Michael Cholbi’s recent post on the “murderer at the door” case brought up the issue of duties to self, which reminded me of a paper idea I’ve been meaning to develop, and which I thought I’d run by this crowd first.
In contrast to current popular morality in the U.S., most normative ethical theories (besides, perhaps, relativism) contain duties to oneself. For agent-neutral consequentialists, I might count for only one, but I at least have that much moral significance. Kant offers duties of self-improvement, among others. Perfectionists, obviously, highly value duties to self. And so on. But this is one area where I actually identify with current pop morality in the U.S.: I’m not a big fan of duties to self. Kant famously raised an objection to duties to oneself (and replied to it), but I want to try to bolster the objection here.
Kant puts the objection in terms of a tension between the self’s being passively constrained (duty) with the self actively doing the constraining (not duty), but I want to put it slightly differently. (Kant’s discussion is at The Metaphysics of Morals, 417-418.) It seems that with duties to others, such as the duty to keep one’s promise, the other can always release the agent from the duty. So, if Dave has promised to send me a video, I can release him from his obligation simply by saying “Don’t worry about it.” Similarly, if Doug has a duty of beneficence to give me $100, I can, simply by so choosing, release him from this duty. So the question is: Is there any rationale for saying we can’t do the same thing with duties to self?
Kant tried to get around the problem by distinguishing between the noumenal self and the sensible self, but, first, that’s not too helpful for naturalistically-minded folks like myself, and, second, I fail to see why that doesn’t just push back the question to the noumenal self. (I find Kant’s actual discussion a bit, um, obscure on this one.)
Agent-neutral consequentialists might point to the value that would be produced by not releasing myself from my putative duty to self. But this would equally hold for not releasing Dave from his obligation to send me the video. So either I can’t release Dave from his obligation, which seems counterintuitive (and unnecessary for the consequentialist since there’s value in the simple fact of my exercising my free choice to release him as I see fit) or I can, in which case I should also be able to release myself from duties to self as I see fit.
And that argument holds for any moral theory. Either I can’t release Dave from his obligation to fulfill his promise, which seems counterintuitive, or I can, which seems to suggest that I should also be able to release myself from any putative duties I “owe” to myself. (Of course there may be extraordinary cases where agent A can’t release agent B from an A-regarding duty, so in such extraordinary cases the parallel with duties-to-self wouldn’t hold. But – granting there are such cases – let’s put those to the side here.)
So there seems to be a presumptive case for the claim that (1) any agent can, at her discretion, release herself from any putative self-regarding duty. But, (2) if it is purely a matter of discretion whether an agent performs some action, then that action is not actually obligatory, so (3) there are no duties to self.