Duties


Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines duty as “a moral or legal obligation” or “obligatory tasks, conduct, service, or functions that arise from one’s position.[1]” Duty is a pivotal concept for ethical theories of obligation, which focus on expressions of rightness, wrongness and what one ought to do as fundamental to moral action.[2] Unlike ethical theories that consider consequence (i.e., utilitarianism) or finite duties (i.e., W.D. Ross’s prima facie duties) to address moral questions, Kant’s deontological theory distinguishes between duties to oneself and to others, and places duty alone at the center of moral decision making. Kant’s classification of perfect and imperfect duties is discussed below along with other theories that utilize duty.

Deontological Theory of Morality

Instrumental to his theory of morality, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argues that one’s actions are moral only when they follow the fundamental principle of the action itself regardless of consequence.[3] For Kant, morality is based on reason and can be determined using the categorical imperative,[4] which states that a moral action must respect three things: universality (it can be applied broadly), humanity (it treats individuals with respect), and autonomy (it does not impede on the reason or worth of individuals).[5]

In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant argued that perfect and imperfect duties to one’s self and to others must be considered when acting on the categorical imperative.

Perfect duties

A perfect duty is one that individuals must act on regardless of any other desire.[6] Kant indicates that the prohibition of suicide would be a perfect duty to one’s self and the prohibition of lying would be a perfect duty to others.[7] In either case, such actions, if acted upon, would contradict the categorical imperative and wouldn’t be moral (i.e. telling a lie to protect a friend’s feelings violates the duty to respect others – regardless of the motivation - by virtue of the lie itself).

Imperfect duties

Unlike perfect duties, which are absolute, imperfect duties provide prescriptions of general aims that a person might adopt in order to act morally.[8] Kant indicates the duty to develop one’s talents is an imperfect duty to one’s self and the duty of benevolence is an imperfect duty to others.[9] Such duties are subject to interpretation. While they must comply with the categorical imperative, the degree to which one acts on these duties is individualistic. For example: two people strive to further their talents, and one chooses to read the news to become “worldly” while the other pursues a master’s degree; both arguably develop one’s talents to a different extent, however both meet the imperfect duty Kant describes.

Criticisms

Kant elaborated on his classification of duties in The Metaphysics of Morals; however he is criticized for his failure to distinguish between perfect and imperfect duties given that both require rational agents to act upon them for moral actions.[10] In addition, there is debate concerning whether one can have a duty to oneself and Kant has been critiqued for positing such a duty.[11] Furthermore, unlike theories that focus on virtue, duty theories are criticized for disregarding motivations in moral assessment and for their rigid “right and wrong” assessments.[12]

Other theories that involve duties:

  • See Utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill. Consequential theories of obligation focus on the duty one has to act in order to maximize the good consequences and to minimize the bad consequences.[13] Such theories are criticized for their empirical propositions.
  • See prima facie duties and W.D. Ross. Ross argued a mixed deontological theory of obligation that posits more than one principle in ethical decision making[14] He posited six categories of prima facie duties that must be acted upon by individuals unless acting on one duty in a given situation competes with another. While Ross provides a structure for how one ought to behave, he is criticized for failing to provide guidance on how to choose between two or more competing duties.[15]
  • See Divine Command Theory. Morality is achieved through a duty to the will of God.[16]


[1]duty. (2010). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 01, 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/174700/duty
[2]Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press.
[3]Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals. In A.W. Wood (Ed.), Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (1-79). London: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1785).
[4]Wood, A. (2005). Kant. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
[5]Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals. In A.W. Wood (Ed.), Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (1-79). London: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1785).
[6]Wood, A. (2005). Kant. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
[7] Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals. In A.W. Wood (Ed.), Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (1-79). London: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1785).
[8] Guyer, P (2004). Kant, Immanuel. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved October 02, 2010, from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/DB047SECT10
[9] Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals. In A.W. Wood (Ed.), Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (1-79). London: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1785).
[10]Sedgwick, S. (2008). Kant’s groundwork of the metaphysics of morals: An introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wood, A. (2005). Kant. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
[11]Denis, L. (1997). Kant’s ethics and duties to oneself. [Electronic version]. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 78¸321-348. doi: 0031-5652/97/0400-000.
Kading, D. (1960). Are there really duties to oneself? [Electronic version], Ethics, 70(2), 155-157. doi:10.1086/291268
Singer, M. (1959). On duties to oneself. [Electronic version]. Ethics, 69(3), 202-205. doi:10.1086/291210
[12] Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.