The Department of Philosophy cordially invites you to the Public Defense of the PhD Dissertation
‘What We Owe to Ourselves: An Essay on Duties to Oneself’
Chair: Michael Griffin
I defend the view that, apart from moral duties to others, we also have moral duties to ourselves. In order to defend this claim, I rely on considerations concerning our value as persons, our autonomy and well-being, in order to provide an account which will appeal both to scholars sympathetic to Kant’s moral theory and to those skeptical of the Kantian framework.
The dissertation begins with the examination of two classical objections to the idea of duties to oneself: the charge of internal incoherence and the argument from the social conception of morality. With regard to the charge of internal incoherence, I argue that the explanation of why we can release others from their duties to us at will lends no support to the claim that we can release ourselves from duties to ourselves in a similar way. Instead, the moral justification for releasing oneself from a duty to oneself derives from the value and significance of autonomy. Hence, one can release oneself from a duty to oneself only on the condition that doing so is compatible with the maintenance of a meaningfully autonomous life. With regard to the argument from the social conception of morality, I argue that this objection would rule out the possibility of genuinely moral duties to oneself only on the presupposition that the social conception of morality derives from the definition of morality. Such a definition, however, cannot be established prior to substantive first-order moral inquiry.
Having dealt with these objections, I go on to critically engage with two positive arguments for the existence of duties to oneself. First, I consider Kant’s argument for duties to oneself and motivate my departure from it on the account that it relies on a too restrictive view about our value of persons, focusing only on our capacity for moral reasoning. I suggest instead a plausible hybrid view of persons’ value which accommodates, among other factors, the capacity to form emotional ties and to autonomously set up and pursue meaningful goals. Second, I examine a diachronic account of duties to oneself that grounds these duties in the second-person moral framework developed by Stephen Darwall. I argue that this account is vulnerable, among other difficulties, to an intra-personal version of the non-identity problem, and that it cannot provide a plausible account for choosing between a course of action that will result in greater aggregate benefit of a cluster of perspectives and another course of action that will produce greater benefit per perspective.
Having cleared the ground for my own proposal, I argue that a proper defense of duties to oneself will place emphasis on the value we have as person. Such a value grounds two standing duties to ourselves: the duty of self-respect and the duty of well-being. I focus my analysis on the duty of well-being and claim that the duty of care for the well-being of others is importantly different from the duty of well-being that we owe to ourselves. The difference is due to the fact that the nature of persons’ well-being is such that it is partly up to the agent herself to realize it. Given the intrinsic value of persons and given the critical relation between a person’s well-being and her autonomy, I conclude that we have a duty to strive to realize our well-being and that those who fail at this task, fail morally. This result indicates that any successful moral theory which aims at providing a complete description of the moral domain should account for the possibility of duties to oneself.