On the Moral Value (and Dangers) of Dutifulness

What kinds of motives are morally relevant? Which are important? Why are they important? When are they important? How do they relate to one another? What are their respective places in the best overall moral framework? In a few posts I hope to answer such questions as these. I am going to distinguish various kinds of morally relevant motives and talk about why I think we are drawn to see them as important and what their respective limits are. In this post, I am starting off with dutifulness and conscientiousness.

What is Dutifulness?

A crucial part of being a morally good person is doing the morally right thing because it’s the morally right thing. This is typically called either “conscientiousness” or “dutifulness”. An action is not fully ideal morally if you don’t care at all about whether it’s the morally right thing. If the morally right thing to do just happens to suit your immediate desires but you would just as readily and easily do an immoral thing were that in your immediate interest instead, then even though you do the right thing, you are not an especially morally conscientious or dutiful person. You and your motives in that case are not especially praiseworthy, even if the action you happen to be performing is itself obligated, preferable, beneficial, or otherwise praiseworthy.

Crucially, proper dutifulness must be distinguished from mere conformism, servility, and either unthinking or cowardly deference to dominant or poorly chosen authorities. Merely obeying one’s family, one’s society, one’s government, one’s religious authorities, one’s god, or anyone else, without independently confirming for oneself that what is commanded of you is actually morally approvable is irrational and amounts to an immoral abdication of one’s responsibility as a thinking, willing being. We must be conscientiously dutiful if our dutifulness is to mean anything. Indiscriminatingly accepting unjust impositions of duties upon you is not being conscientious or honoring true moral imperatives. It is rather the opposite. If you have a genuine duty, you can rationally defend it. If someone tries to order you to do something or claim you are duty bound to do it, then there must exist intellectually compelling reasons for your doing it that you can accept with your uncoerced reason. If you ever do have to trust others’ moral judgment then you should at least have rational warrant for believing that they are demonstrably reliable moral authorities. (For much more on these themes read my post: “But Why MUST I?” Kant’s Ironic Formulation Of Liberty As Duty.)

Why is dutifulness valuable?

Dutifulness matters for a few reasons. For one thing, it correlates with trustworthiness. One of the important reasons to have morality at all is because it has the potential to create order, harmony, and flourishing among people who interact with each other or whose actions affect each other. If people are not conscientious, i.e., not concerned to do the right thing just because it’s right, then they will likely be only inconsistently moral. When it does not suit their interest, they may not come through. When they can get away with being immoral and benefit from it, they will go ahead and do so unless some other motives prevail and either hold them back or entice them to do the moral thing after all.

We can also see the value of dutifulness for our own personal character and not just for its role in securing other people’s reliable moral cooperation. This is because our own personal, long term, and macro-level desires for order, harmony, and flourishing sometimes involve making short term or micro-level personal sacrifices of things we want. For the greater overall good (either for the society on which we are mutually interdependent or for ourselves as individuals) we need to adhere to principles that in the main produce the most good for the total number, for the worst off, and/or for ourselves directly. In these times, when we need to focus on doing what is right from a big picture perspective, it is really helpful to have a mind and heart that feel compelled to do what one knows is right just on account of its being right. When the incentives to be good do not actually entice us, we need to be able to rely on an emotional and cognitive commitment to just doing the right thing.

Beyond these ways that being dutiful and conscientious are useful, one might argue that it is also intrinsically appropriate to love good things. They deserve to be loved for being good things. When something is truly good, loving it is a way of acknowledging that truth on an emotional level, rather than just on a cognitive one. Right actions are a species of good things. And being outright motivated, emotionally and/or cognitively, by a recognition that an action is right might be the fullest way of feeling and assenting to the truth of that action’s rightness. Because in this case you so much acknowledge the truth that it is right that you are moved to action. You commit to it in deed and you accept its consequences. You deliberately make that action part of the very narrative of your life that constitutes who you are at all.  And so the dutiful person, as someone who loves right actions for their own sake, feels in the most morally and rationally approvable way about them, is moved in the fullest way by them, and integrates them into her life and her being in the most committed way.

What is the limit of the value of dutifulness?

Dutifulness can go wrong when one misapprehends what the right action is. Dutifulness can also go terribly wrong when we misunderstand who or what is a proper authority to give us duties. We can obey the wrong people. Or we can be insufficiently critical and wind up obeying the right people even when they are wrong. We can also reason from bad principles to the wrong conclusions. Or under the influence of poor leaders or poor conceptual frameworks we can aim at fulfilling our genuine duties in ways that are contorted, counter-productive, or otherwise confused. And worst of all, when obeying the wrong moral principles or leaders our very dutiful conscientiousness itself can make us the most passionately, zealously, and dangerously wrong people of all—and all with the cleanest and proudest of consciences!

Sometimes dutifulness’s tendency to commit us emotionally to a specific action that is usually right can also make us so habituated to, and/or so enamored of, that normally right action that we become insensate and unresponsive when some different action is actually right instead. Also, sometimes a duty focused mindset can lead one to fetishize rules as a legalist and make it difficult to properly weigh and appreciate the value of other goods besides rules or which conflict with normally good rules. And finally, we may be under-inclined to question and reexamine rules that are either outdated or which were wrongly ingrained in us because our dutiful character is so comfortable with deferring to them. Sometimes when rules chafe people, it’s a sign there is a problem with the rules and not just that they are shortsighted or selfish or weak willed. And sometimes when bad rules don’t chafe people it is because they are excessively dutiful to the expense of losing sight of the truly right. So, in short, our conscientiousness and dutifulness must always be aimed at what is truly right and what truly serves the good on the macro level and in the long run. It should not be just about rules for their own sake or about an uncritical attachment to what is normally right even when it is not.

And it is rarely, if ever, ideal that dutifulness alone should motivate us. As I have already noted, dutifulness has several kinds of intrinsic and instrumental value, not least of which being its ability to serve as a vital fail safe for when all our other good motives fail us. But many kinds of right actions are right because they ultimately are connected to some further good (whether in the short or the long term, or on the micro or the macro level). And I think it is best–emotionally, cognitively, and motivationally–that we respond to goods for their own goodness. So even as I think it is good that we dutifully recognize, love, and are motivated by rightness, I also think that in the best case scenario we should simultaneously recognize, love, and be motivated by those goods that make right actions right in the first place.

One case where this is especially salient is in our relationships with other people. Reliably doing right by other people means being able to (dutifully) do right by them even when we do not have positive feelings for them. But, in order to have the most fulfilling and meaningful connections to others, we must also love them themselves, desire them and their happiness, identify with them and their interests, feel compassion for them, wish to empower them, and take pleasure in their pleasure and their success.  And so our motives should be comprised not only of duty but also of some one (or more) species of love in order to be completely ideal. I do not think that actions either need to have one single motive or ever could. Rather I think our motives should incorporate dimensions of both love for doing what is right for the sake of its rightness and love for what is good for the sake of its goodness.

I hope to talk about love, compassion, and other kinds (or components) of moral motivations in future posts.

Your Thoughts?

Related posts on dutifulness:

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

Philosophical Ethics: Can We Uphold Both A Moral Law And A Principle That We Should Break It?

Philosophical Ethics: “But Why MUST I?” Kant’s Ironic Formulation Of Liberty As Duty

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

Nietzsche’s Immoralism as Rebellion Against the Authoritarian Tendencies of Moralities

Philosophical Ethics: Kant, The Good Will, and Rational Actions

Philosophical Ethics: A Possible Kantian Formula For Determining The Permissibility Of Self-Defense

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

    Dan,

    Thanks for this clear and concise explication of dutifulness. I can’t help but engaging in a little metaethical musing, however. Towards the beginning of your post, you write:

    Merely obeying one’s family, one’s society, one’s government, one’s religious authorities, one’s god, or anyone else, without independently confirming for oneself that what is commanded of you is actually morally approvable is irrational and amounts to an immoral abdication of one’s responsibility as a thinking, willing being.

    This seems sensible enough, but it leaves open the question of how one would ever go about an “independent confirmation” of the moral approvability of an action.

    You go on to present a test for determining moral approvability:

    We can [...] see the value of dutifulness for our own personal character and not just for its role in securing other people’s reliable moral cooperation. This is because our own personal, long term, and macro-level desires for order, harmony, and flourishing sometimes involve making short term or micro-level personal sacrifices of things we want. For the greater overall good (either for the society on which we are mutually interdependent or for ourselves as individuals) we need to adhere to principles that in the main produce the most good for the total number, for the worst off, and/or for ourselves directly.

    If I understand you correctly, you seem to be arguing that I can objectively test the moral acceptability of an action by determining whether it benefits the “greater overall good.”

    The juxtaposition of the claim regarding my “personal desires” with the claims regarding the “overall good” suggests you’re drawing a connection between the two that is not merely analogical. Obviously, in some cases the greater overall good will also correlate with my own self-interest and desires (short or long-term)—but surely not all the time. For instance, if I’m in a plane crash and sitting in the exit row, it would be in my personal interest to get the hell out of the plane—not to help everybody else out first. Clearly, if all exit-row dwellers in all plane crashes followed suit then we’d have problems, but why should my assessment of the morality of my actions have to abide by an “if everybody acted like you, then everything would fall apart” Kantian logic? Why, for that matter, should I assume that my long-term desires are (or ought to be) for order or harmony? Indeed, need there even be a connection between my duty and my short or long term desires? In short, why should I regard your test of moral approvability—or even your claim that duties exist and should be followed once rationally derived—any higher than the claims for obedience staked by government or religious authority? What makes it objective?

    [I apologize for not having had the time to work through all your related posts, some of which I realize may address this objection. I would note that the same issue seems to be raised by your claim in "Why be morally dutiful....?" when you state that "what it means to maximize my power is to thrive as much as I can in all the powers that constitute me"—why should I assume that the best end is to "maximize my power"? (I suppose if we assume that you're addressing only Nietzscheans then this is no issue, but it becomes one if we don't take any commitments on the part of your audience for granted.)]

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Bernadette! Here is an answer to the last part of your question, about why the best end is to maximize your power:

      Our power, in brief, is our good because we are constituted of it. Put simply, we are our powers. They constitute us. They make us up. We do not simply have reason, emotional capabilities, technological capacities, artistic abilities, physical strengths, social skills, sexuality, aesthetic sensitivity, etc. We only exist in and through such powers. Each of these broad categories of powers is composed of a large set of subset powers and can combine into more and more complex and efficacious powers. Definitionally our powers’ greatest possibilities for realization of themselves is our greatest good. (Accomplishing this total greatest power possibility often means curbing some powers in various ways for the sake of the total net power.)

      The most objective sense of the word good we have is this one of functional effectiveness. “x being effective at bringing about y” is “x being objectively good at bringing about y”. “x and y functioning effectively together to a greater or lesser extent to make a z” is “x and y functioning well as a z”. To the extent that something functioning to an extent as a z fulfills the formal functional possibilities for z’s it is an effective, or good, z. Each power is understandable as one of these functional abilities, a form of effectiveness, objectively describable from a third person point of view. Each power is an ability of some set of x, y, z etc. to function together as a functional power in the world. Each functional power is, descriptively, an empirically “good” instance of that power insofar as that functioning happens well according to that kind of function that it is.

      That goodness accumulates such that the more total functional power we have the more objective goodness we have. Our functional powers as humans extends beyond just functioning powerfully within ourselves. We are most powerful when we empower others such that our powers are able to function through them and multiply its effectiveness. This is the core of why contributing maximally to the total power of the total human community is our own highest apex of our own power.

      Moral rules gain their objective normative force from the ways that they ultimately serve the total human community’s total growth in power. Since our interest in our own power is fundamentally tied to that total power, those rules gain objective normative force for us too. So objectively normative moral force with the ability to override our short term, micro level subjective interests need not be completely independent of our personal interests for its normative force (although this is often thought to be necessary). In my view, ultimately for us to really be bound to morality it must ultimately come back to our own objective interests. The normative force of morality comes from the ways that it instrumentally allows us to fulfill what I think are our objectively determinable interests. Those objectively determinable interests may be at odds with our subjective feelings, desire, will, or misperception of our actual interests. What I think is ultimately happening in morality is that it is overriding our misperception of our interests and our tendencies to subjectively desire in short term and micro level ways, in order to fulfill our ultimate interests on the macro and long term level, considering our good from a third person standard of what maximizes our total power.


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