Monday, May 04, 2009

A Categorical Disagreement

This week’s reading from Immanuel Kant’s The Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals provided an interesting dovetail to a home conversation on familial obligations. It seems that if a duty is accomplished grudgingly, in order to avoid negative repercussions, it lacks the good will necessary to meet the standards of Kant’s morality. But he disagrees. Kant says acting “from duty” is good and moral; acting “in accord with duty,” no matter the motivation, “has no moral worth.” To assert that to be moral something must be done “for the sake of the law” seems to take all morality out an action entirely and place it under the realm of compulsion. Act properly or suffer the consequences, not because it’s the right thing to do. It makes no sense to me that someone who behaves in a given manner because it is expected of him – it is his duty – is somehow more moral than one who behaves in the same manner because of “inclination.”

We visit family and attempt to maintain cordial relations, initially because of personal inclination. With the recent negativity such encounters have given rise to, the effort has taken on the mantle of duty while the act remains the same. The sense of good will has definitely lessened, yet Kant seems to say the latter actions are more “moral” than those which were originally motivated by good nature. How can that be? And to take this musing a step further, why should it matter? If the action is correct and the motive is pure (or not), why should stamping a label of “moral” on the behavior serve any purpose? Even Kant admits such a determination of duty versus inclination has never been made and probably will never be possible. He is satisfied to “comprehend…the incomprehensibility” of the moral imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” From this universal law all morality arises and is incumbent on each person as a guide to right action. Consequences of such actions are not a consideration, only the rightness of the act itself. So visiting family out of duty with a resulting disharmony is the better course of action than a loving visit from inclination which leads to a better relationship. Such a concept boggles the mind and seems to destroy the very Reason on which it is supposedly based.

I do not claim to understand Kant entirely; that would take a lifetime, if it is even possible. His writing gives rise to interesting debate and a deeper exploration of personal motivations, and a further step away from that unexamined life of no worth. In support of my position, I take refuge in Kant’s own assertion that “ordinary human understanding in its practical concerns…may have as much hope as any philosopher of hitting the mark” even though he goes on to claim man must have science (i.e., philosophy) in which to ground wisdom.

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