Perfect duties regarding our moral nature. Kant regularly recognizes three objects of human desire in society affecting our use of others as means to our ends: power, wealth and honor. This triad may be the principle ordering the three negative duties to ourselves regarding our moral nature: against lying, miserly avarice and false humility (servility).
Lying. Some of Kant’s conclusions on this topic are infamously extreme, which tends to conceal from view the fact that the principles from which he derives them are conspicuously sensible and plausible. Lying is a violation of a duty to oneself when, and because, it is a violation of a rational being’s self-respect (MS 6:429). This seems right, even if it is not plausible to trace this back to the supposed natural purposiveness of our capacity for communication (MS 6:429) or to think that it forbids all intentional telling of untruth to others. Kant apparently sees no lack of self-respect in untruths told out of mere politeness or in accordance with social conventions (MS 6:431, VA 7:151-153). It should have occurred to him that there might be other cases in which, for quite different reasons, intentional untruthfulness might even be a direct expression of self-respect (as when it defies the disrespectful intrusiveness of those who are prying into one’s private affairs).
This is not the proper place to discuss Kant’s brief, late and notorious essay on the right to lie, in which he claims that lying to a would-be murderer about the whereabouts of his victim is a violation of the right of humanity (RML 8:425-430). For this is not only not about a duty to oneself, but is even about a duty of right rather than ethics. But so prurient is people’s curiosity about this essay, that it would probably seem a dereliction of my present responsibilities not to say a few words about it. What is puzzling and shocking about Kant’s discussion of this example is once again not the principles from which he was arguing but rather the way he chose to relate it to them. Kant clearly recognizes cases in which a person is not wronged by being told an untruth because the context is such that he has no ground to rely on what is said: Thus he acknowledges that we are sometimes “authorized” (befügt) to communicate our thoughts to others “telling or promising them something, whether what [we say] is true and sincere or untrue and insincere (veriloquium aut falsiloquium); for it is entirely up to them whether they want to believe [us] or not” (MS 6:238). Why did not Kant regard the case of the murderer at the door in this light? In the essay on the right to lie itself, Kant’s basic principle is that it is a wrong to humanity in general, regardless of the consequences, to tell an untruth under conditions where to permit people to do so would undermine the foundations of a rightful order in society (RML 8:426). And this seems right, if applied, for instance, to knowingly false declarations made under oath in a legitimate court of law, or by a public official (such as a U.S. President or executive appointee) who, under the pretext of ‘executive privilege’ or ‘national security’, lies under oath to a congressional inquiry. What is perplexing is not this principle, but rather Kant’s apparent belief that this applies to every case where I make an untruthful statement, even including my declaration to the would-be murderer at the door. I think the proper understanding of this perplexity must depend on a correct account of how Kant saw the issue between himself and Benjamin Constant about the requirement of truthfulness in political life, which is the real topic of the essay.
Kant distinguishes the “outer lie” (to others) from the “inner4 lie” – what we would now call ‘self-deception’ (MS 6:430-431).9 Here I think he quite plausibly regards lying as always an expression of disrespect for oneself, hence always violation of a duty to oneself. Kant is also quite perceptive in bringing some religious beliefs under this heading, especially those that rationalize such beliefs as incitements to good conduct when they are nothing of the kind:
“Someone tells an inner lie, for example, if he professes belief in a future judge of the world, although he really finds no such belief within himself but persuades himself that it could do no harm and might even be useful to profess in his thoughts to one who scrutinizes hearts a belief in such a judge, in order to win his favor in case he should exist. Someone also lies if, having no doubt about the existence of this future judge, he still flatters himself that he inwardly reveres the law, thought the only incentive he feels is fear of punishment (MS 6:430).
Kant’s view seems to be that what is most reprehensible, as well as dangerous, about the inner lie is that it is also the commonest source of the outer lies that corrupt people’s relations with one another: “Such an insincerity… deserves the strongest censure, since it is from such a rotten spot (falsity, which seems to be rooted in human nature itself) that the ill of untruthfulness spreads into his relations with other human beings as well, once this highest principle of truthfulness has been violated” (MS 6:430-431). Kant’s principled objections to all religious creeds and catechisms derives from his conviction that their principal effect on people is to teach such hypocrisy and even to promote the superstitious idea that it is the most sacred of all duties (MVT 8:269; R 6:102, 108, 137, 180, 185-190).
Avarice. Kant distinguishes ‘miserly avarice’ (karger Geiz) from “greedy avarice” (habsüchtiger Geiz) (MS 6:432). The latter, which is a desire to have more possessions than others, is a violation of a duty of beneficence to them (MS 6:432). Miserly avarice, however, which is a propensity to hoard one’s possessions with no intention of using or enjoying them. This is a violation of a duty to oneself, because it involves a failure to respect one’s rational capacities to employ the means of one’s own happiness to their proper end.
In his lectures, Kant makes some perceptive remarks about the psychology of this brand of self-contempt, which exhibits its close alliance to a kind of self-deception. Misers “go poorly clad; they have no regard for clothes, in that they think: I might always have such clothes, since I have the money for it… Possession of the wherewithal serves them in place of the real possession of all pleasures, by merely having the means thereto, they can enjoy these pleasures and also forego them” (VE 27: 400). “The invention of money is the source of avarice, for prior to that it cannot have been widely prevalent” (VE 27:402). For money gives the illusion of material substance to our imaginary power over the goods of life that we forego in order to possess and retain it. The imagination of what we might enjoy serves as the substitute for what we do not enjoy, and even multiplies our imaginary power of enjoyment in direct proportion to our deprivation in reality: “While still in possession of the money, we would have to expend it disjunctively, in that we could use it for this or that. But we think of it collectively, and fancy we could have everything in return” (VE 27: 403).
In the same way, misers have the illusion of power over others, even of their admiration, since they possess the means to influence others and to be the objects of their envy: “Miserly people are scorned and detested by others, and they cannot understand why” (VE 27:401). “The miser is thus a stranger to himself; he does not know his own nature,” and this makes avarice a vice that is especially difficult to correct (VE 27:402). Misers, Kant says, are fearful and anxious, because their riches are so important to them; they also tend to be superstitious, and religiously devout, because they regard the fetishism of religious observances as a substitute for the good conduct pleasing to God in the same way that they regard money as a substitute for the goods of life: “In their anxieties, they wish to have comfort and support; and this they obtain from God, by means of their pieties, which after all cost nothing… [The miser] pays no heed to the moral worth of his actions, but thinks that if only he prays earnestly, which costs him nothing, he will already be on his way to heaven” (VE 27:401). Kant’s discussion of miserly avarice, both in its psychology and in the social analysis surrounding it, contains much that anticipates Marx’s critique of the fetishism of commodities.
Servility. The proper measure of our self-worth is the fundamental issue for Kantian ethics. Kant’s conception of human nature also makes this measure deeply ambiguous. As sensible beings, we seem to have little worth or importance; but as moral beings, we have a dignity beyond all price (MS 6:434-435; cf. KpV 5:161-163). All human beings share alike and equally in this incomparable worth, yet we have a powerful natural tendency to self-conceit, to value ourselves, our welfare and inclinations above those of others, and to treat other human beings as mere means to our own ends. This makes the moral feeling of respect – especially, self-respect, profoundly ambiguous (MS 6:437, KpV 5:72-75). Hence we must value ourselves simultaneously by a low and by a high standard (MS 6:435). Comparing ourselves with the moral law results in humility, or even humiliation (MS 6:435-436); but recognizing ourselves as both authors and subject of that law, and as having the capacity for a good will, exalts our value beyond every other we can even conceive (MS 6:436, G 4:393). In relation to others, therefore, our duty is twofold: to avoid the arrogance of rating our worth above anyone else’s, and also the servile disposition that tempts us to subordinate ourselves to others, either for our own advantage or because of the self-contempt that may result from our failure achieve competitive priority over them.
The complexity of the duty to avoid false humility (or servility) may be briefly indicated by the variety of different requirements Kant regards as falling under it: (1) “Be no man’s lackey. – Do not let others tread with impunity on your rights.” (2) Avoid excessive indebtedness to others, which make you dependent on and inferior to them. (3) Do not be a flatterer or a parasite. (4) Do not complain or whine, even in response to bodily pain. (5) Do not kneel down or prostrate yourself even to show your veneration for heavenly objects – for Kant, this is the true meaning of idolatry (MS 6:436-437).10
The fundamental duty to oneself: conscience. Kant concludes the discussion of perfect duties to oneself by describing a duty he regards as the most fundamental of all duties whatever. This is the duty to serve as inner judge of one’s own actions, before a (metaphorical) court, which is Kant’s favored depiction of conscience.11 It cannot be our duty to have a conscience, since unless we do, we are not moral beings at all and cannot be held responsible for our actions (MS 6:400). But it is our duty to act as prosecutor and as judge of ourselves, as before a court of justice, and then attend to the verdict of this court (MS 6:438). Kant’s conception of conscience shows (what he also makes explicit in this context) the way in which an imperfect rational being, in being self-legislating and self-governing, involves a “dual personality”: On the one hand, in turn as rational legislator, prosecutor, and judge, on the other as moral agent who acts subject to the law and must stand before the bar of this inner moral court (MS 6:438n).
Conscience plays two roles in our actions: as warning us (before we act) and as pronouncing a verdict (of guilt or acquittal) over the actions we have performed (MS 6:440). This metaphor might make us think that Kant might view us also as having the duty to punish ourselves for our misdeeds (as by depriving ourselves of happiness of which we judge ourselves unworthy). But this would be a fundamental misunderstanding of his ethical theory. If we represent ourselves as unworthy of some happiness that we either enjoy or hope for, it is never our duty to deprive ourselves of it, as long as no direct violation of duty is involved in acquiring or enjoying it (such self-deprivation is simply irrational), but rather only to strive to make ourselves worthy of it by improving our conduct. Kant regards self-inflicted punishment as an impossibility (MS 6:335), and scorns the whole idea of religious penance, for example, as both “slavish” and “hypocritical” (R 6:24n). Punishment is a kind of external coercion, and ethical duties are never the proper object of external constraint but only of the inner constraint of our own reason. The inner court sentences us to no punishment except the painful feeling, a moral feeling (not an empirical one) that arises necessarily from the influence of reason on sensibility, attendant on the recognition that we have violated the moral law. This is why Kant also discusses conscience under the heading of those moral feelings which we can have no duty to have because susceptibility to them is a presupposition of being morally accountable at all (MS 6:400-401).
The first command of duty regarding conscience, Kant says, is to “know (scrutinize, fathom) yourself” regarding your own maxims and the incentives on which you act (MS 6:441). This is a duty Kant regards as impossible to fulfill completely, and whose fulfillment is attended with some serious dangers. One danger is “enthusiastic contempt” for oneself (or of the entire human species), which we avoid through becoming aware of the moral predisposition in us (the absence of which would not signify evil but simply a lack of moral personality altogether) (MS 6:441). Here Kant’s target is the morose self-scrutiny of certain religious self-examiners (such as Haller and Pascal) which leads sooner to madness than to truth (VA 7:133). This is closely allied in Kant’s mind to the pietistic religiosity in which Kant himself was raised, which “reduces [the moral agent] to a state of groaning passivity, where nothing great and good is undertaken but instead everything is expected from wishing for it” (R 6:184; cf. SF 7:55-57). The opposed danger – which in the end even bears a strong resemblance to its opposite -- is the ‘egotistical self-esteem that takes mere wishes – wishes that, however ardent, always remain empty of deeds -- for proof of a good heart” (MS 6:441). The self-knowledge Kant insists is a duty is rather the sober resolve, as far as we are able, not to deceive ourselves about our deeds or about their sources within us, a knowledge whose sole aim is constructive moral improvement.
Imperfect Duties to Oneself. These duties are ends which we are required to have regarding our own perfection, whose promotion in action is meritorious, but the failure to promote them is never blamable (unless it proceeds from a principled refusal of the obligatory end). Kant divides these duties into those regarding our natural perfection and our moral perfection.
Natural perfection is further divided into “powers of spirit” (or reason), powers of soul (or understanding, including memory, imagination and taste) and “powers of the body” (MS 6:445). These include the cultivation of our theoretical reason, the talents of mind falling under the various departments ranked along with understanding, and our bodily strengths and skills, including its general health and vitality. The Kantian theory is that it is not up to morality to determine in general what our priorities regarding these perfections should be:
“Which of these natural perfections should take precedence, and in what proportion one against the other it may be a human being’s duty to himself to make these natural perfections his end, are matters left for him to choose in accordance with rational reflection about what sort of life he would like to lead and whether he has the powers necessary for it” (MS 6:445).
The only constraint here is that each of us should try to make ourselves in to useful members of the world, as a way of showing respect for the worth of our humanity (our rational capacity in general to set and actualize ends of all sorts) (MS 6:446).
Moral perfection includes our power to conform our actions to the requirements of morality. This includes both our ability to do our duties from duty, as well as our moral virtue – that is, our power, which insofar as the ends of morality are multiple, consists in a plurality of distinct virtues – to conform our volitions to the maxims of the good will (MS 6:446-447; cf. 6:405-409). This includes not only the inner strength that makes us immune to affects but also the cultivation of inclinations which add to the strength of our good maxims (MS 6:408-409).12
What may surprise us is Kant’s position that even these duties of moral self-perfection are imperfect duties – that is, duties to strive for moral perfection, but not duties to achieve it. Of course, our strict, narrow or duties themselves remain what they were – the imperfect character of our duty to improve ourselves constitutes no excuse for our failure to act so as to avoid blame. But apart from that, we are not blamable for remaining morally imperfect, and our efforts to improve ourselves morally are meritorious rather than strictly required. Thus a person who does his narrow duties from some motive other than duty, and whose striving to improve himself on this point is only minimal and even unsuccessful, is not blamable.13 Nor is a person blamable simply because he has not made himself better able to withstand temptation than he has been in the past. His efforts in these regards are, however, meritorious.
5. Duties to oneself that appear to be duties to other beings
Above we characterized a duty to (gegen) S as one where S is a finite rational being and the requirement to comply with d is grounded on the requirement to respect humanity in the person of S. It follows, and Kant accepts the conclusion, that we have duties only to human beings – ourselves or others. Properly speaking, there can be no duties whatever to non-human living things, or to the natural world, or to God (or other nonhuman spirits). Strictly speaking, all beings for Kant fall either into the category of persons (rational beings) or things (non-rational beings). Persons are ends in themselves, while things have value only as means (G 4:428). But Kant realizes that we do seem to have duties to animals. He thinks we ought not to treat them as mere tools to be disposed of for our convenience, and does not intend his theory to slight these duties or release us from them.
Kant’s solution is to claim that although there appear to be duties to (gegen) non-human beings, all duties in regard to (in Ansehung auf) non-human or superhuman beings are really duties to oneself. In regard to non-human animals, for example, our duties to treat them with kindness, not to overwork them, to treat with gratitude those that have served us with devotion or affection, are really duties to respect our own humanity, which would be dishonored by cruelty or indifference to the sufferings of animals, or duties to perfect our moral character by cultivating virtuous qualities through our treatment of non-human beings (MS 6:442-443). Analogously, Kant argues that we have duties to preserve, and not destroy, what is beautiful in inanimate nature, and to respect the system of natural ends that we find in the natural world. This too, however, is really a duty to ourselves (MS 6:443).
Elsewhere I have argued that Kant’s arguments on these points are unconvincing – they either beg the question or fail to establish that we have the duties Kant claims we have; but that Kant’s ethical theory has the resources to do better than he in fact does, and to ground our duties regarding animals and inanimate nature on the dignity of rational nature without having to interpret these duties as duties to ourselves and without having to treat animals or other non-rational beings as mere things whose only value is that of means. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but only refer to the reader to them.14
What seem to be duties to God, according to Kant, are also in fact duties to ourselves. We have, according to Kant, a “duty of religion, the duty of ‘recognizing all our duties as (instar) divine commands’” (MS 6:443; cf. R 6:153-157). However, this is really a duty of the human being to himself (MS 6:444); and the duties we owe under it contain no special duties to God, but only our duties to human beings. The notion that we can serve God in any other way, as by praying, or churchgoing, or the reciting of creeds, or the performance of rituals, or placing ourselves in otherwise morally indifferent emotional states of belief or penitence or devotion, Kant condemns as “religious delusion” and “counterfeit service of the Deity” (R 6:167-175). I have also discussed elsewhere the reasons why Kant thinks we have a duty of religion; once again, I refer the reader to those discussions.15
6. Duties of Respect to Others
Humanity in the person of every rational being has dignity – that is, a worth that is above all price, a worth that must always be respected and cannot rationally be sacrificed in exchange for any other value (even the value of something else that has dignity) (MS 6:462).16 Respect is the proper rational attitude toward something that has objective value.17 Contempt is treating something as without value, or else as having lesser worth than it in fact has. So treating any human being as if they lacked dignity is to treat them with contempt (MS 6:462-463).
Kant thinks that people can act in such a way as to make themselves unworthy of their human dignity, but he does not think that when they do so, they actually forfeit it or deprive themselves of it. Thus the duty of respect for others entails that “I cannot deny all respect to even a vicious man as a human being; I cannot withdraw at least the respect that belongs to him in his quality as a human being, even though by his deeds he makes himself unworthy of it” (MS 6:463). This means, for example, that there must be no “disgraceful punishments that dishonor humanity itself (such as quartering a man, having him torn by dogs, cutting off his nose and ears)” (MS 6:463) – or, one might add, seeking to extract information even from “bad guys” by photographing them in sexually degrading positions and threatening to show the photos to their families.
Kant thinks we must show respect for others even in the logical or theoretical use of their reason, and even in pointing out their mistakes. We thus have
“a duty not to censure [a human being’s] errors by calling them ‘absurdities’, ‘poor judgment’ and so forth, but must rather suppose that his judgment may yet contain some truth and we must try to seek this out, uncovering, at the same time, the deceptive illusions [that misled him], so as to preserve his respect for his own understanding” (MS 6:463).
We also have a duty not to “give scandal” – by which Kant means tempting others, through example or through inducements, to do things that will later cause them to be ashamed of themselves (MS 6:464, cf. 6:394). In other words, what is most fundamental for Kant to our duty to respect others is actually the duty to preserve their self-respect, and this involves a narrow or perfect duty to avoid doing anything that would cause them to lose respect for themselves as rational beings with dignity.
Under the heading of duties of respect to others, Kant specifically lists three vices that violate these duties: arrogance, defamation and ridicule.
Arrogance. If the violation of perfect duties to oneself fundamentally involves treating humanity in one’s own person with contempt, the violation of duties of respect to others involves treating someone else with contempt. Kant calls the violation of such duties ‘self-conceit’ or ‘arrogance’ because its typical form is that of thinking of oneself as of greater value than another – which, however, is impossible, since the worth of all persons is incomparable and absolute, hence equal. From this standpoint, self-conceit or arrogance cannot consist in rating your own existence too high, but rather in rating the existence of another too low. But as soon as we think of the worth of persons as something that can be comparative, or competed for (with winners and losers), we are already treating all persons with contempt, since their true worth is beyond anything that could be competed for with winners and losers. In that sense, arrogant people (who thinks they have won such a competition, and are entitled to treat others as having lesser value than themselves) directly treat these others with contempt, but they also indirectly treat themselves with contempt as well.18
“Arrogance (Hochmut) (superbia and, as this word expresses it, the inclination to be always on top (oben zu schwimmen)) is a kind of ambition (Ehrbegierde) (ambitio) in which we demand that others think little of themselves in comparison with us” (MS 6:465). Arrogance is closely allied to our natural human desire for honor (Ehre) -- for the good opinion of others, which -- along with power and wealth -- is one of the basic goods for which people compete, and which Kant even regards as the psychological foundation of morality itself (MA 8:112-113). But he realizes there is something paradoxical in this, since competing for honor implies that people might be unequal in their worth, whereas the basic principle of morality, in the formula of humanity as end in itself, declares all rational beings to be of equal worth as ends in themselves. The point, however, is that what is basic to morality is establishing the correct rational standard for self-valuation, which involves valuing oneself for one’s humanity and not for anything in which one might even possibly be regarded as superior to others.
Defamation. This could be regarded as the characteristic vice of moralists, the desire to blame others and expose them to blame. By ‘defamation’, Kant does not mean slander (or spreading false and malicious reports about others) but rather the spreading, simply for its own sake, or because we take pleasure in it, of true information that detracts from the honor of another (MS 6:466). It is wrong – a violation of a strict duty, and a proper object of blame – to gossip about others, to expose their faults to public censure, when this is done not for the purpose of guarding others against their misdeeds but simply in order to bring them (or even human nature in general) into disrepute. Kant includes under the vice of defamation “a mania for spying on the customs or morals (Sitten) of others (allotrio-episcopia) – an offensive inquisitiveness on the part of anthropology, which everyone may resist with right as a violation of the respect due him” (MS 6:466). In other words, respect for others means what we might rather call “respecting their privacy,” or simply “minding your own business.”
Ridicule. If defamation involves taking pleasure in what is discreditable in the conduct of others, ridicule involves finding amusement in what makes them objects of mockery or derision. Kant distinguishes this from ‘banter’ or ‘joking’ (Scherz), “the familiarity among friends in which makes fun of their peculiarities that only seem to be faults but are really marks of their pluck in sometimes departing from the rule of fashion (which is not a form of derision)” (MS 6:467). It is also different from the use of humor as a way of brushing aside a malicious attack on oneself (for that is really nothing but a way of defending one’s dignity against the attack of another without descending to maliciousness. The crucial question is whether you take pleasure for its own sake in making the other into a laughing stock.
For Kant, the vices of disrespect for others display something very fundamental about human nature which is closely allied to our radical propensity for evil. We know that all rational beings are of absolute, hence equal, worth, and yet we seek superiority over others, whether by making ourselves exceptions to what we ourselves will to be universal laws, or using other rational beings as mere means to our ends, or by adopting ends that systematically conflict with theirs (and therefore violate the laws of a realm of ends). Kant realizes that as moral beings we are entangled in social relations that involve competitiveness and a false sense of human worth at their foundations.
This creates an ambiguity regarding duties of respect. Kant already acknowledges this when he speaks of showing to a vicious man “at least the respect that belongs to him as a human being” – as though (self-contradictorily) there might possibly be a greater respect shown to something than that to which it is entitled as a being with dignity or absolute and incomparable worth. Yet because our social customs are often grounded on this self-contradictory assumption, it is sometimes necessary, in social life, to treat people according to the rank that our corrupt customs assign them. Kant places beyond the scope of a Metaphysics of Morals, which is supposed to apply pure rational principles only to human nature in general, to set forth “all the different forms of respect to be shown to others in accordance with differences in their qualities or contingent relations” (MS 6:468). Yet he clearly thinks that it would be arrogant and disrespectful to the humanity of others simply to ignore all this in our dealings with them. At the same time, Kant clearly disapproves of – and regards as itself an affront to the dignity of humanity – the social customs enshrining various forms of inequality whenever they are not expressions of the obedience to civil authority needed to preserve right:
“Preferential tributes of respect in words and manners even to those who have no civil authority – reverences, obeisances (compliments) and courtly phrases marking with the utmost precision every distinction in rank, is something altogether different from courtesy (which is necessary even for those who respect each other equally) – the Du, Er, Ihr and Sie, or Ew. Wohledeln, Hochedeln, Hochedelgeborenen, Wohlgeborenen (ohe, iam satis est!)19 as forms of address, a pedantry in which the Germans seem to outdo any other people in the world (except possibly the Indian castes)” (MS 6:437).
Kant’s discussion of duties in the Metaphysics of Morals often seems to us too bound to the prejudices and conventions of his time (and perhaps also to some of his own perverse or unenlightened crotchets). But we should not forget that even the latter are sometimes his ways of trying to deal with the inherently conflicting demands of expressing appropriate valuation for humanity as an end in itself in a social world grounded on principles of mutual hostility and inequality between human beings. And we should not use our critical reactions to Kant on this or that issue as an excuse for perpetrating on ourselves the illusion that the dilemmas of upholding rational moral values in a fundamentally irrational human world are any easier for us to negotiate than they were for him.