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July 27, 2021 / Congau

Imperfect Obedience

Having a duty is a moral relief. The moment you know what you must do, the tormenting considerations have found rest and all that is left is simple automatic thoughtless action. The private soldier who always follows order and never doubts his duty possesses an enviable peace of mind that is not available to ordinary moral actors cursed with independence and freedom. That is why any constraint and reduction of freedom represent a freedom from oneself and that unbearable human condition of lonely choice. 

But a paradox is not a solution and the conscripted man’s denial of responsibility is an illusion. We cannot renounce our humanity and achieve an animal’s liberation from ethics. Still, moral theorists have been trying to do just that. They have noticed that beasts have instincts that are equivalent to laws of nature within themselves. When a wolf kills it does what wolves are programmed to do, and with the necessity of a stone that falls to the ground. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, the theorists seem to reason, if humans also had a law of nature that commanded with the force of necessity – categorically and imperatively? Kant has given us such a substitute law, and many a self-appointed policeman has found comfort therein. A person who can’t do otherwise can’t be wrong.

We are always wrong and there is no escape from blame, for even if our constructed law were perfectly right and hit the mark on every occasion, it can never regulate all our movements the way nature leads an animal to its prey. Even Kant did not envision us having perfect duties to do what has not yet suggested itself as a definite alternative. You have a duty not to kill Mr. Smith and hopefully that ought not to be such a difficult task, but the opposite, to save his life, might prove more complicated, especially if you don’t even know this gentleman. Kant calls the first requirement a perfect duty but sensibly refrains to extend such an epithet to the second instance. Still, he insists on calling it a duty – an imperfect one. Imagine that. Mr. Smith is currently in mortal danger since he is hesitant to get vaccinated, but a word from you might make him change his mind. Clearly it’s your duty to talk to him, right? But Mr. Jones suffers from the same delusion and so do crowds of others and you just don’t have the capacity to reach them all. Nevertheless, you have a so-called imperfect duty to do so. What could that possibly mean? Not much really.

A duty that disappears into a mere hint without even having the character of a recommendation is not much of a duty according to any plausible interpretation of the word. Kant’s promising project that was to furnish us with a clear path through the wilderness of right and wrong disappears into the same quagmire of uncertainty that we are already so all too familiar with: The more we think about it, the less we know what to do.

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