No modern system of ethics would be complete without a discussion of duties. Indeed, following Kant, we would probably think that duty is what ethics is all about – after all, ethics should tell what you ought to do. At first sight Wolff's discussion of duty seems quite in line with this Kantian idea. Wolff defines duty as something that one is bound to do by some law. In ethics, the law in question is the natural law.
On a closer look, Wolff's idea differs from Kant's later theory. As the reader might remember, for Wolff, natural law commands us to do those things that any conscious person would do, if she had perfectly clear and distinct concept of what is going on. Thus, duty is not just something we ought to do, but also something that we would do, if we had correct information. Furthermore, the motivating factor for this ideal person would be the purpose of perfecting everything. Wolffian duty has then a goal external to the duty itself.
For Wolff, ”you ought to do it” can then be translated by ”you would do it, if you just understood how good it is for you”. The problem in this identification is that it sometimes appears to lead to unintuitive results. Consider for instance the choice of using your money to buy new shoes and of giving it to the beggar on the street. If a perfectly rational person would be motivated to choose former over latter, that choice would be a duty in the Wolffian sense, although the opposite choice would appear to be more virtuous. Of course, it all comes down to whether Wolff thinks a perfectly rational person would make this choice. The answer requires a look at the detailed system of duties Wolff presents.
Wolff divides all duties into three classes: duties towards oneself, duties towards God and duties towards other people. I recall that the division precedes Wolff's ethics and goes probably all the way to medieval philosophy. Remnants of the division can be found still in Kant's ethics, which differentiates between duties towards oneself and duties towards orher people. Indeed, even in Wolff duties towards God play a minor role compared with other two sorts.
Duties towards God appear to cause some problems for Wolff, because an omnipotent being should not need the help of his creations for anything. Still, Wolff could not exclude God altogether, because that would have probably been considered a blasphemy. Wolff then suggests that God and his perfections can still motivate us to do virtuous things and that these divinely motivated duties might be called duties towards God. Problem is that then all duties would be also duties towards God, as long as the motivation for them would lie in God.
Wolff's way for solving the problem begins from the assumption that a perfectly rational person would in all likelihood know about God. His knowledge of God would then necessarily induce some feelings: he would love God for all his work for human beings, he would fear making God disappointed etc. Wolff suggests that we would then have a duty for pursuing those affections, which we could call a duty towards God – somewhat strange notion as such affections appear to be involuntary and not dependent on our will. In addition to these affections – well you can always say a few prayers and thus show your faith in the wisdom and omnipotence of God.
With the divinely inspired duties taken care of with few words of devotion, the Wolffian moral agent still has to tackle with duties toward himself and other persons. Personally, I've always found the class of duties toward oneself rather peculiar. This is probably because I have never understood how self-perfection could be taken as an end in itself. Surely it is moral to develop your skills for helping others, but it seems peculiar that mere developing skills in itself would be morally upright. Hegel had the intruiguing notion that perfecting your skills only for the sake of perfection is somewhat like sharpening your sword just for the sake of admiring it: it undoubtedly looks prettier, but isn't it a bit useless?
Wolff's ideas of duties towards oneself contain the further problem that they don't clash well with his ideas of the relationship between soul and body. Wolffian duties towards soul are rather straightforward. One should strengthen one's will through ethical reasoning and fables and one's reason through reading works of Wolff. (By the way, Wolff pronounces the publication of text books as his moral duty. No doubt the profits he gained from them must have been God's way of thanking Wolff for his dutyful life.).
It is the duties towards body that appear more problematic. As one might remember, body is in Wolffian scheme just a physical thing that is constantly in contact with the soul, which is the true personality of human being. Still, Wolff can earnestly say that soul must take care of its body, although body is not even itself conscious of anything. True, the fates of the body and the soul are connected and the soul feels everything that happens to the body, so that the soul would be in pain, if something bad happened to its body. Yet, this connection is only temporary and one might think it could be broken, if the body became too ill – but no, Wolff denies the right of suicide, apparently for no other reason but that the soul must show its dedicated perseverance by making the body to live as long as it can. Somewhat inconsistently, the soul must bear through all the hardships the body goes through, but the soul must still see to it that the body gets what it needs, i.e. that it is fed and clothed.
Although Wolff admits that eating well and clothing yourself warmly are moral duties, thus proving that your parents were right, he is fortunately not as interested of external glory. Glory and honour depend on what other people think of you and it is enough if you act as if you were worthy of glory, no matter what others think of you. Then again, dishonourable life deserves to be ridiculed. Indeed, Wolff makes the historically interesting remark that disease is usually no reason for shame, but if your nose drops due to illicit sexual behavior, that's your own fault (the slow detoriation of the nasal tissue is one possible symptom of syphilis disease, but Wolff's remark appears to be pointed at ”fornication with pictures of women” or masturbation, which was at that time suspected as one possible cause for the symptoms of syphilis).
One might expect that the apparent self-centredness of Wolff's morality would be mitigated when he comes to duties towards other people. Wolff even starts in a promising tone by declaring that one should do to others exactly what one ought to do for oneself. Yet, there is a twist. Apparently the highest point of perfection is independence, which makes a sort of sense in the Wolffian world view, where every soul already is a closed totality with not true connection with the external world: a soul perfects itself, when it appears to be what it truly is, that is, independent of anything else. Now, helping others in their need would constitute a breach of their independency and would thus take away from their perfection. Hence, Wolff advises that one should help others only when what they require is beyond their own skills and powers. Most of the duties towards others are then merely negative: one should not e.g. cheat others.
If we then come back to our original problem of a person wondering whether he should spend his money to new shoes or whether he should give it to a beggar, Wolff would in most likelihood suggest that we should somehow calculate whether helping the beggar is really worth more than new shoes. Yet, the requirement for independence would in most cases make the scales turn in favour of the shoes. This sounds dangerously close to a person who would not give anything to charity, because the poor are just too lazy to make themselves rich.
To be fair, Wolff is describing morality without any connection to a society or a commonwealth. It will be the task of Wolff's political works to describe societies in more detail, and we shall later see whether Wolff can find a place for solidarity and team spirit. But first, a slight detour to a student of Wolff.