doubt, but not because duty requires. On the other hand, if adversity and hopeless sorrow have completely taken away the relish for life, if the unfortunate one, strong in mind, indignant at his fate rather than desponding or dejected, wishes for death, and yet preserves his own life without loving it — not from inclination or fear, but from duty — then this maxim has a moral worth.

To be beneficent when one can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, for example the inclination to honor, which, if it is happily directed to that which is in fact the public utility and accordant with duty, and consequently honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.

(Metaphysic of Morals p 15)

We’ve begun reading Kant’s Metaphysic of Morals for tutorial, and while I understand little and agree with less, it’s fairly interesting, because while the standard way of looking at duty’s place in ethics (at least among those I’ve known) is that we may do things our of duty if we can’t bring ourselves to do them out of gratitude, or joy, or love, or even inclination, but that doing anything merely out of duty is inferior, Kant takes the exact opposite position. The only way to tell that a person is really moral is to see what he does when a moral action has nothing but duty to recommend it.

Aristotle took what seems to be a more reasonable approach: there are two basic manners in which to be virtuous, he said – on the one hand is “moral strength,” which means fighting against strong destructive passions and winning (like St Augustine after his conversion), or on the other hand is temperance, which means not particularly wanting to do wrong to begin with. They are both virtues, but different ones, so that it may be possible to begin with moral strength and eventually grow into temperance (the reverse seems unlikely), but it is not possible to have both at the same time. Aristotle seems to consider temperance to be the better of the two, but as simply not available to some people, or to most people at some times of life.

What I take Kant to mean is that temperance isn’t really a virtue at all – or rather that it’s very difficult to tell if a temperate person is virtuous, whereas a morally strong person is exercising virtue all the time. But I think I made a mistake there, because Kant doesn’t speak of “virtue,” but of “morality” – and while I do not know the German he used, I am nearly certain it is not the same thing as aretē – virtue as excellence. Indeed, Kant begins with a statement apparently derived from his practical reason that is very peculiar indeed: “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will. He goes on to explain himself – I hope we talk about it in class tomorrow, because I cannot follow him at all. Apparently because anything, even specific virtues, can be made to advance bad causes, therefore they are not themselves good – as if a person were to use the virtue of prudence in order to be a more successful criminal, or courage to advance an unjust war. I suppose if you can’t gall God good, it’s pretty difficult to find anything that’s good in an unqualified sense. Plato said that somewhere out there is a form of The Good; Aristotle in the Ethics mostly concerned himself with keeping various relative goods in balance. If you’re intent on not referring to the divine it seems to be a more reasonable approach than to try to assign intrinsic goodness to something as amorphous as a “good will.”

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7 thoughts on “Duty

  1. you are supposed to do the good for its own sake; you are supposed to love God in a disinterested, unselfish way. Whether we are virtuous or not depends on how we behave when no one is looking. Purity of heart is to will one thing: to will the good–being able to do the good is another thing.
    Sorry to just throw these things and see if they stick. But I like Kant’s idea of the most pure form of duty as something one does when one has only the idea of doing one’s duty to recommend it. It is so different from the Christian maxim that we should ideally do everything from thanksfulness, gratitude being the motive force; I find this an impossible ideal to carry out in the day to day chores we all have to do. I know we’ve discussed this before–any new angles on this from an Orthodox point-of-view?

    • Orthodoxy would say that the Christian viewpoint is that everything should be done out of love, in the hope of growing into the likeness of Christ (which in Orthodoxy has more of a connotation of communion, charism, and being a “God-bearer,” than of “WWJD?”). So they say things like “salvation *is* communion,” and since it’s not really possible to be in communion with God while behaving badly, people who are “being saved” will more and more do good, because they’re more and more of one mind and will with God.

      But on the other hand, it’s important for people to not completely ruin their lives because they aren’t there yet. So Mother Melania says “motivate people with what motivates them,” whether that be Law, duty, fear of hell, hope of some kind of mercinary gain, gratitude, inclination, or whatever.

      I don’t know where Kant’s coming from (from Germany, I suppose), but the crux of the difference between the way Orthodox and Protestant Ev’s talk about why and how we do the good is that most Prots. consider salvation to be a thing like a court ruling (Fr. John mentioned that as a young man he always got the impression that God was going to put a Jesus decal on him and pretend ignorance of the real person hiding behind it), whereas Orthodoxy sees salvation as a thing more like “becoming all flame” (one of the metaphores they like is a piece of metal put into a fire, and it becomes charged with heat and light without melting), as one of the desert fathers said. And because they tend to be more eschatological than ethical in emphasis, neither duty not morals nor ethics comes up all that often as a general thing. It tends to come up more as a specific thing, like St. John Chrysostom telling the wealthy Byzantines that their neglect for the poor was abominable. But the idea of the possibility of a “metaphysic of morals” isn’t especially Christian; it would most likely amount to “actively love God and your neighbor, because God is love.”

  2. The comment specific virtues, can be made to advance bad causes, while true is not true. I realize a double negative of sorts but the clear meaning of virtues if taken out of context in this way, well it causes a problem. Obviously I did not mean out of context in the language sense but the very nature of the meanings of these virtues. I have put a lot of thought about this concept as we all have I am sure. Where we fail is in trying to explain something by using the literal meanings from a dictionary alone. The explanation of being more prudent to be a better criminal the word prudent even though correct in the English language is still incorrect because it is a virtue! Thus there lies the problem in trying to use the English language to explain certain situations involving virtues.

  3. to follow up on Fr. John’s comment about the decal, one thing I’ve heard at NWBC is that if you are saved you are in a position, occupy a station or status as it were, and are now capable of living the live that is truly Christian; one of our big problems is that we don’t realize our position, so we live as we used to. This doesn’t help me very much.

    • Hmm… I tried thinking about that, and am not sure that I understand it. I remember once Pastor Miller talking about a person as a ship where the “old man” used to be captain, but Jesus has stripped him of his rank and tied him to the mast – but we tend to listen to him anyway, out of habit. It seems similar to what you just said, but I’m not certain what either of them means for the proper ordering of a human soul. Plato likens that order to a just city, with rationality ruling, “spiritedness” as a kind of adjunct to rationality, and the passions in the position of servants. Similarly, for Aquinas, everything should be subordinate to and in conformity with reason, including our desires, and to the extent that it’s not we need a combination of law and grace to set things right. I don’t think I know what the NWBC metaphor is saying, though… Is it like Plato’s cave, only we’ve got our eyes tight shut, and can’t seem too open them? What does it mean to “not recognize our position?” Because we’re missing the sense that would be able to recognize those things, like the nous?

      It seems that perhaps we need to be more careful with some of our metaphors. Like the common Prot. one about at the Crucifixion “the Father turned his back on the Son.” Fr. John says: no! That’s impossible! We’re being tricked by the image as to what we’re really saying – the Father, obviously, is immaterial and omnipresent, So “turn his back” must mean something like “broke communion.” But that’s impossible! Because God is Trinity – and if the Father ever broke communion with the Son, then God Himself would be fragmented, and there would be… nothing.

      Speaking of which, Fr. John also had a interesting interpretation of where Jesus said ” do this in remembrance of me.” Apparently he sees the term as used there not as thinking back, but as re-member-ance; like if a person has cut off a finger, and a doctor puts it back on: “re-member” it. The same as if a person has been excommunicated; through Confession and Communion he needs to be patched back into the body, as it were.

      Bishop Anthony Bloom in his book on prayer mentioned that it’s important to not suppose that we already possess graces which have been promised, but we have hardly begun to participate in as yet. Not only because we are being delusional, but also because, since we obviously cannot have experienced grace that we do not yet have, if we continue to insist that we do have them, we have to make our understanding of these graces more and more abstract to account for why they are so imperceptible. And if we do that, some people – even people of good will- come to doubt that grace insists at all, since it makes no change in behavior, is not seen, heard, increases the understanding not at all, and has no internal or external affects on a person. That seems to be one of the great dangers of the positional theology.

  4. wow what an interesting post! I’m not sure if there has been a differentiation between how we are seen in God’s eyes and how much moral worth we have to our society. To me its obvious that to God, while duty is a virtue, it is faith that is required. If we fail in our duties, as Peter when the rooster crowed, that God forgives us. In the eyes of society, however, duty (used to be) much more important. Doing the right thing is always good, even if you don’t want to. I think that is what Kant was talking about. And when you do the right thing when you are not inclined to, it has moral worth. In God’s eyes, the difference is grace. To God, a coward with faith has as much moral worth as a hero with faith. God uses the weak. Similarly, to Kant, the coward who acts brave has moral worth, and the uneducated who succeed have moral worth (e.g. Jean Valjean). But if we fail in this life, God does not think less of us.

  5. I used to wonder why I didn’t have the grace to give up chewing tobacco. As another old song goes, “with me it’s all or nothing”–either no grace or all grace given at moment of being born again–and that obviously didn’t seem to be true, but it must be true-t’was a puzzlement and a disappointment. What wasn’t a disappointment were other Christians who actually did show, by and large, more discernment and goodness and common sense than other people did–though good knows they also were human beings with faults and virtues common to humanity–as were the non-believers. Nevertheless there seemed to be a difference

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