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Immanuel Kant’s Analysis Of Imperfect Duty

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Table of contents

  1. Understanding Imperfect duties
  2. Different approach to imperfect duties
  3. A Kantian Approach to Corporate Philanthropy

Kants account of Perfect and imperfect duty is recognised and accepted all over the world. If we try to understand perfect and imperfect duty from a layman’s point of view it would go as follows : Perfect duty consists of duties which have a binding nature for example the duty to not to murder someone falls under perfect duty as it applies strict injunction which restricts us to do the act. Now to get a clear picture of imperfect duties we need to understand that imperfect duty runs in contrast with perfect duties, these duties do bind us but in a much looser way. Here in this assignment we will profoundly analyse Immanuel Kant’s imperfect duties in order to understand what these duty means and to study how these duties are applied in our day to day life.

To further understand the concept of imperfect and perfect duties we need to have deep knowledge about these duties and also we need to understand the difference between them so we will be discussing these concepts of duties. We will begin by Kant’s own remark on perfect and imperfect duties- “ some actions are of such a nature that their maxim cannot even be thought as a universal law without contradiction, far from it being possible that one could will that it should be such. In others this internal impossibility is not found, though it is still impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature , because such a will would contradict itself. We easily see that the former maxim conflicts with the stricter or narrower duty, the latter with broader duty”. Kant has always been of the view that when the duty is broader the obligation towards the duty becomes imperfect and when the duty is narrower the obligation towards it becomes more rigid. Kant in his metaphysics of morals gave a lot of distinction between these duties in order to under this concept in a profound way. We will discuss these distinction to understand the concept of duties in a profound manner. The concept of broader the duty lesser the obligation can be understood by a lot of examples that take place in our daily lives, for example the choice of choosing a particular field in education for example choosing law involves a low level of obligatoriness as other options are also available for a student beside law. In this case no specified action is required.

In the case of Perfect duties the level of obligations becomes more perfect with the duties getting stricter. For example the duty to not to kill someone creates almost perfect obligation on an individual to not to kill anyone even by an act of mistake. The distinction between perfect and imperfect can be characterized as follows : The perfect duties are those duties which arise from our free rational beings, it does not hold any regard for desires or passion, whereas imperfect duties are those which rely on desires or passions. Thus we can say that perfect duty can be defined without referring to the deviation involved with the individuals subjective choices, but imperfect duty cannot be defined without such reference. Thus we can say that the application of the perfect duty is less than the imperfect duty. If a certain actions being a duty does not specify whether it involves the particular subjective of a free rational being then that duty cannot be distinguished from a perfect duty. Having said that perfect duty is restricted to very few conditions as compared to imperfect duty, does not mean that perfect duty does not have any conditions at all.

Understanding Imperfect duties

Philosophers have always contended about imperfect duties and how these duties are easy to point but pretty hard to define. Imperfect duties are those which carry beneficence, charity mercy and gratitude. Generally the duty of charity requires us to give something to the people who are in need and it does not require us to give everything that we have and as much as we can. Similarly such beneficence is not needed to towards a particular person or organization. In short the imperfect duties allow us discretion unlike perfect duties which does not allow the same amount of latitude in its application. Though there has been a general understanding regarding imperfect duties but philosophers have had a very little agreement regarding what imperfect duties are. The philosopher have agreed only to one topic regarding imperfect duties and that is beneficence. The idea behind imperfect duty is that there are certain actions which we ought to do but we do not need to do it as much as possible, also the role of discretion plays a vital role in imperfect duties as the individual has discretion over his choice to support someone he wants to. The problem with this concept is that it does not create clarity as to what the duty is. If we want to consider imperfect duties truly as duties we need to understand that it should identify what is required and what an agent can do. To Understand this concept let us take an example of rescue and aid- imagine that one person is walking past a pond which is a shallow one and sees a child drowning, here you can save the child with ease but your clothes would be become drenched in doing so. This is the case of rescue and now contrast to this we will see the case of aid- imagine a person helping an organisation which takes care of poor people and feeds them, the person gives a check of rupees ten thousand to the organisation and by doing that he is helping maximum number of poor people who live in the organisation. To this the philosophical thinker singer says that “there is no moral distinction between cases of aid and rescue and that our duty in aid is just as strong as our duty in rescue”. Other proponents of imperfect duties are of the view that the cases of rescue are more demanding as compared to the cases of aid. Basically it means that we are morally required to save the drowning child but we are bound to pay extra money from our earning to the organisation which takes care of the old aged people. This example leaves an issue for debate as to whether the duty of rescue should be categorized as perfect or imperfect? From the knowledge of duties I feel like the duty of rescue falls under perfect duty and that of aid falls under imperfect duty, even though both come under the act of beneficence, also the duty in rescue is perfect because it does not allow any kind of latitude and thus it should fall under the category of perfect duty.

Different approach to imperfect duties

In earlier days imperfect duties were thought as imperfect rights and the word ‘rights’ made more sense as compared to duties because rights include authorization to use force in order to make sure these rights are respected. But Hugo Grotius was of the view that “to have an imperfect right, on the other hand is to be genuinely owed something but not to have license to use force to get it”. In this sense an imperfect right is incomplete as it does not have all the aspects of right that a person would want in a right. Through this we come to the idea of non compulsion views which simply says that you can do your duty but you cannot claim a right towards it. Thus the duty does not have a correlative right.

The second approach tries to deal with the aspect of latitude in imperfect duty. It says that imperfect duties have unspecified conditions for their fulfilment. To understand this we take an example of a person who has duty to charity but the duty does not specify how much to give, or who will be on the receiving end of the charity. The problem that arises over here is that the duty over here is unspecified and this simply means that if there is nothing that you should do, then there is no duty at all.

The third approach talks about general maxim which has been given by Kant.

For Kant Paradigmatic imperfect duty has been the duty of beneficence. It is possible to think of a world in which a maxim of indifference would become a universal law, Kant argues that as a rational agents we cannot consistently will that such a maxim become a universal law.

Kant has always been of the view that perfect duties are more important than imperfect duties and thus they should be given priority over imperfect duties. But Kant believed that it is important to recognise imperfect duties because, if we will not recognise them firstly the morality would become excessively demanding which would be unbearable for human beings and secondly the act of beneficence is unending no matter how much we do it. Thus it is almost next to impossible to see yourself released from the duties by doing sufficient amount of beneficent acts.

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If we study profoundly we will see that priority of perfect over imperfect duties seems to parallel against common moral intuitions, for example it will be bizzare to think that one should not save other persons from a house which is under fire because doing so would require transgressions into someone else’s property. This act would come under the duty of rescue but still Kant was not able to derive this duty from his contradiction in the will test. Our duty to help is an imperfect one as it comes with a latitude for choice which seems to be out of place in emergency situations, when another person’s life is at stake. Kant seems to have ignored these duties or he simply amalgamated them with the duty of beneficence as whole.

Kant never distinguished the duty of beneficence from general as most of the cases which does not include latitude with imperfect duties are either duties of rescue or aid. Kant in his doctrine of right holds a view which says that the concept of right does not signify the relation of one’s choice to the mere wish of the other, as in actions of beneficence or callousness. As it has been mentioned earlier that Kant was not able to describe the steadfast requirement to help others in situations of emergency for him emergency situations and the duty of beneficence is same. To me it seems that in a lot of situations the imperfect duties overlaps the perfect duties and in all the cases the strictness of such duties tell us about the nature of the duty.

A Kantian Approach to Corporate Philanthropy

Application of Kantian ethics in the corporate world is not something new or uncommon. The doctrine of respect for persons is a Kantian approach which can be included in the business practices. This approach tells the managers to treat all the stakeholders as ends themselves and never as means to an end. Most of the ethics which is based on kant’s perception hangs on to the notion of the corporations holding the same kind of moral agency as persons. But the problem with this approach is that even after having personhood under the umbrella of law Kants moral agency talks about rational autonomy and only humans can be limited by moral laws and not firms. This means the persons related with the business are morally bound to act and not the firms. Applying this approach to a corporation is useful as it will reflect moral responsibilities which will be shared by people who work in corporations. If this is followed then we will be able to say corporation has moral duties and are moral agents.


As Kant explains that if a ”person in prosperity sees a fellow rational human being suffering from great wickedness by great wickedness he meant (disease, natural disaster, poverty) and refuses to help even after seeing his condition then a person cannot consistently will such a universal law”. We all know the dire situation of the world right now and how millions of people have been badly effected by this pandemic. In India itself millions of people have lost their livelihood and how the act of benevolence matters the most at this dark phase. It can be said over here that Kantian corporate philanthropy would impose duties on the corporate to reduce the suffering around the world and help people around the world so that their needs are fulfilled not just in pandemic but in normal circumstances as well. In the past few decades government funding towards non profit organisation has decreased and the non profit organisations have been finding it very difficult to survive on their own and as a result of this millions of people are bereft of food, shelter and basic needs.

This situation in itself creates obligation upon the corporations to act in beneficence towards these non profit organisations to reduce the sufferings.

To solve this problem we need to understand that

  1. The imperfect duties do not lead to moral laxity.
  2. Imperfect duties can demand for strict actions even after having a lot of latitude.

Moral laxity means that imperfect duties reduces morals and as a consequence of it people do not take their obligations. Because imperfect duties allows a lot of latitude people will always find an excuse to not to help others even after knowing that they are required to do so morally.

We need to understand that duty of beneficence does give us latitude but this does not mean that can overlook our stricter duties. Even though imperfect duties allow greater flexibility than perfect duties but we should not forget that they are still duties at the end and the act of beneficence is not just a good act but a duty which is to be followed strictly. Even though imperfect duties do not have strict obligations but in extreme circumstances it might not leave us with any kind of latitude. For example if a child is stuck inside a burning car, the father of the child would take an immediate/strict action to save the child thus leaving the father with no choice of latitude. In the same way I would say that many non profit organisations which have lack of financial resources should be helped by corporations and this can be done through in-kind contributions, establishing partnerships with such organisations, encouraging employees to volunteer etc. This is how the Corporations and businesses will be obligated to help such organisations even after having a lot of latitude. From the above examples and suggestions it is clear that how circumstances controls the duties and how serving people is our moral obligation and not an excuse.

It has clear that how even corporates and businesses have moral duties towards the people in general and how Immanuel Kants imperfect duties is applicable over here. The corporates mostly evade such duties by giving reference to the aspect of latitude when it comes to beneficence. For Kant fulfilment of imperfect duties is called as merit, but having failed to commit to such duties shows the lack of moral strength. Corporates must be philanthropic because they have an obligation towards the society in general and they can fill in the obligations through the act of beneficence which incorporates strict obligations within it. As Kant says one must “strive with all one’s might that the thought of duty for its own sake is the sufficient incentive of every action confirming to duty”.


Kant’s idea of duties not only tells us what the duties are, it also tells us what is the reason behind duties and why it is so important to act on the basis of such duties. The distinction between perfect and imperfect duties tells us what do these duties stand for, Kant’s idea of duties not only tells us how to behave and act in certain circumstances but it also enables us to think about our obligation towards the people in general. In his famous work ‘Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals’ he has given a new perception to moral obligations and thus he had given an outlook which is still widely accepted. For Kant imperfect duties have always been prescription for general ends which are morally important, meritorious and the act of beneficence should adopt to the ends of others as one’s own. Kant has always been of the view that moral philosophy was never a study of actions which are steadfast or concrete but rather it deals with the way by which someone can be obligated. Imperfect duties play an essential role in our day to day lives and binds us to perform moral duties which are important not only for us but also for the society. What we learn from this analysis is that though imperfect duty has latitude and offers laxity to the one who is doing beneficence but in various circumstances imperfect duties might have a narrow approach and offer no room for laxity or latitude. Thus even though imperfect duties cannot be imposed but still we need to oblige to these duties for the benefit of society. This application can also be used among the corporations to solve the problem of people who are in desperate need and this can only be achieved through strict application of Kant’s imperfect duties.

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