The Value of Dutiful Actions

by Carl Pierer

KantIn his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant states that an action has moral worth if and only if it is done from duty.Kant argues for his position by showing that morally right actions done from motives other than duty lack moral worth. He gives two examples:

The Shopkeeper always gives correct change. She does not care whether this is morally right or not. She is only faithful to her costumers because it ensures her making profit. Her sole motivation is self-interest and not duty.

The Philanthropist is kind because of a natural inclination. He just feels like being a morally good person. He too is not concerned with morality. Rather he behaves correctly because that is what he wants to do. He is lacking a feeling for duty.

It might be said that both actions lack moral worth since the agents are not concerned with morality at all. They do not care for whether their actions are moral. It is a happy coincidence that they are. Therefore, the agents do not deserve any moral credit. However, this argument does not prove Kant's claim conclusively. It only shows that actions lacking motivation from duty entirely are morally worthless. What if we understood Kant to mean that the action is only morally worthy if duty is the sole motivation?

Schiller's Joke expresses an intuitive resistance against this reasoning:

“The first speaker says: Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure. Hence I am plagued with doubts that I am not a virtuous person.

And the reply is: Sure, your only resource is to try to despise them entirely. And then with aversion to do what your duty enjoins you.

Intuitively, this sounds wrong. We are under no obligation to despise our friends. We can confidently like them and our friendly acts would still be morally worthy. This seems to refute Kant's claim that only actions done from duty have moral worth.

However, this objection differs from Kant's examples. Both the shopkeeper and the philanthropist lack motivation from duty entirely. All that drives them to do the morally right thing is self-interest or their natural character. Yet, the person who serves his friends with pleasure can at the same time still believe in his duty to serve his friends. So the case is: In addition to some non-duty directed motivation, the agents believe in their duty to moral behaviour. Do these actions have moral worth?

Kant does not mention these situations, so it remains open to interpretation how to answer them. Richard Henson (in “What Kant Might Have Said: Moral Worth and the Overdetermination of Dutiful Action”) calls such cases over-determined. He asks what it takes for an act to have moral worth and how this relates to objections like Schiller's Joke. He finds two reports:

a) The fitness report: “(…) that the person was at the time of the act in fit moral condition, so to speak-devotion to duty was alive and well in her heart.”

b) The battle-decoration report: “(…) that she deserves a special citation for gallantry in that she has won a hard battle in the eternal war against evil.”

Henson shows that even if Kant held that actions have moral worth only if duty is the only motivation present, Schiller's Joke would be ineffective. We have no obligation to perform morally worthy actions. Henson's analogy is: Although a soldier might get decorated in cases of extra-ordinary bravery, he does not have to put himself into circumstances, in which he can prove his bravery.

Barbara Herman (in “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty”) argues that we have to make a minimal claim about morally worthy actions. She thinks for an action to have moral worth the agent must be concerned about morality. An action does have moral worth not because of being morally right but only because the agent was concerned about its moral righteousness. If we do not consider the moral status of the actions we choose, then whether this was a morally right decision is beyond our influence. It is then pure luck if we end up with the morally right action. So how could we claim credit for doing the morally right thing? This helps to understand cases where motivation from duty is absent, but what about over-determined cases?

Herman thinks that Henson's fitness report is too weak. The over-determined shopkeeper gives correct change because she thinks it is morally right and because it ensures her profit. But what if these two motivations came into conflict, say when she could make greater profit by acting immorally? Then her action would have moral worth only if she acted from duty, for only this would guarantee that she acts morally. Herman therefore suggests a refined version of the fitness report, which is akin to the battle-decoration report. She continues: “If it seems reasonable to credit an action with moral worth only if its performance does not depend on an accident of circumstances, it seems equally reasonable to allow that failure in different circumstances does not require denial of moral worth to the original performance.” She believes that neither of Henson's reports can account for this attribution of moral worth. So she suggests that we have to add the requirement that the motivation from which the agent actually acts is duty.

Answering Schiller's Joke, Herman would argue that serving your friends does have moral worth, but only if duty is the motivation you are acting from. This seems to stand in line with our intuitive concept of friendship. We consider friendship to be only true if we stick with our friends despite certain inconveniences for us.

Another objection might be that the argument is circular. Herman's assumption is that we have to be responsible for the fact that our actions are morally right, otherwise we cannot claim any credit for them. According to the deontologist, the right action is the one that duty commands. Hence, the deontologist thinks that only actions abiding by duty are morally right. Second, only morally right actions can have moral worth. We can only be sure that we choose the right action if we abide by duty. Hence, only actions abiding by duty can have moral worth.

However, if we want to show that only actions done from duty do have moral worth, the reasoning fails. Herman found that concern for morality is a necessary condition for actions to have moral worth. This concern is equivalent to concern for what our duty is, the deontologist says. But then the sentence “Only actions done from duty have moral worth” becomes a tautology. We found that “to have moral worth” is synonymous to “being concerned about morality”. This results in “Only actions done from duty are actions concerned about morality”. Furthermore, “being concerned about morality” is equivalent to concern for what is our duty. This gives us: “Only actions done from duty are actions concerned for what our duty is”, which is a tautology.

A critic might find that (A) concern for morality is a necessary condition for (B) actions to have moral worth does not entail that the two are equivalent. So A implies B, but B not necessarily implies A.

Yet Herman states that concern for morality is a sufficient condition: “And when we say that an action has moral worth, we mean to indicate (at the very least) that the agent acted dutifully from an interest in the rightness of his action: an interest that therefore makes its being a right action the nonaccidental effect of the agent's concern.” It becomes clear that for Herman a morally worthy action implies an interest in morality. This shows that B and A are equivalent and so the critic's objection does not hold.

Herman's account leaves the question tautological because her argument is circular. While still valid, the argument will not convince anyone who is not yet convinced of deontology. However, within Kantian ethics Herman's defense seems plausible. So if we understand the question in Kantian terms, then we can answer in the affirmative. Or we reject the question, for even if understood in Kantian terms, we are not forced to accept his ethical theory. But if we take duty to mean moral concern, without further specifying towards which theory this concern is to be directed, then the question becomes a tautology.

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