TBM: Part 2, Chapter 3

by Arthur Schopenhauer

translated by Arthur Brodrick Bullock

Critique of Kant’s Basis of Ethics: ON THE ASSUMPTION OF DUTIES TOWARDS OURSELVES IN PARTICULAR.

This form of the doctrine of duties was very acceptable to Kant, and in working out his position he left it untouched; for, like his predecessors, along with the duties towards others he ranged also duties towards ourselves. I, however, entirely reject this assumption, and, as there will be no better opportunity, I shall here incidentally explain my view.

Duties towards ourselves must, just as all others, be based either on right or on love. Duties towards ourselves based on right are impossible, because of the self-evident fundamental principle volenti non fit injuria (where the will assents, no injury is done). For what I do is always what I will; consequently also what I do to myself is never anything but what I will, therefore it cannot be unjust. Next, as regards duties towards ourselves based on love. Ethics here finds her work already done, and comes too late. The impossibility of violating the duty of self-love is at once assumed by the first law of Christian Morals: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” According to this, the love which each man cherishes for himself is postulated as the maximum, and as the condition of all other love; while the converse, “Love thyself as thy neighbour” is never added; for every one would feel that the latter does not claim enough. Moreover, self-love would be the sole duty regularly involving an opus supererogationis. Kant himself says in the Metaphysische Anfangsgründe zur Tugendlehre, p. 13 (R., p. 230): “That which each man inevitably wills of himself, does not belong to the conception of Duty.” This idea of duties towards ourselves is nevertheless still held in repute, indeed it enjoys for the most part special favour; nor need we feel surprise. But it has an amusing effect in cases where people begin to show anxiety about their persons, and talk quite earnestly of the duty of self-preservation; the while it is sufficiently clear that fear will lend them legs soon enough, and that they have no need of any law of duty to help them along.

First among the duties towards ourselves is generally placed that of not committing suicide, the line of argument taken being extremely prejudiced and resting on the shallowest basis. Unlike animals, man is not only a prey to bodily pain limited to the passing moment, but also to those incomparably greater mental sufferings, which, reaching forwards and backwards, draw upon the future and the past; and nature, by way of compensation, has granted to man alone the privilege of being able to end his life at his own pleasure, before she herself sets a term to it; thus, while animals necessarily live so long as they can, man need only live so long as he will.

Whether he ought on ethical grounds to forego this privilege is a difficult question, which in any case cannot be decided by the usual superficial reasoning. The arguments against suicide which Kant does not deem unworthy of adducing (p. 53, R., p. 48 and p. 67, R., p. 57), I cannot conscientiously describe as other than pitiable, and quite undeserving of an answer. It is laughable indeed to suppose that reflections of such a kind could have wrested the dagger from the hands of Cato, of Cleopatra, of Cocceius Nerva (Tac. Ann., vi. 26) or of Arria the wife of Paetus (Plin., Ep., iii. 16). If real moral motives for not committing suicide actually exist, it is certain that they lie very deep, and cannot be reached by the plummet of ordinary Ethics. They belong to a higher view of things than is adaptable even to the standpoint of the present treatise.[1]

That which generally comes next on the rubric of duties towards ourselves may be divided partly into rules of worldly wisdom, partly into hygienic prescriptions; but neither class belongs to Morals in the proper sense. Last on the catalogue comes the prohibition of unnatural lust—onanism, paederastia, and bestiality. Of these onanism is mainly a vice of childhood, and must be fought against much more with the weapon of dietetics than with that of ethics; hence we find that the authors of books directed against it are physicians (e.g., Tissot and others) rather than moralists. After dietetics and hygiene have done their work, and struck it down by irrefutable reasoning, if Ethics desires to take up the matter, she finds little left for her to do. Bestiality, again, is of very rare occurrence; it is thoroughly abnormal and exceptional, and, moreover, so loathsome and foreign to human nature, that itself, better than all arguments of reason, passes judgment on itself, and deters by sheer disgust. For the rest, as being a degradation of human nature, it is in reality an offence against the species as such, and in the abstract; not against human units. Of the three sexual perversions of which we are speaking it is consequently only with paederastia that Ethics has to do, and in treating of Justice this vice finds its proper place. For Justice is infringed by it, in face of which fact, the dictum volenti non fit injuria is unavailing. The injustice consists in the seduction of the younger and inexperienced person, who is thereby ruined physically and morally.


[1] There are ascetic reasons, which may be found in the Fourth Book, Vol. I., § 69, of my chief work (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung).


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