58. Moral Duty and Love?

What is the relationship between moral duty and love? Can there be a relationship? Should there be one? Let’s begin to address these questions by considering this controversial claim:

  • Love between persons can come into existence only when moral duty is present.

I think the key idea behind this claim is this: rather than see duty as an imposition on us that limits our freedom and destroys our love (as a romantic lover would see it), it is precisely by entering into a duty-bound relation that we can become real lovers in the first place. A doctor only becomes a doctor by taking the Hippocratic oath and the duty it demands; likewise true love between persons only comes into being with the acceptance of a form of moral duty. Now there are two ways we can think about a source of duty: it can come from an extrinsic source, a source outside us, or an intrinsic one, a source inside us.  An arranged marriage, for example, would be an extrinsic source of duty imposed on a couple from the outside. We can also think of various ways family, community, state, and religion impose duty on loving relations. I want to focus on an account of intrinsic duty put forth by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his Critique of Practical Reason.

Kant argues that we should freely subordinate our will to a moral law that is universal and that all rational people can follow. But why?  Because if we lose a universal criterion for morality then we don’t have objective morality at all: we would only have relativism or the view that there are no objective standards for morality. To a relativist, morality is simply a matter of opinions: opinions of subjects or societies. But there is nothing objectively true about it. What is worse, we can expect our so-called love relations to be based on selfish inclinations. Kant thinks the only way to avoid this relativism and egoism is to commit oneself to a universal law of morality that will apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times: it must be, in other words, a categorical law or imperative. To want to subordinate one’s will to the duty of a categorical imperative is to have the right motive; to obey in accordance with a categorical imperative is to act in the right way—to act morally.

So we see a connection with the doctor metaphor here: it is only be entering into a duty-bound relationship that one can become moral in the first place. Outside of this duty-bound relation we will only have relationships between people based on selfish inclinations that amount to relativism with no objective goodness at all.  Thus we see a second fundamental claim to ponder:

  • Without duty, love is hopelessly selfish and will lack all moral objectivity.

But what is the law to which we must freely, and thus intrinsically, subordinate ourselves? Well, Kant devises a few forms of the law or categorical imperative we are to follow. I will briefly present his second form that is easiest to grasp and apply (I discuss the first form of the imperative in footnote 1 below). Here is the second imperative:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of another, always as an end in itself and never as a means only.

This is the law Kant argues we must obey if love is to be moral. Let’s break it down, beginning with what the word ‘end’ means. The word ‘end’ usually refers to a termination of some sort.  But it is a word that can also mean ‘goal’ or ‘purpose’. For example, the end of taking a class is to learn something (and to get a good grade along the way). The ‘means’ will be the way one gets to the goal.  Usually it refers to the tools, instruments, or activities someone will employ or engage in.  So to do well in a class one usually needs a few books and also needs to engage in certain activities like taking exams, raising questions, taking notes, etc.

Now we have seen that Kant claims people have intrinsic worth. This implies we should see them as self-sufficient goals or ends-in-themselves. For when we think of a self-sufficient goal we think of something that is valued for itself, rather than being valued only as a means to something else.  Usually the means to a goal are not considered intrinsically worthy.  They are only good because they get us somewhere.  After we get there, we may dispense with them.  Think of how we can approach relationships with these ideas.  Some see their lovers as a means to their sexual pleasure.  They use people to get to the intrinsically worthy pleasure they want.  The person that is used as an instrument of pleasure is not treated as having intrinsic worth: they are treated poorly, degraded, lied to, hurt, humiliated, etc.  They are a mere means to an end of selfish gratification.  But others treat their lovers as people worthy of respect.  They are honest with them regarding their intentions, and only get pleasure from them if they consent. But Kant wants us to always treat people as ends-in-themselves and never only as a means.  This means that one can use someone to get work done on one’s car for example.  But the person doing the work will be respected, perhaps will get paid, and will not be cheated or lied to.  In sexual relationships, two people can use each other for pleasure but not only that: they will also treat each other with respect, will disclose intentions, and do their best not to make the other feel like they are some kind of object that is not worthy of dignity.[1] Kant argues that we can avoid using another as a means to an end only by entering into the duty-bound relations of marriage.  Kant’s view is that sexual lust outside of duty is only about directed to one’s own satisfaction.

Now perhaps love is just not the kind of thing that has a moral dimension. However, most of us think that love relationships are inextricably bound up with moral issues so we will want to continue the inquiry. If this is the case, then there are many issues one can raise in response to this account. One basic one is this:

Why can’t love be, at least in part, about giving pleasure to the beloved? Can’t it be based on an altruistic motive? And can’t this motive fall outside the realm of duty insofar as it would be a gift not an obligation? If not, why?

Another issue: Kant thinks we either have moral love with duty or immoral love. But Plato, in his Symposium for example, saw impersonal lust as a means to moral love. We don’t have an either/or in Plato but rather a both/and since erotic love can help us develop from the impersonal, selfish stages of lust that focus on the body to more spiritual commitments leading to a concern for the other person’s soul and a shared commitment to seek the Beautiful Itself. So perhaps we need to consider the ways in which selfish erotic love provides a necessary foundation for subsequent moral development; perhaps a more complex, developmental view of love that has aspects of both the moral and immoral should be explored.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves some questions about the basic vision of morality offered here: why must morality be a matter of obedience to a universal moral law?  Can’t we have a vision of moral development in which there is both objective right and wrong and no universal law for everyone to follow at all times? Can’t we have objectivity that is relative to situations without thereby being a function of personal or social opinions alone?  If so, couldn’t we have a vision of loving relationships that are moral without a self-imposed form of duty to a universal moral law?

[1] But why? To answer this question, we need to understand Kant’s first categorical imperative and what it entails. The first categorical imperative is: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. What Kant means by “maxim” here is a statement that describes the activity you are about to undertake, the activity that you are not sure is right or wrong.  So let us say we are wondering whether it is right to make a lying promise to someone in order to get out of some difficulty. Our maxim is then something like this:

“I should make a lying promise in order to get myself out of some difficulty”.

Now that my course of action is clearly articulated in the form of a maxim, I go back to the categorical imperative and ask: Can I, as a rational agent, will this maxim to be a universal law for everyone, that is, as a maxim that everyone should follow?  There will be two possible outcomes of my inquiry: if I can will my maxim as a universal law then the action is right and I should proceed; if I can’t then the action of making a lying promise is wrong and I should not proceed. But how will I know if the maxim can or cannot become a universal law? It is simple: see whether or not there is a contradiction entailed in the maxim. If there is a contradiction entailed then, as a rational agent, you don’t do it; if there is no contradiction entailed then, as a rational agent, you can do it. I emphasize ‘rational agent’ because if you are irrational then Kant’s philosophy won’t persuade you of anything. And being rational will mean, among other things, that you are committed to the most fundamental law of logic we have, the law on which rational thinking is based: the law of non-contradiction = p and not p at the same time and in the same respect is necessarily false.

The categorical imperative can only be applied if you understand what a contradiction is and if you are a rational person who refuses to contradict yourself.  Look again at the maxim we were considering:

“I should make a lying promise in order to get myself out of some difficulty”.

Now that my course of action is clearly articulated in the form of a maxim, I go back to the categorical imperative and ask: Can I, as a rational agent, will this maxim to be a universal law for everyone, that is, as a maxim that all other rational agents would follow should they be under similar circumstances?  And to find this out I simply need to see if my maxim entails a contradiction.  Does it?  This is the hard part.  Kant’s philosophy asks us to look carefully at the terms involved in the maxim and the assumptions we make—assumptions that are not always immediately clear.  So let’s look carefully at our maxim. To make a promise one has to live in a world where people believe that many people don’t lie.  This seems to be an assumption lurking underneath the maxim.  After all, if everyone lied every time they made a promise then the very idea of promise making and keeping would be nonsensical.  But then we see that to will lying promises universally would entail that (1) everyone lies when promising (because one has to will the maxim universally since it is categorical) and (2) some people do not lie when promising (because we need to assume some people tell the truth in order to make the notion of promise making possible).

But then, if we put (1) and (2) together, we have the following contradiction: Everyone should lie when promising but some should not lie when promising.  Since this is a contradiction in conception, that is, a contradiction that follows from the very concepts involved in the moral issue we are considering, the maxim “I should make a lying promise in order to get myself out of some difficulty” doesn’t satisfy the categorical imperative and thus cannot be willed by a rational agent as a universal moral law everyone should follow at all times.  Thus you see Kant’s approach is very rational, very impersonal, and has nothing to do with consequences.  It also has nothing to do with your feelings or inclinations. It is an attempt to put morality on a purely rational or a priori foundation and make it a matter of duty.  Now that this is all clear, we can return to our inquiry about why it is wrong to use a subject as an object.  Considering the terms and their meaning, we come up with the following:

(1) Everyone should violate other people’s rights when they are in a position to make a profit off them, that is, everyone should treat everyone as objects with use value alone.  However, once we do this we see that we need the notion of a subject in order to make (1) sensible.  We ask: what are the conditions for the possibility of using someone?  Don’t we need people to be subjects in order to be used?  After all, we can’t “use” objects in the moral sense; we can’t violate them and disrespect their dignity.  We can only use and disrespect subjects. But if we need subjects to make (1) intelligible, then we can write: (2) But in order for people to be used in the first place, we must assume that there are persons, subjects with free will and dignity, that make the whole notion of being used sensible in the first place.  After all, we don’t use cars, stones, guitars, and other objects in the sense of exploiting them. So we see that (1) and (2) together entail the following contradiction: everyone should treat everyone as an object and a subject at the same time. Since this is absurd, it can’t be followed by rational people who do their duty to the moral law rather than following their inclinations for personal gain. After all, rational people don’t contradict themselves.


  1. Adetayo Adefala on

    I just wonder if Kant’s position can be applied to familial love. Perhaps the idea being discussed here suffers from being considered within the context of erotic love alone. Do parents have an objective duty to love their offspring?

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