–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Loved, not Owed

by | Jun 13, 2024

Philosophers sacralize moral obligation and maintain that moral considerations are always overriding of all others, but ordinary people (as well as philosophers in their ordinary lives) hold actions done from earnest desire in higher esteem than those done from duty. “Don’t just do it out of a sense of duty” and “Do it because you want to” are commonly expressed sentiments, and who, upon hearing that someone is doing something for you out of duty, hasn’t at least thought that it would be a lot nicer if the person was doing it because he or she wanted to? Or even that perhaps, under these circumstances, one would rather the person not do it at all? 

Of course, moral philosophy can offer an analysis in terms of hypothetical imperatives, for example: People should sometimes do things out of affection and kindness, as it is a good way of currying favor or some such thing. But I would maintain that this (or anything similar) doesn’t provide a good reconstruction of our common attitudes in this area and regardless,  categorical imperatives – which are in no way conditioned upon anyone’s sentiments – are supposed to override them. Nor are these common attitudes well-construed via Kant’s conception of “imperfect duties,” which simply are obligations that apply under practical constraints (and which also are overridden by categorical ones).

The idea is that it is less rather than more admirable to be someone who is always moved by duty rather than sentiment. Indeed, it is a wisdom so common that – as already mentioned – we have a set of stock expressions and aphorisms articulating it that we use in raising our children. The reasons why it’s a bad idea to operate this way are many and cut across a number of categories, in a manner that is resistant to the abstractions, simplifications, and small ‘r’ rationalism required by most modern philosophy. 

I discussed this once with my former colleague, Elizabeth Foreman, who said that this is a good part of why she dislikes act-centered moral theories – a category to which virtually every major modern moral philosophy belongs – and prefers agent-centered ones. One might imagine, then, that a virtue ethic has an easier time making sense of these matters. But how much better is it really?

Aristotle famously thought that while flourishing is not identical with pleasure, it is nonetheless inseparable from it: virtue is marked, partly, by the actor’s enjoyment in doing what is right. So it would seem that in his ethics, the idea of the begrudging or unenthused obligation-follower is at odds with that of eudaimonia. But Aristotle also believed that pleasure in itself is inherently value-neutral; it has no particular axiological valence. Pleasure experienced in the doing of ill-deeds does not make them better, and pleasure experienced in the doing of things that are neither prohibited nor obligatory doesn’t make them better either, at least not in relation to eudaimonia.

So, I’m not sure that going the virtue-ethics route really helps us. The highest esteem is attached to eudaimonia of which virtue is constitutive. Yes, the highest good – and highest esteem – attach to those who enjoy doing what’s right, but it’s still acting out of obligation that is lionized, rather than affection for the object of one’s beneficence, and I maintain that this is at odds with our common sentiments. We would rather that people care about us than feel obligated to us, and we hold acts done on our behalf out of affection or love in higher esteem than those done out of duty. Of course, the two may go together – nothing prevents someone from both feeling obligated and caring – but when they come apart, we prefer to be cared about than to be the object of another person’s sense of duty. And though they may go together, I would suggest that there is a tension between the two. Obligation is intrinsically coercive, while genuine love and affection can only be freely given, and where there is love and affection and the voluntary doing of kindnesses, obligation is unnecessary. I don’t need to be ordered to do something I want to do anyway – by other people; by God; or by moral philosophy – and I’d much rather people do something for me because they want to, than because they have been ordered to, regardless of where the ordering is coming from. 

Even on the most self-legislating version of Kantian ethics, regard for the other is the product of intellect and ratiocination – of whether one’s principles for acting are consistent or contradictory – rather than affection or love, and the same is true of the Utilitarian, for whom the rationally-determined Utility Calculus overrides any consideration of feeling or care. After all, from a “rational” perspective, those Bengali refugees (of Peter Singer fame) matter more than your kids, wife, siblings, friends, neighbors, etc. And while moral philosophers may adore reason to the point that they can hold this sort of impersonal regard in the highest esteem, the rest of the human race would rather be liked or loved than rationally regarded or being obligated to. By a mile.