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

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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.