The point of this post is to sketch out how duty and love ought to be interrelated in moral thinking. We began by considering duty and love in resolving the basic contradiction in moral thinking.
The basic contradiction in moral thinking runs:
Some harm ought to be
No harm ought to be.
The claim “Some harm ought to be” comes from focusing on rules. Focusing on rules is based on thinking that morality is primarily for restricting conduct to avoid bad consequences. Rules specify a sanction in case they are violated. A sanction will specify that some harm ought to occur upon violation of the rule.
People who believe that rule following is primary in morality believe that the indication that they are acting in accordance with morality is that their intention is to obey the rule. The moral intention is to do one’s duty.
People who believe that rule following is primary in morality believe that the only basic human good is having the character trait of always choosing to follow moral rules. This trait can be called having a morally good will.
In practice, those who hold that the sole basic human good is having a good will, may not be vigilant about promoting and protecting conditions which many believe approach human flourishing
The claim “No harm ought to be” comes from focusing on basic human goods* to be attained. Focusing on attaining basic human goods comes from believing that morality is for human flourishing.
People who believe that promoting human good is primary in morality believe that the indication that they are acting in accordance with morality is that their intention is to promote human good or at least not impede any human good. Since one definition of “love” is “to will the good of a person” we can say that for those who believe that morality is for promotion of human flourishing the moral intention is to express love.
People who believe that the moral intention is to express love by promoting and protecting conditions approaching human flourishing believe that the character trait of a moral person is compassion. They will be vigilant about promoting and protecting conditions which many believe approach human flourishing.
DUTY vs. LOVE
When we consider practice, it may seem that we should prefer resolving the contradiction by taking promotion of good as primary in moral thinking. However, when we consider that promotion of good relies on rules to promote the food and not inhibit it, we see that rules are primary in moral thinking. But rules require sanctions which call for inhibition of the good. Hence, in moral thinking duty is more fundamental than love. Resolution of the contradiction, then, requires alteration of the tendency in moral thinking that takes promotion of human flourishing as primary. The alteration is that some harm, up to including intentionally taking a human life, is morally permissible for violation of a moral law.
However, moral laws apart from how they promote and protect conditions which constitute human flourishing seem pointless. A moral outlook which took the primacy of rules in morality as saying that human goods are morally irrelevant comes close to moral nihilism. Moral nihilism holds that every is permitted – nothing matters morally. The stance I am talking about here holds that what we do matters with respect to morality. However, with respect to human goods our being or not being moral does not matter. So we ought not separate identifying, promoting and protecting basic human goods from our moral thinking.
(I use “ought” because I believe that we ought not let ourselves think and speak about morality which makes it seem stupid, insensitive, irrelevant etc.,.)
We ought to combine duty and love in serious moral thinking. Here is a sketch of how to combine love and duty. Love will seek out the conditions which make for human good, discover what promotes and protects them. This provides content for rules. Duty transforms guidelines from love into moral rules. Once we have rules, love develops guidelines for mellowing the destruction of some human goods required by moral rule sanctions. These will be guidelines for forgiveness and mercy. Of course, love’s guidelines for forgiveness and mercy should not be transformed into moral rules because that would require more sanctions and more harm.
These reflections on combining duty and love in moral thinking have significantly altered my beliefs on how to conduct the aspect of moral thinking which is justifying to my self and persuading others that a moral rule is correct.
*The New Natural Law view holds that practical reason, that is, is reason oriented towards action, grasps as self-evidently desirable a number of basic goods. These goods, which are described as constitutive aspects of genuine human flourishing, include life and health; knowledge and aesthetic experience; skilled work and play; friendship; marriage; harmony with God, and harmony among a person’s judgments, choices, feelings, and behavior. From an essay by Christopher Tollefsen on The New Natural Law Theory .