Morality: Ethics, Duties, And Moral Obligations

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Ethics, duties, and moral obligations are most often seen as other regarding. We are commanded to respect other beings, animate, and inanimate objects. However, is the moral law solely applicable to others, or does it also apply to the being him/herself? According to Immanuel Kant, moral obligations to the self “take first rank and are the most important duties of all.” The aim of this paper is to argue that moral obligations are indeed self-regarding, because they balance and regulate our actions.

To begin with, for the purpose of this paper, we consider that human beings are essentially free. The well-known saying goes: my freedom stops when yours begins. That is, my freedom is limited when it comes to hurting others. Exterior considerations and factors prevent me from hurting others, but because the self’s inner freedom can even be harmful to the agent him/herself, what prevents such actions from hurting the self? There is no regard to the limitations of the self’s own freedom

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For Kant, a moral action is a free one. According to this postulate, is suicide a moral action, simply because it is free? On the other end of the spectrum, I have a moral obligation to myself to preserve my own life. Moral obligations to the self limit and maintain one’s inner freedom. These obligations sometimes prevent instinct from overthrowing logic. Here, moral obligations drive one’s action, and they represent the basis of morality. Free self-regarding actions such as suicide or gluttony are not exempt from moral obligations. Actions like the ones mentioned are not usually actions resulting from reason and rationality. Self-obligations are what regulate this freedom, and what re-emphasize logic. As a result, moral obligations to the self should be implemented in order to regulate such action. Moral obligations to the self impose the use of rationality.

Moreover, duties to the self hold the agents accountable. The moral obligations towards oneself help the individual distinguish the morally good action from the morally bad one. It then helps him/her decide the course of action to be followed. In other words, personal moral obligations steer the self into acting in a logical and rational way. The moral obligation to have integrity is linked to the duty of keeping my actions and beliefs in alignment. The moral agent can base his/her actions on the moral obligation s/he owes her/himself.

Plus, it is impossible to have morals without taking duties to the self into consideration. Moral obligations to the self are the precondition to all moral duties, especially those that are other regarding. One could assume that if there were no duties to the self, there would be no duties to others. It is important to practice the duties towards ourselves before moving to the moral obligations we owe others. Kant says that the person who violates duties to the self ‘throws away his humanity and is no longer in a position to perform duties to others’ (Collins, XXVII:341). By this, he reinforces the statement that self-regarding moral obligations precede other-regarding ones. Plus, moral obligations to oneself help understand the obligations we owe to others. If one does not respect his/her own body, s/he will never be able to respect the body of others. Those who do not respect themselves cannot be trusted to respect others. Morality, in all cases, is a matter of self-legislation.

Moral duties to the self are of similar nature to moral obligations to others. We are obliged to commit to certain values such as persistence, self-control and courage, and we are to also practice other-regarding moral obligations. Just as we have a moral obligation to preserve our own life and not to harm the self, we should also preserve other’s lives and restrain from harming them. We are also to keep promises to ourselves and to others. Hence, self-regarding obligations are egalitarian nature.

In addition, self — obligations justify certain actions. For instance, self-defence actions are somewhat permissible in the court of law. Because I have the self – obligation to preserve my own life, I might preempt murder by shooting first. Although not totally exempt from punishment, actions of self-defence often receive less sentencing than murder crimes. Moral obligations to the self give us power to retain from committing to other obligations. For instance, the moral obligation I have to secure a future for myself obliges me to stay home and prepare my work applications. This might justify not attending a party I have been invited to.

Some argue that self-regarding and other-regarding obligations are of different nature, because one requires consent and the other doesn’t. Plucking my own brow does not violate rights but plucking another person’s brow is a violation of the obligation to restrain from causing harm. Here, we have an obligation to cause no harm to others, but this obligation is not applicable to ourselves. When I pluck my own brow, however, consent is implied, but plucking others brow requires explicit and outspoken consent. In both cases, consent is required. Plucking my brow requires self-consent, plucking another being’s brow requires his/her consent. We can simply give self-consent, and this consent waives the moral obligation to restrain from harming oneself or others.

Some argue that the moral obligations towards the self are simply actions of prudence or of selfishness. Opponents of duties to the self hold that these duties are egoistic in nature. Acts deriving from egoism tend to always pursue the actions that interest the agent him/herself. However, moral obligations towards the self do not overthrow moral obligation towards others. I am morally obligated to do the right thing, and that does not always necessitate pursuing my self-interest, if for example the latter outweighs another self-obligation. Moral obligations to the self are not grounded on the basis of self-interest, even when the obligation to the self overthrows the obligation to others. Duties to the self should, as argued, be absolute. They are true in and within themselves. They are not derived from duties to others, or duties to God. The existence of virtues such as self-love prove the existence of self-regarding moral obligations. Self-love cannot be other regarding, it is grounded in the being himself.

Opponents argue that moral obligations towards the self are not grounded in reasonable sources. They hold that self-regarding obligations should be based on legal premises. They can neither be regarded as ethical nor as unethical, because they don’t defy the laws of morality. The obligation one has to wake up early is a choice, when someone sleeps in one day, it is not unethical, and not punitive. Only actions that are socially enforced can be labelled as duties. Self – regarding actions, however, are neither mandated socially nor legally. Both Society and the court cannot hold a person accountable for not improving. Because self-regarding behaviours are not punitive socially and legally, they cannot be regarded as moral obligations.

However, morality is neither social nor legal. Violating a duty to oneself not harm others. Moral obligations are distinct from legal obligations. Violation of self-obligation should be tackled morally, through the use of reason, and the agent should refrain from violating his/her personal moral obligations through self-constraint. But the state prohibits self-regarding actions such as drug use because it might lead to greater harm; its consequences surpass the agent himself. The duties to oneself are usually legislated by the agent herself, through reason and logic.

Certain problems cannot be resolved but by the adherence to self-moral obligations. For example, the state has tried to stop smoking by imposing high taxes on cigarettes and by banning smoking in public spaces. Nonetheless, the rate of smokers did not decrease. The only way to stop smokers from smoking is self-persuasion. Only self-constraint and self-resilience can make the smoker stop, and s/he does this to comply with the moral obligation to take care of her/himself.

Moreover, relevant moral obligations that are mandated by the moral law cannot be waived. Even so, moral obligations to oneself can easily be waived. Beings, as stated, only act to their best interest. When certain moral obligations degrade their interest, they tend to waive it. However, this cannot be the case when dealing with moral obligations towards others. One cannot refuse the moral duty s/he has of doing x to y. However, the self can willfully waive his/her own duties. Here, moral obligations to the self are omissible, a characteristic that lacks when it comes to moral obligations towards others. Contrary to common belief, moral obligations to others can be waived, just as easily as moral obligations to the self. If I have promised the editor of a paper to submit a final draft by a certain date, then later the editor extends that date, then he is waiving his right to receive the drafts early. Similarly, I can promise myself to finish studying on Tuesday, but then decide to procrastinate and finish by Friday. In the first case, the journalists were committed to the editor, and in the latter, I had a self-commitment to abide by. Moreover, both release cases can have severe consequences, where both the journalists and I might feel the stress to compensate. The holder of the right has the ability to waive this right and release the subject, and because, in cases of self-regarding obligations, I am the holder of the right I am able to waive it. Here, the agents are bound until release.

Plus, opponents say that the notion of duties to the self are paradoxical. If the editor has the right to be mad at the journalist for not abiding by a set date, then I also have the right to be mad at myself for not finishing studying by the schedule I had set for myself. Hence, having a right against the other is similar to having a right against oneself. Both, I and the editor, can complain about failure to meet deadlines.

Generally speaking, other regarding moral obligations are paradoxical. This is due to the fact that we are accountable and what we ultimately do is for the self. Our moral choices often affect others because there are ethical laws that govern the way we act.

Furthermore, morality is not exclusively social. Morality is not only a result of interpersonal relations. It can be both, self and other regarding. Some say that moral obligations are purely social, resulting from interpersonal relationships. That is, moral obligations are exclusively other – regarding. This is due to the fact that morality is most often considered with others, and not the self.

Besides, the being is morally obliged to keep promises the his/herself. Honesty and truthfulness are at the root of both, keeping promises to oneself and keeping promises to others. Both are morally good actions. Plus, the failure of keeping promises to myself can be harmful like the case of failing to keep promises to others.

Moral obligations to the self help balance one’s life. Rather than always being concerned with other’s well-being and being altruistic, it is often good to look after one’s self. For instance, moral obligations such as self-knowledge and self-mastery are crucial for living a balanced life. The self-duties help achieve a well-balanced life. As other-regarding obligations are always praised about, it is good to give necessary attention to the person’s well-being, self-improvement, self-knowledge and self-interest. As argued before, only a well-rounded being will be able to give back to the community and abide by the moral code.

The adherence to moral obligations towards the self highlights the power and potential of the agent as a moral being. More specifically, when the agent strives for self-improvement and self-knowledge, s/he is reinforcing the moral law and self-duties of perfecting oneself morally, in the face of obstacles such as self-doubt.

Nonetheless, the importance of moral obligations to the self does not negate the worth of other-regarding moral obligations. Both kinds of moral obligation can positively and negatively impact the being. The personal obligation of self-improvement cannot be separated from our duties towards others. If the self is exclusively applying self-regarding obligations in the pursuit of self-improvement, this agent is not progressing because s/he is neglecting a crucial aspect of morality. The adherence to moral obligations to others is interconnected with the moral progress and integrity of the agent him/herself. Therefore, one cannot ignore the duties s/he has for other in pursuit of self-centred obligations. As argued, moral obligations to the self are not egoistic.

Many argue that the moral obligations we have towards others are superior to the moral obligations we owe to ourselves. However, even though it is evident that I should do everything I can to save a man from being killed, my ability of helping others is restricted. Hence, my moral obligation to myself cannot be limited. I should always, no matter the consequences, take care of myself, be responsible, mature, and have dignity. These are basic moral obligations that I should always abide by. Plus, I don’t know if the man wants to be saved. He might be living a miserable life and was praying to end it. He might have a plan that I, as a spectator, am not aware of. He might have an easier way out of being killed that wouldn’t put anyone else at risk. I, on the other hand, always know what is best for myself and therefore, should maximize my own happiness by abiding by moral obligations. This does not negate other-regarding moral obligations. These do in fact exist and are crucial for interpersonal relationships. our rational wants and desires are informed by our moral obligations and so will embody those selfsame obligations   


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