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July 29, 2021 / Congau

Duty and Freedom

Duty is necessarily the opposite of freedom in that it poses a constraint on action and limits options. If there is something you have to do, you are not free to do something else instead. However, philosophers of duty are always quick to point out that the way they see it duty is actually a fulfillment of freedom. Kant tries to achieve this trick by insisting that our duties should come from laws that we impose on ourselves so that it is actually we who decide what we are to do. But even putting it in such terms is a bit of a stretch from what we usually understand by freedom. A Kantian does not make up the law according to personal inclinations but rather depersonalizes himself and does what he considers to be a universal requirement. He detects the law rather than chooses it and his obedience is categorically necessary. This is not what we normally call freedom.

We must grant that freedom is a slippery term. Someone who always does what he immediately wants, becomes a slave to his passions and is thereby not free at all. Freedom easily contradicts itself and cancels itself out, so it may not be unreasonable to think that what initially looks like restraint can actually lead to more freedom than otherwise possible. That is of course a long and winded discussion. For now let us just acknowledge that there is a potential problem with freedom: What it is, may not be what it seems, and given that, there may be other ways to self-realization than simple licence. 

But to suggest that the concept of duty can lead the way appears rather far fetched if only from an analytical (linguistic) standpoint. “You can” is the essence of freedom while duty is to be expressed as “you must.” To be meaningful, “you must” has to be presupposed by “you can” (no one can demand the impossible), that much is clear, but it does not quite work the other way around. “You can” indicates a possibility while “you must” entails necessity. Obviously, possibility does not imply necessity. If you can do something, it does not mean you must do it. It is not strictly a logical contradiction but it removes the force of the initial statement. A: “I can do x.” B:“Yes, you must.” A’s statement likely implies “if I want to” while B indicates “whether you want to or not,” so in reality B contradicts A. If something is done out of duty, it appears to be rather inconsequential to insist that it was also a free choice. The essence of the former somehow swallows the latter.

Duty and freedom are in effect incompatible when they occur in the same object. Freedom is an ideal, but not in all instances. We have some duties, but not only duties. It may be a task of ethics to identify the domain of both freedom and duty, but it should not insist that they be pressed into the same category.

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