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Self-Cultivation and Moral Choice

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Philosophical luminaries including Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill have all theorized that our human capacity of reason calls us to become the best that we can be by developing our “natural abilities.” This article explores the thesis that the development of our talents is not a moral duty to oneself and suggests that it may be avoided for other reasons than failures of rationality. In the face of the opportunity-costs associated with different life-goals, resistance to developing our powers may spring from an informed and perfectly rational choice in favor of an equally valuable alternative to talent development as a way of life. Thus, the arguments in this essay suggest that the predominant, rationalistic view in defense of a duty to develop one’s talents ignores a distinctively human capacity, namely, the capacity for reasoned moral choice. The paper argues, however, that we do well in viewing the development of one’s talents as worthwhile. In other words, it is correct to sustain that the individual would be acting in a morally deficient manner if she declined to develop her abilities for the wrong reasons even if no duty to self to avoid that course of action exists.

1. fn1 Julia Maskivker is Assistant Professor of Political Theory at Rollins College, United States. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science/Political Theory from Columbia University. Her teaching and research agenda focuses generally on analytic ethical and political philosophy.
2. fn21 This distinction is made by Kant in The Metaphysics of Morals. M. Gregor, tr. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 6:693. Kant also talks about the duties (to oneself) of “moral perfection” and “natural perfection” respectively, thereby echoing this division. These citations I take from R.N. Johnson: “Self-Development as an Imperfect Duty.” in Moral Cultivation: Essays on the Development of Character and Virtue, edited by B. Wilburn, Lahnman: Lexington Books, 2007. (My version of this work is a self-contained manuscript available on Johnson’s website. The pagination I use refers to this version.)
3. fn32 As he put it, “No distinction is more usual in all systems of ethics, that that betwixt natural abilities and moral virtues; where the former are plac’d on the same footing with bodily endowments and are suppos’d to have no merit or moral worth annex’d to them.” D. Hume A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by G. Sayre Mc-Cord. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006: 173 (book III, Pt III, Sec IV “Of Natural Abilities” ). Hume does not want to challenge the fundamentals of this distinction but he is a bit critical of those that believe that natural abilities do not have any moral dimension to them at all: “Tho’ who refuse to natural abilities the title of virtues, we must allow, that they procure the love and esteem of mankind; that they give a new lustre to the other virtues [….] It may, indeed be pretended, that the sentiment of approbation, which those qualities produce, besides its being inferior, it’s also somewhat different from that, which attends the other virtues. But this, in my opinion, is not a sufficient reason for excluding them from the catalogue of virtues.” Idem: 174. For Hume, the sense of admiration in others that natural abilities elicit points to a kind of moral quality in the possessor of those abilities.
4. fn43 Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 6:444 (as quoted in Johnston, Self-Development, footnote 1).
5. fn54 Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, The Elements of Ethics section 19:108. In Immanuel Kant: Ethical Philosophy translated by J. Ellington. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.
6. fn65 In the Groundwork, for instance, Kant argues that there is a duty to develop talents with no obvious connection to moral ends and in the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant argues quite explicitly for a duty of natural excellence regardless of its role in moral perfection. See Johnson’s Self-Development as an Imperfect Duty.
7. fn76 To press this point, I draw on Thomas E. Hill Jr’s treatment of Kant’s scholarship regarding supererogatory action. See “Kant on Imperfect Duty and Supererogation.” Kant-Studien, 64, 1–4, 1971. Contrary to some readings of Kant’s work, Hill proposes that Kant has a place in his moral scheme for supererogatory actions. Some philosophers believe that for Kant, all actions are obligatory or forbidden (see, as an illustration, R.M Chisholm, “Supererogation and Offense.” Ratio, 5, 1963). For others, Kant allows for morally neutral acts but not for the supererogatory. See for instance, Paul Eisenberg, “Basic Ethical Categories in Kant’s Tugendlehere.” The American Philosophical Quarterly, 3, 1966. In this essay, my aim is not to argue for TE Hill’s general thesis about Kant, although I take his arguments as insightful. Rather, my aim is to show how the logic of supererogation applies to what some concieve to be a duty to develop talents and powers. In arguing this, Kant’s notions of moral duty will inevitably be discussed.
8. fn87 Talent development is thought to be desirable, in turn, because it increases human wellbeing by producing a type of profound satisfaction that sensual pleasures and amusements are not capable of eliciting. John Stuart Mill’s “higher-order pleasures” could not be more illustrative of this desirability. These are the pleasures that we derive from exercising our most complex intellectual capabilities (and moral faculties). In Mill’s own words: “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” Mill argued that these higher pleasures are of a superior quality to the pleasures of the body, and once the individual experiences them for herself, she will prefer them over the lower desires that we share with animals. See John Suart Mill, “On Utilitarianism” in John Gray (editor) On Liberty and Other Essays: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991:138.
9. fn98 Johnson, “Self-Development”, p. 4. Kant’s discussion of this “paradox” is at The Metaphysics of Morals 6: 417–18. There, he states: “Man regards himself, when conscious of a duty to himself, in a twofold capacity: first, as a sensible being, where he ranks only as one among other sorts of animals; but second, he regards himself not only as an intelligent being, but as a VERY REASON (for the theoretic function of reason may perhaps be a property of animated matter), resident in a region inscrutable to sense, and manifesting itself only in morally practical relations where that amazing quality of man’s nature—FREEDOM—is revealed by the influence reason exerts upon the determination of the will. Mankind, then, as an intelligent physical being […] is susceptible of voluntary determination to active conduct by the suggestions of his reason. […] The very same being, however […] is a being capable of having obligation imposed upon him, and in particular, of becoming obligated and beholden to himself, i.e., to the humanity subsisting in his person.[…] without incurring any contradiction.”
10. fn109 Reason has also been combined with theological thinking quite originally, as in Aquinas’ thinking, among others.
11. fn1110 Despite the philosophical popularity of reason as a human capacity, as Gewirth ritghtly notes, its normative status has been fiercely challenged. “A whole host of competitots has been held throughout the ages, including desire, emotion, compassion, intuition, imagination, religious faith, aesthetic sensitivity, sexual or other love, animal instinct, personal authenticity, and many others,” Gewirth, Self-Fulfillment: 71. Additionally, reason has been criticized on epistemic grounds. See, in this regard, critiques of deductive inference such as Karl Popper’s claim that “the rationalistic attitude with its emphasis on argument and experience rests on an irrational faith in reason.” (from The Open Society and its Enemies, quoted by Gewith in Self-Fulfillment: p. 73. Finally, Hume’s critique of reason, for example, does not quarrell with its effectiveness or value, but with the idea that it is distinct from human instinct or natural cognitive tendencies. See his Treatise on Human Nature, section on “Of scepticism with regard to reason.” (quoted in Self-Fulfillment: 73)
12. fn1211 Gewirth, Self-Fulfillment: 72.
13. fn1312 It is quite clear that this epistemic definition does not fully capture the moral dimension of the ideal of reason as portrayed in Kant’s notion of universal moral duty, for example. For Kant, complying with universal moral laws is ultimately justified by reason, understadning the latter to require the treatment of others as ends, not merely as means. We know, also, that the classics conceived of “reason” not only as an epistemic object but also as an ethical quality or virtue (of the soul). However, the purely epistemic (non-moral) dimension of the ideal is also (if only implicitly) emphasized in some aspects of Aristotle’s ideal of human excellence, as will become clear in this essay. John Rawls’ “Aristotelian Principle”, which focuses only on the exercise of talents, is a testimony to that fact. That principle will also be dealt with in this essay.
14. fn1413 Gewirth, Self-Fulfillment: 74.
15. fn1514 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, London: Hacket Publishing Company, 1980: 8–9, section 1098a.
16. fn1615 Aristotle, Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978: 259, section 1325b7.
17. fn1716 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics: 9, section 1098ª.
18. fn1817 Aristotle Politics: 252, section 1323ª21.
19. fn1918 Aristotle’s views on the distinction between active and passive excellence are ambiguous in other parts of his work, where he suggests that philosophical contemplation (a passive endavior) is the highest form of reason: In Book X, chapter 7, of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the contemplative life (the life of ‘theoretical study’) is the happiest life for a human being. This approach is clearly different from Aristotle’s emphasis on the superiority of the political (therefore practical) life, as expressed in Book VII of his Politics.
20. fn2019 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971: 426.
21. fn2120 Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, in Moral Philosophy: 176. In this respect, Kant (predictably) espouses a broader understading of practical reason than Hume (encompassing more than instrumentality). When dwelling on the topic of “imperfect duties of man to himself” and in particular, the duty to himself “to increase his natural perfection,” kant states: “[I]t is thus not for the advantage which the cultuvation of his capacity (for all kinds of ends) can provide that man should concern himself with such cultivation, eventhough in view of the roughness of nature’s requirements, this advantage would perhaps (according to Rousseau’s principles) turn out to be profitable. But it is command of morally-practical reason and a duty of man to himself to build his capacities (one more than another according to the variety of his ends) and to be a man fit (in a pragmatic sense) for the end of his existence.” The Metaphysics of Morals, The Elements of Ethics section 19: 108. In Immanuel Kant: Ethical Philosophy …
22. fn2221 Elster, “Self- Realization in Work and Politics”: 101–107.
23. fn2322 Elster, “Self-realization in Work and Politics”: 107.
24. fn2423 Ibid.
25. fn2524 Ibid. Elster uses the term “self-realization” to mean talent development only, as his article makes it rather clear from the beginning.
26. fn2625 This dynamic is referred to as “cognitive dissonance”. The term was coined by seminal cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press: Palo Alto, 1957.
27. fn2726 Elster, “Sef-Realization in Work and Politics”: 107.
28. fn2827 Ibid: 108.
29. fn2928 Ibid.
30. fn3029 Ibid.
31. fn3130 The source of the agent’s valuation may lie in objective standards of worth that he recognizes as guiding or in entirely subjective factors. The distincion between objective value and subjective value is of course of relevance here, although it is beyond the scope of this paper to dwell on the (extremely vast) literature on it that exists. For reasons of analytical efficiency, it will be assumed that objective value is value that is independent of the particular preferences of the particular person (although no assumption that the individual’s preferences should be overrriden is made). More on this distinction below.
32. fn3231 Individual X, one could think, could try to develop other talents that are more compatible with his preferred life of contemplation. But this logic is self-defeating, on further inspection. Kant’s arguments about self-improvement, for example, emphasize “the usufulness of a person’s talents to himself” says Margaret Paton in “A Reconsiderstion of Kant’s Treatment of Duties to Oneself” in The Philosophical Quarterly, 40, 159, 1990: 232. A person’s sense of his personal worth is inextricably linked to the decisions he makes regarding which talents to develop and use. It is the understanding of his own particular nature, besides his nature as a member of the kingdom of Ends, that prompts him to seek self-development in particular ways. In simple words, the suppossed duty of self-development must go hand in hand with individual preference. Requiring the individual to develop talents that she is not particularly interested in developing is not consistent with a notion of self- development that respects freedom and personal choice.
33. fn3332 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in John Stuart Mill: On Liberty and Other Essays, J. Gray (ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, chapter 3 titled “On Individuality as One of the Elements of Well-being.”
34. fn3433 A conceptual tool along the lines of John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” should act as a check on the content of the activities conducive to self-realization, however. The purpose of this association is to prevent what could be considered as morally (and, secondarily, legally) prohibited ways to achieve self-realization because they inflict unacceptable harm on others. What counts as ‘unacceptable harm’ cannot be dealt with in detail here, but for elaboration of the notion of a “Harm Principle”, see John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in John Gray (ed) John Stuart Mill: On Liberty and Other Essays. See, also, J. Feinberg, Harm to Others (Moral Limits for Criminal Law, volume I). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
35. fn3534 I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row, 1964, section 423.
36. fn3635 See G. Hochberg, “The Concept of ‘Possible Worlds’ and Kant’s Distinction Between Perfect and Imperfect Duties”, Philosophical Studies, 26, 1974, for an explanation of the difference between perfect and imperfect duties in Kant. Basically, as Kant himself puts it, “some actions are of such a nature that their maxim cannot even be thought as a universal law without contradiction” [perfect duties]. “In others, this internal impossibility is not found though it is still impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law because such a will would contradict itself” (quoted in Hochberg, footnote 4). The idea is that although the action may not be immoral it contradicts a human basic inclination; so it is inconceivable.
37. fn3736 Kant, Groundwork 4:423; see also The Metaphysics of Morals: 389–91.
38. fn3837 Johnson, “Self-Development as an Imperfect Duty”: 7.
39. fn3938 Gewirth, Self-Fulfillment: 137.
40. fn4039 Karen Stohr, “Kantian Beneficence and the Problem of Obligatory Aid.” The Journal of Moral Philosophy 7, 4, 2010: 47.
41. fn4140 Kant, Doctrine of Virtue, Translated by Mary Gregor, Harper Torchbook, p. 49, cited by TE Hill, “Kant on Imperfect Duty…, p. 56.
42. fn4241 Ibid, 112, cited by TE Hill, ibid.
43. fn4342 Ibid, Ibid. I remind the reader that this article’s goal is not to substantiate the general thesis that Kant’s arguments inevitably suggest that a duty of beneficence is akin to supererogatory action, but the more narrow proposition that self-development can be conceived of as a morally good yet not obligatory self-regarding choice.
44. fn4443 Whether a duty of beneficence is to be considered as binding I cannot dwell in this essay, for reasons of scope.
45. fn4544 See H. Ross, “Social Power and the Hohfeldian Relation” Nottingham Law Journal, 10, 2001. L. H. LaRue, “Hohfeldian Rights and Fundamental Rights” The University of Toronto Law Journal 35, 1985.
46. fn4645 I am using the term “duty” and “obligation” as synonimous. I understand that the philosophical literature generally draws a distinction between the two. Duties are natural, obligations are acquired. For reasons of analytical efficiency, I will shy away from this distinction.
47. fn4746 Kant escapes this difficulty, which he clearly recognizes. He does it by noting that “one is not in the same respect obligating and obligated. As the reader may divine, Kant’s distinc-tion is that between one’s ‘phenomenal character,’ which is obligated ‘to human-ity in one’s own person,’ and the ‘intelli-gible character,’ (quoted in Warner Wick, “More About Duties to Oneself” Ethics, 70, 2, 1960: 163). There is another avenue of argument to counteract the thesis that duties to oneself are contradictry because they entail only one agent as object and subject of the duty. Based on Kantian ethics, Reath argues that duties to oneself do not necessarily require that a single actor occupies two roles (addressee and executor of the duty). A duty can be binding (to oneself and others) only if we can show that the principle has the form of a moral law. According to Reath’s social conception of morality “the legislative capacities that we possess as individuals are to be exercised with and among others driven by the regulative aim of arriving at general principles that all members of a community of ends can endorse.” This interaction takes the moral principles behind duties “to be jointly willed principles generated by a process of co-deliberation in which all agents have a share.” Andrews Reath, “ Self-Legislation and Duties to Oneself” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, XXXVI, supplement, 1997: 21. For the counter-argument that the specification of certain duties does not require co-deliberation, see “Deriving Duties to Oneself: Comments on Andrews Reath’s Self-Legislation and Duties to Oneself,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol XXXVI, supplement, 1997.
48. fn4847 For this point, in particular, see Jens Timmermann, “Good but not Required? Assessing the Demands of Kantian Ethics.” The Journal of Moral Philosophy, 2, 1, 2005, footnote 16.
49. fn4948 For this point, see, paradigmatically, Wick, “More About Duties to Oneself.”
50. fn5049 Allison Hills, “Duties and Duties to the Self.” American Philosophical Quarterly, 40, 2, 2003: 138.
51. fn5150 For an exposition and defense of the interest theory of rights, see Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. See also Jeremy Waldron (ed) Theories of Rights (“Introduction”): Oxford: Oxdord University Press, 1984.
52. fn5251 Hills “Duties and Duties to the Self”: 138. But even if we did follow Hohfeld’s juridical conception of duties and say that every duty implies a right, the argument for the incoherence of the same person being both the bearer and object of a duty falls apart. Typically for your release of another from a duty he owes to you to be valid, you must be in an adequate level of rationality. If you are temporarily insane, say, just saying that you release someone doesn’t validly release him from the duty. Likewise, for the bearer of a duty to be validly held to perform the duty, he too normally must be in an adequate level of rationality. Again, if he is temporarily insane, his failure to perform the duty may not be a violation of duty. But the level of rationality is different for bearer and object of a duty. That is, you have to be more irrational to validly get out of a duty than you do to validly release another from a duty owed you. So you might be rational enough to owe yourself a duty, but not rational enough to release yourself from it. Thus, it is false that if X owes a duty to Y, Y has the power to release X from the duty. I thank an anonymous reviewer for calling my attention to this point.
53. fn5352 Hills, “Duties and Duties to the Self,”: 133. For a fervent (and classical) defense of this position, see Marcus Singer, “On Duties to Oneself” Ethics, 69, 3, 1959.
54. fn5453 It makes sense to believe that self-promises, then, are more susceptible to being viewed as “strong resolutions.” This point is pressed by Hill, ibid.
55. fn5554 Margaret Paton, for example, argues that Kant’s justification of duties to the self resides primordially in a non-conractual obligation to value oneself properly. This valuation is related to one’s distinctively human potentialities. Failing to appreciate our human capacities implies failing to respect ourselves. “For Kant, a person’s duties to himself are inextricably tied up with his ability to esteem his own person as a source of rationality and bearer of the law. ‘Self-regarding’ for Kant is tantamount to self-valuing. It is concerned with a person’s view of himself/herself and wether he/she chooses to regard him/herself as belonging to the Noumenal world or not.” See Paton, “A Reconsideration of Kant’s Treatment…”: 227. Paton does not deny that Kant’s view of morality is riddled with difficulties. “ To begin with, his doctrine rests on the mystical value ascribed to Persons-as-Ends.” Idem. But her aim is to clarify how Kant grounds duties to the self, only.
56. fn5655 Thomas Hill, “Kant on Imperfect Duty…” : 56.
57. fn5756 Ibid.
58. fn5857 Daniel Statman, “Who Needs Imperfect Duties?” American Philosophical Quarterly, 33, 2, 1996: 214.
59. fn5958 At this juncture, one is faced with Kant’s vagueness when it comes to defining imperfect duties. How often should one act on the maxim for an imperfect duty to count as fulfilled? Kant is not specific.
60. fn6059 The forerunner of contemporary discussions on intrinsic value can certainly be said to be Aristotle. In chapter seven, book I of his Nichomachean Ethics, he defines the highest human good (i.e., happiness) as that end which is “pursued in its own right.” This kind of good “is more complete than an end pursued for something else.” This type of good we always choose “because of itself.” For an overview of contemporary discussions on the notion of intrinsic value, see G. Sher, Beyond Neutrality: Perfectionism and Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, chapter One.
61. fn6160 At this point, we could think that a failure to develop one’s powers may not be necessarily wasteful althought it may signal a failure of self-respect. For example, think of a wealthy aristocratic couch potato who lives in an affluent society. He violates his duty, although his couch potato-hood need not be wasteful. I thank an anonymous reviewer for this point. However, the sense of wastefulness I’m arguing for in this article is not related to material considerations but to the intrinsic value of achievement. The aristocrat who lives in affluence does waste his talents all the same if he fails to respect himself, because that means that he fails to see the independent value of using his talents. He fails to respect himself by failing to identify himself as a source of independently worthy endaviours.
62. fn6261 At this point we are faced with the following question. How should we understand wellbeing: subjectively or objectively? If we take wellbeing to mean mere desire satisfaction (a subjective understanding) we fall prey to all the problems that such accounts of value have (they ignore intrinsic value, they allow for irrationality). If we understand wellbeing more objectively as including the enjoyment of independently valuable goods (i.e., friendship, accomplishment, intelligence, love) we are on safer grounds to argue for a strong duty to the self and others to promote it. This objective understanding does not detract from the fact that individual desire or preference will play a role.
63. fn6362 Hills, “Duties and Duties to the Self.”: 136. As Hills notes, ethical particularists dispute the thesis that all reasons for action are universal. For the sake of argument, I assume that reasons are universal in the relevant sense.
64. fn6463 Ibid.: 136.

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Affiliations: 1: Political Science Department, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave, Winter Park, FL 32789, USA,


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