Once more without feeling
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…
© Chris Lawrence 2008.