Kant calls “the first command of all duties to oneself” – namely, self-knowledge. Kant is concerned here not with knowing one’s personality type, personal history, or potential talents. His concern is moral purity... How could Kant see self-knowledge as obligatory given his “opacity thesis,” according to which our own moral perfection is unknowable to us? “I cannot know, for example, whether my particular actions arise from conformity with the moral law or from some hidden self-interest” (Ware 2009, 673)


I was wondering whether that specific obligation (like "self-knowledge" in the above mentioned more general sense) has ever been phrased as an obligation to someone else. Maybe I owe it to you to establish I don't know when I am being self interested, so that I am not domineering etc..

I am skeptical there are obligations even to understand - let alone to act - to ourselves; I think these would be too meaningless to really count as obligations rather than wishes. So can the existence of obligation to others be established from the existence of basic obligations to think in clear and rational ways (about e.g. oneself)?

  • probably way too hopeful!
    – user64190
    Jan 10, 2023 at 7:57
  • 1
    What do you mean by a basic obligation? Jan 10, 2023 at 10:22
  • not vert deniable @MarcoOcram ?
    – user64190
    Jan 10, 2023 at 11:07

5 Answers 5


The answer to your question depends on the scale of your analysis.

As individual, the obligation is for you. But as part of social entities, the obligation is for every single member of the social entities. As we are always a part of a social group, the question could be said like:"Do you still wish to belong to this group?" That question should answer to yours.

So, if you think that you deserve to belong to the group, the obligation to think well is for you. But if you reject the group, you are free from obligation and obligations to thing well have to be take care by the others.

  • 1
    I agree that our obligations are to others depends on who we are with
    – user64190
    Jan 10, 2023 at 14:49

The mere term "obligation" speaks to an entity outside of ourselves. If we only always did what we wanted, and followed our inclinations, then this would not be called an "obligation". Rather, to be obliged means to follow a rule or principle that we would sometimes not otherwise follow (because otherwise the obligation would not be worth saying).

However there is a problem that human desires are not singular; we can have multiple contradictory desires. For example, laziness/comfort versus discipline/progress — we cannot achieve both. So there are multiple competing desires.

If we take these multiple competing desires as analogous to personalities, then we can say that doing one thing may serve one personality over the other. This is almost the same as serving one person over the other, crossing into the area of person-to-person relationships. So it's almost the same to say "be nice to yourself" as to say "be nice to another person".

If Kant says "know yourself because it is good for yourself" then he is talking about your higher self because he presumes a lower part of yourself that does not care about this. So we benefit our higher self by following this instruction. If we ignore this instruction, we benefit the lower self.

The next question is: who do we choose to benefit? Why is it better to serve our higher self versus our lower self? Why is it good to be kind and open versus self-serving? This cannot be answered without assumptions, so I will simply give my answer: "consider other people to be the same as yourself". This opens up a broad topic of "how?" which I won't delve into here.

A note on the topic of being perceived as domineering because maybe this was the motivation for the post — one scenario may be that you're an assertive person talking to a non-assertive person; you share your opinion and they do not share theirs, so it may be perceived that you were domineering. The solution has to involve the other person sharing their opinion (either by you encouragement or asking, or by them gaining assertiveness). I don't think it's a productive solution for you to not share your opinion, because then there's even less communication. A proper solution is a resolution, not an avoidance. In this scenario, "know thyself" helps you have more effective communication if you know your motives and can effectively share them. And if you are actually domineering, then "know thyself" means you know that your will is very strong and you either can't control it or you genuinely think it is more important than other peoples'. Whether right or wrong, that's something that's crucial for you to be aware of.

  • 1
    I always say that if people were really selfish, they would be willing to work as hard as necessary to make their lives easy and comfortable. If not, they are simply deluded. And since we must interact with others, then we have to be willing to work for their betterment too, so they can better help us. True selfishness reduces to wisdom and cooperation. Self-knowledge is an essential part of that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 10, 2023 at 21:51
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    @ScottRowe very true. That kind of selfishness is a virtue. It's interesting to think that one's optimal existence comes from being unselfish. A rarely known fact is that Jesus played to selfishness when he spoke about getting treasure in heaven by doing the right things on earth. And now religious people ironically say that we should ignore our self-interests as if we weren't human.
    – Matthias
    Jan 11, 2023 at 2:19
  • when you say "entity" is that always another person or sentience? the comment may seem oddly mystical, but i wonder if i am obliged to think clearly for God or a beautiful / sublime object
    – user64211
    Jan 12, 2023 at 11:06
  • Can any object have rights or only other minds?
    – user64211
    Jan 12, 2023 at 11:16
  • May be nonsense. But then I may have a duty toward some property I own, e.g. a duty to prevent land going to ruin
    – user64211
    Jan 12, 2023 at 11:29

Obligation ofcourse is to some outside entity. Thats what obligation means. You oblige yourself nothing.

If you are not responsible for anybody other than you, suppose you have no family to take care of and they have already died, also suppose you dont live in a civilization, also suppose there is no afterlife and your Creator dont ask you to self-preserve, then you can smoke / drug yourself to death or do a quick suicide or cut your limbs if you like. You are, if the suppositions are true, under no obligation to take care of yourself.

If you are living in a civilization for example then you do have obligation to fully utilize your abilities including your ability to increase your abilities. You can increase your abilities by learning, and learning includes learning about yourself. Its obligation on you, not on others.

Ofcourse others have similar obligations.


Our political obligations may be owed to legal and political entities (the state or co-operative, whatever) rather than the persons that compose them, be that ourselves or others.

Pro aris et focis.

Supposing I am obliged to think clearly about some abstractions (the mysterious "university" or "army" of Gilbert Ryle) - and category mistakes can be interestingly multiplied via religion - then I might owe it to that thing rather than myself, at least supposing thinking clearly about them does not dissolve its contractual etc. status.

So arguably an obligation need not be toward anyone else or even myself. I would argue that includes God and artworks as objects we can owe obligations to, including being clear about them, and this may even extend to natural objects like mountains and river.

  • not helpful: so what?
    – user64211
    Jan 12, 2023 at 12:05

Reminds me of Forrester's paradox which, to my reckoning, conflates necessity and duty.

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