Kant on Duty, Inclination, and Loving Our Enemies.

Along with my dissertation, I have been pondering and working on a project about the idea of loving our enemies.

Earlier, I shared a variety of English translations of the fifth chapter of Matthew verses 43-48. The philosopher Immanuel Kant references these verses, specifically the instruction to love our neighbors and enemies, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

I was introduced to Kant in school. Much of my exposure to Kantian ideas came from reading John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas. I did not become seriously immersed in Kant’s moral philosophy until I taught a course on ethics and values at Utah Valley University starting in 2004. I ended up teaching that class for a

total of 3 years. I would later incorporate Kant into my later classes on modern and contemporary political philosophy at other institutions.

I want to share the selection from the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals where Kant refers to Matthew 5. I will do an exegesis and interpretation of this selection in the coming weeks. Below I include some larger context as well as the specific reference.

Briefly, Kant used the idea of loving our neighbors and enemies as an example within a larger treatment and argument for a morality rooted in duty and obligation. He makes a distinction between actions rooted in obligation and those rooted in inclination. We are inclined to do something if we have a disposition to do something because we enjoy doing it. This is different for Kant than doing something because it is right (we can do both).

Here is the selection:

To secure one’s own happiness is a duty, at least indirectly; for discontent with one’s condition, under a pressure of many anxieties and amidst unsatisfied wants, might easily become a great temptation to transgression of duty. But here again, without looking to duty, all men have already the strongest and most intimate inclination to happiness, because it is just in this idea that all inclinations are combined in one total. But the precept of happiness is often of such a sort that it greatly interferes with some inclinations, and yet a man cannot form any definite and certain conception of the sum of satisfaction of all of them which is called happiness. It is not then to be wondered at that a single inclination, definite both as to what it promises and as to the time within which it can be gratified, is often able to overcome such a fluctuating idea, and that a gouty patient, for instance, can choose to enjoy what he likes, and to suffer what he may, since, according to his calculation, on this occasion at least, be has not sacrificed the enjoyment of the present moment to a possibly mistaken expectation of a happiness which is supposed to be found in health.

But even in this case, if the general desire for happiness did not influence his will, and supposing that in his particular case health was not a necessary element in this calculation, there yet remains in this, as in all other cases, this law, namely, that he should promote his happiness not from inclination but from duty, and by this would his conduct first acquire true moral worth. It is in this manner, undoubtedly, that we are to understand those passages of Scripture also in which we are commanded to love our neighbour, even our enemy. For love, as an affection, cannot be commanded, but beneficence for duty’s sake may; even though we are not impelled to it by any inclination- nay, are even repelled by a natural and unconquerable aversion. This is practical love and not pathological- a love which is seated in the will, and not in the propensions of sense- in principles of action and not of tender sympathy; and it is this love alone which can be commanded. The second proposition is: That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle taken place, without regard to any object of desire. It is clear from what precedes that the purposes which we may have in view in our actions, or their effects regarded as ends and springs of the will, cannot give to actions any unconditional or moral worth. In what, then, can their worth lie, if it is not to consist in the will and in reference to its expected effect? It cannot lie anywhere but in the principle of the will without regard to the ends which can be attained by the action. For the will stands between its a priori principle, which is formal, and its a posteriori spring, which is material, as between two roads, and as it must be determined by something, it that it must be determined by the formal principle of volition when an action is done from duty, in which case every material principle has been withdrawn from it.

The third proposition, which is a consequence of the two preceding, I would express thus Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for it, just for this reason, that it is an effect and not an energy of will. Similarly I cannot have respect for inclination, whether my own or another’s; I can at most, if my own, approve it; if another’s, sometimes even love it; i. e., look on it as favourable to my own interest. It is only what is connected with my will as a principle, by no means as an effect- what does not subserve my inclination, but overpowers it, or at least in case of choice excludes it from its calculation- in other words, simply the law of itself, which can be an object of respect, and hence a command. Now an action done from duty must wholly exclude the influence of inclination and with it every object of the will, so that nothing remains which can determine the will except objectively the law, and subjectively pure respect for this practical law, and consequently the maxim that I should follow this law even to the thwarting of all my inclinations.

(Excerpt From: Immanuel Kant, Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (Translator). “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.” MobileReference, 2010-05-06 22:19:53.095000-04:00. iBooks.)

I will be coming back to this. Reading Kant has led me to think a lot more about these commandments. In the process, I have gained a far greater appreciation for what we find in Matthew 5. Right now I am in a place where I need to develop love for my enemies.


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