Kant on acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty

Adrian asked:

What is the difference between acting in accordance with duty, and acting from duty, and what is the relevance of the distinction for Immanuel Kant’s argument in book 1 of the Groundwork?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Good question.

I’ll deal with the difference, its relevance, and a common misunderstanding.

The difference:

In acting from duty, and in acting in accordance with duty, the action is the same. The difference relates to the motivation of the act (my will).

Thus, in acting from duty, I perform the action because it is my duty, irrespective of whether or not I am inclined to do it, or of whether or not it is in my interests.

Contrariwise, in acting in accordance with duty, whilst I do perform the action that duty commands, I don’t do it for that reason. Rather I do it because I am inclined to – it pleases me or is in my interests.

Kant’s examples illustrate.

(1) A shopkeeper is honest with a naive, easily duped customer, not because it is his duty to be honest, but because it will help build his good reputation, and his business. He acts in accordance with duty (he is honest) but not from duty (ie not because honesty is right whether or not it helps his reputation and business).

(2) A philanthropist helps the needy, not because this is his duty, but because it pleases him – he finds ‘inner satisfaction in spreading joy’. Again, he acts in accordance with, not from, duty.

(3) The philanthropist is going through a really bad time in his life. He no longer has any inclination to help the needy, and it gives him no pleasure. Nevertheless he does it because it is the right thing to do. Now he acts from duty.

Relevance of the distinction:

Only acting from duty has genuine moral worth. Recall that for Kant, morality is something that all rational beings can self-prescribe simply because they are rational. No desire or inclination can underpin morality because not all rational beings will, necessarily and universally, have these desires (the unhappy philanthropist, for example, has no desire to help the needy). Furthermore a desire can conflict with duty eg a desire to help a man at dead of night struggling to lift a statue into his car boot outside the back door of the museum.

In disconnecting morality from desire, Kant is opposing Hume’s passion-based (rather than reason-based) account of moral motivation.

Common misunderstanding:

That we act morally only if our inclinations are opposed to the action ie only if we do it with a long face rather than with pleasure.

This view is captured in the words of Kant’s contemporary, Schiller:

‘Gladly I serve my friends, but regrettably I do it with pleasure. Thus I am often troubled by the fact that I am not virtuous,’

with the riposte,

‘The only advice for you is to try to despise them. And thus to do with repugnance what duty commands.’

This misrepresents Kant. His message is that action has moral worth when motivated by duty, not by inclination. There is no need for any opposition. Indeed he says that inclination can aid the good will. He is saying that acting from duty is more readily evident (‘more manifest’) when it clearly goes against inclination.

He is sometimes accused of holding a contrary view to Aristotle who says that the fully virtuous man acts rightly desiring to do it, and is morally superior to the less virtuous person who is merely self-controlled (‘continent’) and acts contrary to inclination. But Kant’s target is Humean benevolence, not Aristotle.

We might think that the judgment on the happy philanthropist is a bit harsh: surely he is at least as appealing a figure as the unhappy philanthropist. He is. But this only shows, on a Kantian view, that moral actions are not the only good ones. Indeed, most of us would prefer a friend to visit us in hospital because she wants to, because she is a friend, because she cares about us, rather than because it is an unpleasant duty ie we prefer actions (in accordance with duty) from love rather than from duty.

As to whether it is more admirable to act well when it is hard to do so, the late Philippa Foot clarified this nicely by pointing out that it depends on what makes it hard, circumstances or character.

If circumstances, then more admirable. Example: a very poor person sees wallet dropped by rich man and returns it unhesitatingly. She acts more admirably than a comfortably-off finder would – she is tested (she could really do with the cash) but comes through.

If character, then less admirable. Example: finder sorely tempted to keep wallet, dithers about it but eventually returns it.

4 thoughts on “Kant on acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty

    1. Great question/subject matter. Great exposition. Many thanks indeed.

      I will humbly add.

      We might well see ‘acting in accordance with duty’ as meaning, acting in accord with cosmic or metaphysical law. We might well take understanding from the (largely Buddhist) understanding of the Five Niyamas. The Five Niyamas posits five ‘orders’ of reality. This begins with ‘inert matter’. A basic understanding of this might suggest ‘stones, rock, inert matter’. This may well accord with understandings in the West (traditionally) such as ‘physics’. The second level may well be loosly translated as ‘biology’. It is known as ‘Bija Niyama’ or ‘seed Niyama’. The third is known as Kamma Niyama and relates to Psychology – the laws of cause and effect. The fourth is Dharma Niyama and the fifth is Citta Niyama – Cosmic law – .i.e. the laws of ‘Truth’ what we might state as being the laws of such lofty aspects of metaphysics such as purpose, meaning, Knowledge, Truth, destiny.

      So, as an intersting aside, perhaps, we might posit that ‘Duty’, acting in accordance with Duty may find itself in one of these last three ‘Orders’. i.e. Doing that which benefits all, on a level we have to work really hard to grasp or ‘penetrate’.

      We might then posit also, that acting from duty might refer us to a level of acting where we are in the ‘Conditioned’ realm where we might simply be ‘attaching to meaning’ basd on subjective notions, pore-conceived ideas, attachments etc which may not be quite as useful to us.

      A very interesting area of discussion!

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