58. Moral Duty and Love?

Many people think love and duty are mutually exclusive. This exclusivity is a popular theme in romantic literature from the middle ages (for example, Tristan and Isolde as well as Heliose and Abelard) all the way up to Game of Thrones which explicitly, especially in the final season, sets love against duty leading to a dramatic and tragic choice between them. And our own lives offer plenty of examples of burdensome duty-bound commitments that are undertaken with no love at all. But could it be that duty and love are far more interconnected than we realize? Could it be that, however counterintuitive it may sound to our romantically conditioned ears, love is, in some sense, actually impossible without duty? 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 who values spontaneity and the ways of the heart 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 as would jury duty, the draft, and various professional, religious, and familial obligations. But let’s focus on an account of intrinsic duty put forth by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his Critique of Practical Reason.

Kant argues that we have the capacity to give ourselves duty by freely subordinating our will to a moral law that is universal and that all rational people can follow. And we should do so 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. Moreover, Kant thinks we can expect our so-called love relations to be based on nothing but selfishness if we don’t subordinate our inclinations to duty. 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 with duty added we have a new possibility offered: we can actually overcome our selfishness to some degree and enter into universal morality with another. Duty doesn’t guarantee that love will appear and we can certainly have duty bound relations with no love. But duty will be a necessary condition for real love to appear in our lives.

But what is the law or categorical imperative to which we must freely, and thus intrinsically, subordinate ourselves to obtain moral love? Well, Kant devises a imperatives for us to follow. I will briefly present his second form that is easiest to grasp and apply. Here it is:

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.

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 Kant claims people have intrinsic worth insofar as we have freedom. 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. Kant argues that we can avoid using another as a means to an end only by entering into the duty-bound relations of marriage – something which may seem too restrictive for some of us. But his general point is well-taken: moral love is about reciprocal respect of each other’s dignity.

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 morality in some way and so we will want to take Kant’s view seriously and critically. Here are some issues we can raise to assess his proposal.

(1) Isn’t love, at least in part, about giving pleasure to the beloved? And can’t this giving be based on an altruistic motive despite not being a matter of duty? Can’t giving fall outside the realm of duty insofar as it would be a gift not an obligation? Indeed, isn’t a genuine gift incompatible with duty? If not, why?

(2) 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 should be explored given that humans are a work in progress, our erotic adventures disclose new possibilities of the self, and our moral relations are formed in large part through actions and motives that are not always clear and not initially very good.

(3) Suppose we agree that duty is indeed a necessary condition for moral love. We might nonetheless point out that it is not sufficient and argue that feelings and emotions are required as well. Kant’s moral theory by no means disregards the reality and importance of our emotional life. But, as far as objective moral evaluation goes, it does disregard emotion, feeling, inclinations, and so on. He wants to make more evaluation a matter of using reason alone. We ask ourselves: can the act I am about to undertake satisfy the categorical imperative or not? And to answer this question we will, if we are appealing to the second categorical imperative mentioned above, ask: Am I using another as means to an end only? Am I allowing someone to use me as a means to an end only? If we answer no to both these questions then the action can be undertaken as moral. No where in this process do we pause to consider emotions, nor do we consider actual consequences. It is a rational investigation that seeks, above all, to avoid a “contradiction of the will” or a self-defeating and thus irrational act such as letting yourself, a free rational subject with dignity, be treated as an unfree object with no dignity. Is this hyper-rational approach to morality acceptable? If not, then perhaps moral love cannot be reduced to duty alone – at least duty in Kant’s sense.

(4) We should also wary that people have duty to different things and different people in such a way that these duties can clash, often in tragic ways. Kant’s appeal to a universal categorical imperative seeks to avoid such tragic conflicts. But can this appeal succeed? Isn’t is just obvious that so many conflicts are tragic precisely because all the duties in question seem to have some good associated with them? Isn’t obvious that no appeal to any law will help us adjudicate the various claims of duty in a way that reveals the one overarching duty that makes all the others morally irrelevant? And if so, isn’t moral love something that will often led us to act immorally as we choose one good over some other in a way that leads to sacrifice, suffering, failure, and so on?  Basically, we should think hard here about how the effort to tie duty to love so closely can lead us into tragedy (as so many of the great tragic plays have depicted).

(5) 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 it be about more flexible guidelines which help us become virtuous as in the virtue ethics tradition from Plato and Aristotle? 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 through the development of certain virtues that is relative to persons and their 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?

4 replies on “58. Moral Duty and Love?”

  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?

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Adetayo

      Sorry for my delay in responding. This account of moral love is actually a form of love quite different from erotic love and thus can be used to critique erotic love. Since it emphasizes duty and the constancy that duty promises, it can be readily applied to familial love. You ask: do parents have an objective duty to their offspring? Well according to the Kantian version of moral love, the love of the offspring would BE the adoption of a duty-bound relation to them based on the categorical imperative. And why would parents adopt this duty? Perhaps because, if they think about it Kantian terms, they will see that they couldn’t will as a universal law a maxim that would prescribe that THEY be raised by parents who have no duty-bound commitment to them. That would be a contradiction of the will, a self-defeating stance for a rational agent with freedom and dignity to take. So they should stand by their offspring, never treat them as a means to an end only, respect their dignity and autonomy, and so on…all out of duty.

  2. Iain on

    I have been struggling with this issue for so long. I consider myself an ethical person, and I also took a few philosophy courses in undergrad, including those on Kant.

    I guess my question is this: how can we provide/create/agree with a moral system that honors the boundaries of our partners, is not overbearing, irrational, or unfair, but that still respects our own boundaries and needs. For instance, I believe that engaging in flirtatious behavior with others, while in a relationship, is a form of cheating. I believe, from experience, that to do so is to directly undermine the underlying commitment of the relationship, and that it is not too big a personal sacrifice to give up receiving serotonin and other emotional boosts via engaging in these kinds of behaviors with others.

    It boils down to this: why is your access to snap chatting your male friends who without a doubt want to engage in sexual relations with you more important than my happiness in a committed relationship? And thus the moral dilemma occurs: we are both hurt. In a sense, I wonder if it is possible for both parties to make conscious sacrifices for one another, with willingness and compassion, while still not giving up who they are. But, what is different between sending male A photos of yourself at the gym, getting coffee with male A, or having intimate relations with Male A? At what point does it become immoral? I would say it becomes immoral at the moment you make a conscious choice to indulge in any of those behaviors, but maybe something is wrong with me/

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Iain

      You ask,”how can we provide/create/agree with a moral system that honors the boundaries of our partners, is not overbearing, irrational, or unfair, but that still respects our own boundaries and needs.” One answer flows clearly from Kant’s second categorical imperative which not only forbids us from treating others as means to an end only, but forbids us from allowing ourselves to be so treated. So his law seeks to prevent asymmetries of power, inequities, etc. Now, that is clear in theory but in practice, especially in the complexity of a relationship, we will have violations of the law in most cases. These failures can be discouraging, but they are also, given our imperfections as humans, to be expected and can be occasions to reflect on ways to improve, open up communication, and so on. According to this theory of moral love, love is something that exists on the other side of duty as something to be developed over time. There is a project of mutual soul building that, rather than being free because it is free of duty (which Kant thinks is bound to lead to evil), is free precisely because of duty (freedom becomes good because it freely embraces the moral law). This is going to be a rocky road for sure. But if two people exhibit good will to try and follow the moral law, then there is hope that they can negotiate scenarios like the ones you raise and so many more. This is a crucial point and we don’t need Kant’s philosophy to make it: if two people have some basic respect for each other’s autonomy and dignity then a lot can be worked out. But when these mutual respect erodes then the relationship is in serious danger. You close by asking at what point does an act become immoral? Well, if we stick with Kant, only motives an acts, not actual consequences, matter as far as moral evaluation goes. If one’s intent for acting doesn’t follow the moral law then the intent is bad. And if one acts on that intent without following the moral law then the act is wrong. But if we switch to, say, utilitarianism then we will see that neither motive nor acts in and of themselves matter for moral evaluation. All that matters are consequences and whether those consequences satisfy the greatest happiness principle of generating pleasure for the majority of people involved in a situation. So the answer to your question depends a lot on what normative theory you are using. Anyway, I hope this quick response helps a bit. Thanks for reading and offering some comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.