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Brian Joseph

Joined: 23 Jan 2014
Posts: 11
Location: West London, UK

PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2014 12:07 pm    Post subject: DUTY Reply with quote

There has recently been a very successful series on TV about the police called ‘Line of Duty’. I am not sure whether the title was intended to be ironic because the one thing that none of the characters actually observed was their duty as members of the police force.
Duty and law are, clearly, fundamentally important forces in forming and holding together all human communities.
Immanuel Kant, in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (perhaps not the most immediately appealing of titles) begins with the simple idea that a ‘good person’ is a person of good will. He points out that a ‘good will’ must, also, be good in itself and not in virtue of its relationship to other things such as the agent's own happiness or overall welfare.
The clearest example of the expression of a good will, according to Kant, is the performance of duty for its own sake. To confirm this, he compares motivation by duty with other sorts of motives, in particular, with motives of self-interest, self-preservation, sympathy and happiness. He argues that a dutiful action from any of these motives, however praiseworthy it may be, does not express a good will.
In Vedanta, Dharma carries much the same sort of meaning and is, certainly exemplified by the laws which hold the community together. For a wise man, dharma (law) and karma (action) are the same. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna ‘Therefore, always perform your duty without attachment to the result; for he, who performs his duty without attachment, attains the Supreme.’
I think it might be fair to say that ‘without attachment’ could be understood as the same attitude as Kant describes by ‘without inclination’.
Throughout the Vedic scriptures the concept of reverence for Dharma, law or duty, is paramount.
Kant writes ‘Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law’.
This brings Kant to a preliminary formulation of the famous Categorical Imperative: ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law’ (4:402). This is the principle which motivates a good will, and which Kant holds to be the fundamental principle of all of morality which, in turn supports the individual and the community in much the same way as ‘Dharma’ does through its origin in the idea of universal support.
Kant seems to imply that duty is an entirely impersonal imperative and, perhaps, Vedanta does the same, notwithstanding the apportionment of particular duties to particular sections of the community.
The question I would like to raise is whether the following statement from Kant’s ‘Moral Law’ is valid in our present society and to what extent the satisfaction of appetites can co-exist with it.
‘ action done from duty has to set aside altogether the influence of inclination, and along with inclination every object of the will; so there is nothing left able to determine the will except objectively the law and subjectively pure reverence for this practical law, and therefore the maxim of obeying this law even to the detriment of all my inclinations.’
P.s. I don’t offer this as a popularization of Kant and, still less do I expect anybody to agree with it fully. However, I think the use of the word ‘reverence’, introducing an emotional aspect of, otherwise, what might be considered a purely rational description is very interesting.
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Brian Hodgkinson

Joined: 27 Jan 2014
Posts: 7
Location: Oxfordshire, UK

PostPosted: Mon Jun 09, 2014 2:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The comparison between Kant's moral law and dharma seems to be an excellent point of contact between Western moral philosophy and Advaita. There are clearly several similarities, such as the insistence that subjective ends are to be excluded from moral decisions and the idea of action for duty's sake. A further remarkable parallel is that between the moral agent seen by Kant as a transcendental self and the self of Advaita, although the latter is ultimately beyond dharma itself, in that it does not act at all.

Brian's question about whether Kant's categorical imperative is generally applicable in today's society has perhaps two different answers. The first is surely what Kant himself would have said: namely that the imperative defines what morality essentially is, so that it is a requirement of all societies that recognise moral behaviour at all. Not to apply the test of the imperative to all actions that affect others would be to act from purely prudential reasons of the form 'If I want X, than I ought to do Y'. It would be a hypothetical imperative and not a categorical one, and therefore would carry no moral implications at all.

The second answer might be that people today are strongly disinclined or even incapable of acting on the moral imperative. This would mean that some prudential end is always demanded for any action, even if this is the happiness of the individual concerned. If this is in fact the case, it is a dismal scenario, that perhaps heralds the collapse of society. Were no-one to try to act according to Kant's law - even if no-one can actually succeed in doing so - there would surely be an end to truthfulness, public service, personal responsibility and all the things that maintain society in the face of selfishness of one kind or another. Interestingly the Bhagavad Gita begins with Arjuna's fear that the ignoring of dharma will lead to the destruction of his society.
Brian Hodgkinson
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