Do We have a Duty To Ourselves?
Many people read self-help books and derive a great deal from them. As a philosopher I am interested in this as well since philosophers were among some of the first self-help authors. Indeed the writings of Epictetus, Epicurus, and Marcus Aurelius were, at least in part, meant as writings for self-improvement. While still a small movement, philosophical counseling continues to grow and many current day philosophers such as Lou Marinoff and Elliot Cohen publish works that fit well into the self-help genre. In this context, the question I want to examine is as follows: Do we have a duty to improve ourselves?
This may sound like an odd question. What could it mean to have a duty to improve ourselves? Who could enforce such a duty? Let's look at these issues.
The notion of duty is an important part of the ethical writings of Immanuel Kant and he does address the question of whether we have duties to ourselves in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. In this work he writes the following as an example of the duty we have to ourselves:
A man "finds in himself a talent which could, by means of some cultivation, make him in many respects a useful man. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers indulgence in pleasure to troubling himself with broadening and improving his fortunate natural gifts. Now, however, let him ask whether his maxim of neglecting his gifts, besides agreeing with his propensity to idle amusement, agrees also with what is called duty." Kant continues saying that "he cannot possible will that this should become a universal law of nature" since "as a rational being, he necessarily wills that all his faculties should be developed."
In short, we have a duty to ourselves to improve ourselves to the extent possible. Granted this may be different for each individual but whatever the extent of our potential we owe it to ourselves to develop this as far as possible.
Who should enforce this duty on ourselves? We should and what propels us to do so is the resulting unhappiness when we do not strive to improve ourselves and develop our potential. For many people who are unhappy or depressed the root cause of this is, in part, their neglect of this important duty to their self.
Kant is not alone in advocating such a duty and many other philosophers have recognized the connection between happiness and purpose. A central tenet of Viktor Frankl's logotherapy is that meaning is an important key to our lives and our well-being. Aristotle's virtue ethics also makes room for the notion of self-improvement as an important part of our quest for a happy life.
So, develop your talents, find something you're interested in and learn about it, think about what it means to be a good human being and strive to achieve this. Below are some excellent resources.
Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics
Viktor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning
Immanuel Kant Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
So, we each have a duty to ourselves to continue to work at self-improvement. But, what specifically does this entail? What constitutes self-improvement?
Many would say that self-improvement entails things such as career advancement, wealth management, improved athletic ability, weight loss, or simply taking a vacation. While there is no question that these are all good things, they are not what I mean by self-improvement.
For me the concept of self-improvement goes back to the notion Aristotle wrote about of working to live well by living according to the virtues. While this notion sounds somewhat outdated, it is still a vital part of being happy and too often ignored in our efforts to improve ourselves.
There are many examples one can appeal to when looking for a guide to self-improvement and while Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics is an excellent resource I would like to offer an easy to digest example that might provide a good place to begin the process.
The example I have in mind is one I've known about for many years because I was an Eagle Scout: The Scout Law. The Scout Law consists of 12 points which is essentially an enumeration of a list of important virtues.
"A scout is: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent."
Each of these represents a character trait (in Aristotle's language a virtue) that we can each strive to improve in our daily lives. While it is not a complete list (for example, we might add patient to the list) one could do worse than focus on living by these points.
My claim, like Aristotle's, is that we each have a duty to ourselves to live according to these traits and improve upon them where we are lacking. Why do we have such a duty? Because, quite simply, fulfilling this duty represents the best way to live our lives as human beings. Who says this is so? Literally, centuries of testing has shown that living according to these virtues is the best way to attain what is, by most accounts, a universal human goal: happiness.
We can wrestle with the definition of happiness as some ethical relativists and subjectivists do and ask who decides what it means to be happy and whose definition of virtue should be followed but I challenge anyone to show me that they are truly happy, by whatever definition they use, while living contrary to these values. Indeed, to the extent that people are unhappy they are so due in large part to the fact that they are not striving to live according to these important character traits.
As you have no doubt already noticed, many of these points in the Scout Law, like Aristotle's virtues, are directed not only at ourselves but also towards others. So, it may be useful to consider the question of whether we have a duty to others and what this duty might entail.