What is duty and what is instinct?

Brigette asked:

What is the difference between acting out of duty and acting out of instinct?

Answer by Paul Fagan

There may be no difference in the actual actions performed, but deontologists, as one example, may make a distinction based upon the motivations causing such actions. In order to demonstrate a distinction we may accept the deontological standpoint that persons should be treated as ‘ends’ and not ‘means’, and we should consciously act out this proposition in our daily lives.

For instance, if you saw someone starving in the street then you may have, what we may call, an instinctive reaction to help this person and you may buy her some food: this is a comprehensible response if we consider human beings to be entities who have evolved in groups and who instinctively wish to help other members of society. Although you may think that you have acted dutifully, here the problem for some deontologists may be that they do not consider it to be a dutiful act as you were not conscious of performing a duty.

Contrast this first situation with a second situation. You may see a person starving in the street and you may experience, what we may again call an instinctive reaction, but this time to avoid helping the person: as you feel that the person in question has not done enough to help herself and remedy the predicament she now experiences. Again this is a comprehensible response if we accept that people often learn the reactions they experience form their host society. However,  if you treat this person as an ‘end’ and buy some food for her, as you are consciously aware that you should do your duty, then the hardened deontologist would be more likely to consider your actions as being dutiful.

Although a duty may coincide with an instinct as in the first instance, the deontologist may claim that the second instance more truly demonstrates what comprises a duty.

The internet provides much food for thought concerning ‘duty’, but for further reading a good place to start would be a very readable article by the BBC entitled ‘Duty-based ethics’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/duty_1.shtml). And should this have whetted your appetite, then the reader may like to move on to the more comprehensive ‘Kant’s Moral Philosophy’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/).

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