Article Review of Duty and Desolation by Rae Langton Relating to Honesty and Utility, Value and Rights
It is necessary to establish the supreme principle of morality and look at the present treatise that surround it. For a law to hold moral ground, it has to submit to the rule of law and with it the ground of obligation (Hauptli, 2013). For example, there is the law that states “Thou shalt not lie”. This law has to be obeyed by everybody; those who have sound morals and those who do not care for morals. Abiding to the law is the moral thing to do and everyone need to observe it. This argument means that doing the right thing is right by law, an obligation, and not from pure reason. Should the moral laws that humans follow come from pure reason or from the grounds of obligation? This is what brings the difference between honesty and utility. Rae Langton’s “Duty and Desolation” is an interesting story where Herbert told a lie to her dear friend, and Kant advises her that telling the truth is the right choice. It is a battle in everyday life where people try to find what is important between values and rights. This paper argues that it is important for people to have good moral values and find it within themselves to tell the truth. It is more important compared to the people who tell the truth simply because it is the right thing according to the law. The paper also looks at an opposing argument to this opinion saying that values and rights are dependent on each other. However, this is countered by saying that good moral values are important compared to doing anything so long as it is right thing according to the law.
Duty and Desolation by Rae Langton describes two friends, Kant and Maria Von Herbert, sharing letters. Herbert is a longtime admirer of Kant, and she has studied his work extensively. In the story, Maria Von Herbert writes to Kant asking him for help with a problem that she writes to him in the letter. Her problem, stated in the letter, is that she once lied to a dear friend, but then recently confessed that she told a lie (Langton, 1992). She was now desperate and in despair because the confession led to coldness from her dear friend. In the letter, Herbert wrote that she was feeling very bad and that she lost all reasons to live. In his reply, Kant writes to Herbert about the importance of telling the truth and how bad it is to tell a lie. He comforts Herbert by writing that it is a good thing that she told the truth and that the dear friend will realize her good nature. This indeed happens as written in the second letter to Kant where she says that her dear friend came back to her. However, she had lost all interest in relationships and that she had devoted all her life to moral obligations, which she felt satisfied her (Langton, 1992). In this interesting story, there are many philosophical battles, amongst them the battle between honesty and utility. These two concepts have tension in the context provided, but one always seems to trump the other.
In the context provided, Maria Von Herbert tells her dear friend the truth, it is visible that there are two values in play. One of the two values in play is the obligation to tell the truth accorded to all human beings like in the command “Though shalt not lie” (Hauptli, 2013). This represents the first concept, which is utility; the circumstances where human beings are placed and the obligation required of them by nature. The other concept in the context, honesty, comes from pure reason where people feel within themselves the difference between what is right and what is wrong. In this case, it is viewed that telling the truth is the right thing to do and not that should be so because the law commands it. It is a common dilemma in everyday life where there is a battle between morals and duty; is telling the truth the right thing to do or if otherwise it a crime? According Hauptli (2013), moral laws cannot be measured on an empirical basis. He explains that a moral law, which is differentiating what is right and wrong, needs to follow the conformities of the law of the land.
The argument on honesty and utility can be viewed in the context where Maria Von Herbert decides to tell her friend the truth. In the first place, the letters shared, show that that Herbert lied before eventually confessing the truth (Langton, 1992). It is a sign that she did not tell the truth because she wanted to, but because she was led to believe that it was the right thing to do. It means that she did not feel that it was the moral thing to do, but it was the right thing according to the laws of nature. It can also be interpreted as that she felt it was what it was expected from her, and not that it was morally correct for her to tell the truth. It is a battle between values and rights, honesty and utility. It is necessary for people to feel the need to tell the truth, but not as an obligation to the law.
There is a counter argument to this view that honesty is better than utility. In the argument, there is a connection between value and utility. Moral laws heavily depend on empirical basis, and for this reason, one has to have a reference point to all actions. For example, telling a lie is an action that requires estimation. Morals can be corrupted if they lack estimation; the reason why and why not to do the right thing (Hauptli, 2013). Telling the truth cannot be considered a good thing in relation to the moral law if the truth is not to be done in accordance to the law.
Morality is a virtue that is sometimes lost between the concepts of values and rights. Value is the feeling that one has to do the moral thing. On the other hand, rights are obligations that people have in accordance with nature and the law. Values are better than rights, just like the same way honesty is better than utility. It is good for one to feel within him or herself that telling the truth is a right thing to do because it is moral. Telling the truth for the sake of following the law is inferior to following honesty, and in this instance, morals. It can lead to other forms of corruption that one would do anything as long as it is justified by the law.
Hauptli, B. W. (2013). Lecture Supplement on Kant’s Foundations for the Metaphysic of Morals.
PHI 3601. Retrieved on 13 April 2014 from <http://www2.fiu.edu/~hauptli/KantsMetaphysicofMoralsLectureSupplement.htm>
Langton, R. (1992). Duty and Desolation. Philosophy.