Is it a duty of a human being to volunteer or is it something each individual can do if they want?
I take it that a duty is something we are required to do, or to put it in the jargon, a duty is the practical
contentof a moral obligation. According to Kant, an action can only have moral worth if it is done from
duty. Therefore actions motivated by self-interest (doing something because you like it) or actions
motivated by inclination (doing it because you want to) are not morally good. A duty is something you
must do irrespective of whether or not you want to. Kant would go so far as to say that if you did a
moral deed because you wanted to and not because it was your duty to do so then you would not
really be acting morally.
Figuring out whether something is a duty or not — and hence morally good and obligatory — for Kant
— involves a kind of calculus. According to one version of the calculus, an action is a duty if and only
if you could 'at the same time will that this action should become a universal moral law for all
subjects'. In the case of volunteering, I suppose it would depend on what you were volunteering to do.
Volunteering to go to war for an unjust cause would not be a duty as it would fail the Kantian calculus
for example. In general however, I am inclined to think that acts of voluntary charity, voluntary
defence of one's country for a just cause and so on are examples of duties. It would be irrational not
to do these things, because if everybody stopped volunteering to do these things, then there would be
no charity and our country would be invaded!
Does it follow that you are not morally good if you only did these things because you were inclined to?
You might think that wantingto act in a good way is sufficient for you to be doing a good deed or
being a good person. So a good question for a Kantian is to ask whether impersonal moral grounds
are at all sufficient to explain actions. David Hume for example thought that only a desire can
motivate you to act, that the source of moral action lies in the presence of unmotivated desires. On
this basis, you would be incapableof volunteering unless you wanted to, because you could always
say to yourself 'I see that this is a duty, but I just don't feel like doing that today'. The Kantian who
said to himself 'I don't like helping people but I do it because I am rationally required to do so' also
seems to lack a moral quality — that of sympathy.
Is Hume right about this? According to Warren Quinn, if one regards ones basic motives simply as
desires one happens to have, then these do not give one reasons to act. Reasons of the kind we
want are different from rational ones to make sense of our actions. One can ask of one's basic
motives whether acting on such desires is good or not. We actually need an affirmative answer to this
question if those desires are to provide us with reasons for action. This amounts to saying that our
desires are not the type of thingwhich can give us reason to act, since they do not tell us what we
should do. It seems to me that we lose our grip on what we have reason to do if we attempt to begin
our account with desires we happen to have. Thus there is no Humean starting point as long as we
take ourselves to have reasons to act in a given way. I have racked my brains for a long time as to
whether this is an adequate response to Hume.
Your question is about what are referred to as 'supererogatory acts'. Kant has discussed this in some
detail. Briefly, there are some things — duties — that we must do, in order to be moral. Mostly, these
are in the nature of negative acts — we must not harm others, or must not tell a lie, for example.
However, it may seem that we ought to go beyond this and do positive good for others. While it is
morally desirable that we do such things, it doesn't seem that we are required to do them (and note
an important difference: while we can refrain from telling lies to all humans, we cannot personally feed
all the starving). We do these positive actions voluntarily. While we can be called more highly moral if
we do them, it does not seem that we can be called immoral if we don't. Thoughtless or uncaring,
maybe, but not immoral. In the light of this, the answer to your question would be: it is not a duty to