Chapter 17 – Is Self-Improvement a Duty?

In Chapter 17, we find our four humans trying to decide if they should team up with Michael.  One of Chidi’s arguments is that he wants to get better.  By teaming up with Michael, then there is a chance that he and the others could study ethics more and become better people.  He tells Eleanor that Immanuel Kant wrote that we have a duty to improve ourselves.  What he does not do is explain why we have this duty.  I will attempt to explain why.  However, it is a bad argument.

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant argues that morality consists of categorical imperatives.  Essentially, morality is a set of rules that must always be followed.  These categorical imperatives are not concerned with the consequences of the actions.  Instead, it is concerned with the moral acceptability of the actions in and of themselves.  In explaining the concept of categorical imperatives, Kant uses four examples.  One of the examples claims that we have a duty to develop our talents.  Presumably, this is what Chidi is referring to.

Kant provides multiple formulations of the categorical imperative.  The first is commonly referred to as the Universalization Formula.  This formula is “Act only on that maxim you can will to be a universal law.”  This means you can only act on those rules that you could will that you and everyone else can follow.  To know if the rule is universalizable, we look for contradictions.  There are two types of contradictions.  The first is a contradiction of conception.  For example, you cannot conceive of a square circle.  So, if it turns out that one simply cannot conceive that everyone follows the rule, then it fails the test.  The action is impermissible.  The second and easier to understand is a contradiction of will.  This essentially means that if everyone does what you do then you will not get the aim of your action.

Stealing is a good example to see how these work.  If I steal, my aim is to make what I took to be my property.  Property, however, means that a person has exclusive control over some object.  When you look at universalizing a maxim, this means everyone can do what I do.  In this case, people will be able to take items any time they want.  If this is permissible, then there is no exclusive control over objects, i.e. no property.  In other words, I would be willing a world in which there is both property and not property at the same time.  I cannot do that.

The contradiction of will means that I am not getting what the aim of my action is.  If I can steal, then everyone can steal.  Thus, if I steal a new TV, then someone else can just steal it from me.  I will not get what I want.  Therefore, stealing cannot be universalized.  Therefore, stealing is wrong.

How does the categorical imperative demonstrate that one has a duty to develop talents?  It does not.  Kant essentially admits this.  He says that there is no contradiction of no one developing one’s talents.  Instead, he wrote “as a rational being he necessarily wills that all his faculties should be developed, inasmuch as they are given him for all sorts of possible purposes.”

In graduate school, I had a professor ask us to outline the argument that we have an obligation to develop our talents.  No one in class, or the professor could provide an argument that we have an obligation to develop our talents that does not assume that we have such a duty.  The problem is, why does reason require us to develop our talents?

The only argument I am aware of argues that this obligation is tied to our obligation to pursue our own happiness.  The reason why we have a duty to be happy is that if we are unhappy, we are much more likely to fail in our moral commitments.  We have a duty to develop our talents because developing our talents contributes to our happiness.  For example, I cannot enjoy playing the piano unless I have developed the talent of piano playing.

Insofar as this is a successful argument, it means that one has an obligation to develop talents that would make oneself happy.  It does not mean all talents.  Further, this does not take into account time preferences or diminishing returns.  For example, developing a talent for piano playing requires a substantial amount of time.  Becoming excellent at piano will require much more work than just being O.K.  Will it really improve my happiness to not only devote a significant amount of time to learning the piano but the extraordinary amount of time to be an excellent piano player?

However, I find the happiness argument to not be textually supported.  Kant wrote talents have “all sorts of possible purposes” and not happiness.  Happiness may be a purpose, but Kant has more in mind.  Additionally, in Kant’s own example, he says that we can imagine a world in which everyone indulges in pleasure and pursues enjoyment instead of “broadening and improving natural aptitudes.”  Thus, Kant believes we can enjoy our lives without developing talents.  This is the crux of the happiness argument.  Therefore, that argument seems to fail.