About moral duty

600x400heartCODEWhy ought one to do one’s moral duty?
by Ivan Kristoff 

In this essay, I will argue that a person is obliged to fulfill his or her moral duty. The basis of my argument will be Kant’s moral philosophy presented in his work “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.” This will call for a discussion of the concepts of morality, moral law and duty. By exploring Kant’s moral theory I will discuss how his reasoning can be viewed in today’s reality. This in turn, will lead us to consider whether these principles can support my argument and defend the notion on obligation. Finally, I will show that one ought to do one’s moral duty.

For the purposes of clarity I will define some of the terms used in this paper. Duty is what we ought to do; an action that people are required to perform out of respect for the moral law. Moral law is the one ‘fact’ of practical reason, which is in every rational person, though some people are more aware of it than others. The moral law, in essence, is our knowledge of the difference between good and evil and our inner conviction that we ought to do what is good. Another formulation of the moral law states that one should always act in such a way that humanity either in oneself or in other is always treated as an end in itself and never merely as a means. Obligation binds us to act in accordance with duty.

What distinguishes humans from animals is that humans have duties. Animals do not act rationally but solely by instinct and sensuous inclinations, and hence have no obligations or duties (man is the only living being that blushes and the only one that needs to). Everything in nature works according to laws. Only a rational being has the power to act according to his conception of laws, i.e., according to principles, and thereby he has a will. Since the derivation of actions from laws requires reason, the will is nothing but practical reason.[1] Man feels himself a powerful counterweight to all the commands of duty, which are presented to him by reason as being so pre-eminently worthy of respect.[2] Reason unrelentingly commands actions of which the world has perhaps hitherto never provided an example and whose feasibility might well be doubted by one who bases everything upon experience.[3]  The will is another distinction between humans and animals. It is thought of as a faculty of determining itself to action in accordance with the representation of certain laws, and such a faculty can be found only in rational beings.

Kant as a deontologist supposes that moral obligation rests solely upon duty, without requiring any reference to the practical consequences that dutiful actions may happen to have. He identifies obligation as the “primary concept” of ethics (P.E. 289). There, he argues that the project of moral philosophy is to show how there can be obligations, understood as an unconditional “ought”, which both bind and motivate. It’s easy to see how an action can be necessary to achieve a certain end, but for an unconditional “ought”, the end itself must be necessary (PE 298-99)[4].

MI17EkipajDonchevaAccording to Kant, the concepts of morality are concepts of pure reason. These concepts have application that is what we have as an obligation. According to the Seven Virtues of Bushido, morality is the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason and what is right and wrong. This is done without wavering: to die when it is right to die, to strike when it is right to strike.

Another aspect of our moral duty is to be truthful. Not only because saying the truth is easier or we are afraid that we can be caught in a lie, but because being truthful is what we expect all people to be and we believe in the truth. To be truthful from duty is, however, quite different from being truthful from fear of disadvantageous consequences.[5]  Kant argues that there is a duty of truthfulness in all situations. He says that a lie always harms mankind generally. And it harms the liar himself by destroying his human dignity and making him more worthless than a thing: “by a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man”.[6] According to Kant, the truly moral person is the person who acts from a maxim of duty.  The aim of the moral will is the highest good.

AIR FORCEKant maintains that it is a (pure) reason which tells us what our duty is. In Kant’s Grounding, he uses four examples to illustrate what a reason tells us. In one of them (duty to oneself) is refraining from committing suicide. The second one (duty to others) is a lying promise. In general we only view them as two categories of duties: duty to oneself and duty to others. To know which one is predominant in us we have to aware of our moral law, that is, the principle of autonomy of the will, and the principles of our morality. To know what drives and what you are “made of” is an important factor for achieving our goals, struggle for excellence and building on our character.

Kant presents three principles (propositions) of morality:

a)        The good will must be understood by discussing duty-it is a will which is impelled by its duty.

b)        The moral worth of an action is determined by its maxim (not from its consequences).

c)        Duty is the necessity of acting from reverence for the law.

Thus the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it or in any principle of action that needs to borrow its motive from this expected effect.[7] Kant thinks of duty as confined to the outward aspects of action. His way of thinking, sees the central case of duty as that of action that has a moral worth.  Kant writes explicitly that “the concept of duty includes that of a good will.”  To him we have to structure our moral lives along certain fundamental lines, or have certain virtues.

The good is the motive of duty. To act from motive of duty is to act out of sense of duty. When a man has a developed sense of duty, he can act with respect to his principles, not emotions.

In his work Kant introduces the categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.[8] We must be able to will that a maxim of our action become a universal law: this is the canon for morally estimating any of our actions.[9] This is very hard to achieve in today’s environment. In the corporate world, in order to survive in the fierce competition, business mangers set profits and their struggle to climb the corporate ladder as their main priorities. In the army, soldiers and officers are obliged to follow strict military rules.  For the special military units their duties first three duties are the mission, the country and their comrades. The Samurai dedicated their entire lives to the unwritten code of conduct, known as Bushido. Dedication, loyalty, and true honor were the characteristics of these warriors, that made them famous as well as a sought after commodity by the ruling class. They all have their duties, codes of conduct, honor and obedience to guide them, but in many cases their priority is the success of a mission that can overwrite all of the rules of engagement and moral duties.

Moral duties can be suppressed when there is an order to commit an act of conduct that is in conflict with personal believes and religion. Many soldiers and officers have been shot on spot for not executing orders to kill or engage in inhumane acts.

There is a lot of abuse in the current political world with the concept of moral duties as the mean to persuade power. There are a few examples:

a)      Professional politicians operate on the following premise: Give and take on principle, but hold on to offices.

b)      In a 12-page set of guidelines signed by Pope John Paul II, the Vatican said that gay relationships are immoral and deviant, and that only traditional marriages can fulfill God’s plan for human reproduction. It also said that Catholic politicians are “obliged by moral duty” to vote against bills that grant status to gay unions, and to lobby publicly against such legislation. [10]

c)      John Kerry says: “As president, I promise you that the capture of Osama bin Laden and the total dismantling of Al Qaeda will be my number one international priority and my highest moral duty.”[11]

What has been proven as a great leadership in history is a solid foundation of beliefs of political leaders.  A good example of strict adherence to principles is the constant value of principles that has been seen in two of the most successful Presidents of USA; John Kennedy and Ronald Regan.  If one compares their political lives for the last 25 years before their presidential campaigns, there is no significant difference.

A man has to build his character on a set of moral principles and a moral code from which to live by. This may be strict rules of principles, a concept, which establishes a rationale for making decisions for the great good. He can preserve his course of actions and aim to complete his goals by the will of his mind power and resist the temptation for deviation from his principles. When a man is put to the test of his values, or finds himself in extreme situations, he can act by instinct and not by emotions. Emotions can depend on mood and vary rapidly. A solid base of moral principles and duty can withstand the pressure. To be able to maintain his moral duty a man must be able to distinguish between right and wrong. In order to achieve his strive for perfection, he ought to defend his will for perfection by all moral means and at all costs regardless of the consequences to his well being. This is the spirit of the leadership that inspires others. That is why one ought to do one’s moral duty.


[1] Emanuel Kant “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. James Ellington, Hackett Publishing Co., sec 412

[2] Emanuel Kant “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. James Ellington, Hackett Publishing Co., sec. 405

[3] Emanuel Kant “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. James Ellington, Hackett Publishing Co., sec 408

[4] O’Neill, Onora. Construction of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1989

[5] Emanuel Kant “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. James Ellington, Hackett Publishing Co., sec 403

[6] Emanuel Kant Doctrine of Virtue”.

[7] Emanuel Kant “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. James Ellington, Hackett Publishing Co., sec 401

[8] Emanuel Kant “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. James Ellington, Hackett Publishing Co., sec 421

[9] Emanuel Kant “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. James Ellington, Hackett Publishing Co., sec 424

[10] www.daveblackonline.com/if_only_bush_had_the_moral_coura.htm

[11] The Moral Warrior: How Kerry Can Complete Clinton’s Rhetorical Revolution by Tristan Snell