Actions Done in Accordance with Duty

5 March 2001

Period 1

Immanuel Kant born in a deeply pietistic Lutheran family in Konigsberg, Germany, lived in that town his entire life and taught at the University of Konigsberg. After his father died, he was compelled to halt his university career and earn his living as a private tutor. In 1755, aided by a friend, he resumed his studies and obtained his doctorate. Thereafter, for 15 years he taught at the university, lecturing first on science and mathematics, but gradually enlarging his field of concentration to cover almost all branches of philosophy.

To explain Kant’s distinction between actions done “in accordance with duty” and actions done “from duty” as presented in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals; and to describe the implications of this distinction for deliberation and action; and to consider some of the philosophical implications of this distinction.

It is necessary to consider the distinctions between permissible, impermissible, forbidden, and necessary actions. First of all, the concepts of impermissible and forbidden actions may be taken as equivalent. Both concepts may be understood as denoting those actions, which are prohibited by the moral law. That is to say, one is obliged not to perform such actions; impermissible or forbidden actions are always to be avoided under all circumstances, in spite of one’s inclination either to perform or not to perform such actions. By contrast, permissible actions are simply those, which are not prohibited. Such actions are therefore compatible with the moral law, though the moral law does not necessarily require them. Only those actions, which are required by the moral law, have moral content or moral significance. For an action to be required by the moral law is for it to be an action that one is obliged to perform. To put the matter differently, morally required actions are those whose performance is necessary, independently of one’s particular purposes or desires.

We are now in a position to answer the next question. According to Kant, an action performed in accordance with duty is one, which is mandated by the moral law; it is both a permissible action, and a required action (Ak. 390, 397). Kant does not think, however, that an action has moral worth merely by fulfilling the requirements of the moral law. For a required action to have moral worth it must also be done for the right reason or motive:

An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined. The moral worth depends, therefore, not on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition according to which, without regard to any objects of the faculty of desire, the action has been done (Ak. 399-400).

The right motive for an action is that it be done from duty. To perform an action from duty is to perform it out of respect for the moral law (Ak. 400). That is to say, to perform an action from duty is to perform the action because of, or for the reason that, the action is morally required.

This distinction can be illustrated most clearly by means of one of Kant’s examples. Let us stipulate that it is a moral law that one act beneficently. Let us also consider a person who is naturally disposed, by virtue of a sympathetic constitution, to act beneficently toward others. Then simply by acting beneficently the individual acts in accordance with duty. But acting from duty is an additional requirement, which may or may not be satisfied when he or she acts in accordance with duty. To see this, Kant asks us to further suppose that misfortune has deprived this person of his or her natural sympathetic disposition. On this assumption, there are two possible motives, which may then determine the person’s action, the motive of sympathy, or the motive of respect for the moral law. If an inclination to sympathy is the sole, or at least the determining, motive for the individual’s acting beneficently, since those sympathetic inclinations are assumed to no longer be present, the person would no longer act beneficently. If, however, the (determining) motive or reason for acting beneficently were that such