thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Once more without feeling

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This article follows Precious metal rules OK?

It continues a discussion which started in The ethics of belief.

We saw in the previous section Precious metal rules OK? that Kant did not want his readers to think his notion of duty – formulated as the categorical imperative – was just a rewrite of the Silver Rule (= the Golden Rule in its negative formulation). He saw the Silver Rule as both banal and flawed.

He also seemed to distance the categorical imperative from what we might call the ‘spirit’ of all the Precious Metal Rules – their promotion of empathy and practical compassion.

Doing something out of compassion is not the same as doing it out of duty. Duty is for Kant the supreme moral value. This does not mean that compassion is wrong, or that having or feeling compassion while doing the right thing necessarily detracts from the moral value of doing that right thing. But it does mean that compassion does not add to the moral value of doing the right thing, when that right thing is done out of duty.

It is worth dwelling on this point so as to be clear what Kant is and is not saying; and also perhaps to remember we said the spirit of the Rules referred not just to compassion but to practical compassion. This could be a significant distinction. To quote from Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals:

We have a duty to be charitably helpful where we can, and many people are so sympathetically constituted that without any motive of vanity or selfishness they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy and take delight in the contentment of others if they have made it possible. But I maintain that such behaviour, done in that spirit, has no true moral worth, however amiable it may be and however much it accords with duty. It should be classed with actions done from other wants, such as the desire for honour. With luck, someone’s desire for honour may lead to conduct that in fact accords with duty and does good to many people; in that case it deserves praise and encouragement; but it doesn’t deserve high esteem, because the maxim on which the person is acting doesn’t have the moral content of an action done not because the person likes acting in that way but from duty.

Now consider a special case:

This person has been a friend to mankind, but his mind has become clouded by a sorrow of his own that has extinguished all feeling for how others are faring. He still has the power to benefit others in distress, but their need leaves him untouched because he is too preoccupied with his own. But now he tears himself out of his dead insensibility and acts charitably purely from duty, without feeling any want or liking so to behave. Now, for the first time, his conduct has genuine moral worth. Having been deprived by nature of a warm-hearted temperament, this man could find in himself a source from which to give himself a far higher worth than he could have got through such a temperament. It is just here that the worth of character is brought out, which is morally the incomparably highest of all: he is beneficent not from preference but from duty.1

From the way nouns and adjectives combine, we would like to say compassion is compassion whether it is practical or not, just as a rabbit is a rabbit whether it is black or white. To say we have a duty to be charitably helpful is as near as damn it to saying we have a duty to exercise practical compassion. But it is possible to act charitably without feeling charitable, and that is Kant’s point.

‘Compassion’ seems however to contain a necessary connotation of feeling. If so, practical compassion would mean ‘not only feeling compassion but making sure you act on it as well’. This would suggest it is not possible to exercise practical compassion without feeling compassion. And if this is true, then practical compassion and Kant’s notion of duty must be kept distinct. If however exercising practical compassion means doing what the feeling of compassion might lead you to do (ie acting charitably), but without necessarily feeling any compassion, then exercising practical compassion could be a part (and even an important part) of what Kant’s notion of duty would include.

I think it is fair to say that Kant’s distinction between doing something out of feeling and doing something out of duty would be foreign to the spirit of the Precious Metal Rules. As far as the Precious Metal Rules are concerned, it does not matter why you did what you did. Read on…


1 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by Jonathan Bennett (July 2005),

© Chris Lawrence 2008.


Written by Chris Lawrence

1 December 2008 at 10:04 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this great contribution! Completely new to me.

    Those interested, please see: Bhawal case.

    Chris Lawrence

    3 December 2008 at 8:37 pm

  2. In the famous Bawal sannyasi case (one of identity),Lord Thankerton of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, gave his judgment in favor of the said sannyasi. He reinstated him as Zamindar of the Bawal estate in Eastern Bengal. The man had lived a reckless life and was dying of syphillis. He was declared dead by his English doctor in Darjeeling in 1910. His “corpse” was taken for cremation. A terrific hailstorm in the Sasan scattered his entourage. Some Udasi nagas happening along heard stange moans emerging from the pyre. The man was not dead. They revived him and took him along on their journeys. They taught him yogic practices. He was cured of his syphillis. He had however lost his memory. Twelve years later his memory returned and he recollected that he was the second kumar of Bawal. In the sensational case which followed, thousands of pictures and witnesses were examined. In the final judgment given by Lord Thankerton in London, he accepted that the zamindar’s identity had been sufficiently established. (This before the days of DNA testing). Thankerton was not an admirer of the lifestyle of the zamindars but he went by the evidence. He had never visited India. He knew nothing of the Hindu religion. In a case of such complexity and magnitude, he restored to the Bawal sannyasi his status in law and in equity. He just discharged his legal duty. Many English judges do in fact have this adherence to duty.


    3 December 2008 at 3:30 pm

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