This paper starts by considering a criticism often leveled at Ruwen Ogien’s moral minimalism: that there is indeed normativity in the relationship to oneself, in the sense that we have duties to ourselves. After having outlined this common objection (albeit in a reformulated and strengthened form), I wonder whether some modified version of minimalism could nevertheless survive it. I argue that this is indeed the case by offering a radical reworking of the minimalist thesis that maintains the rejection of paternalism while allowing for the existence of normativity in the relationship to oneself. I explain in what sense such a theory can still be considered minimalist and conclude by examining its main consequences.
Ruwen Ogien has become famous not only for opposing what he called moral maximalism, but more profoundly for noting that all moral philosophy up to the present day had participated in such maximalism. A maximalist is any philosopher who admits that one’s relationship to oneself is moral in nature, no less so than one’s relationships with others—which then implies that we have duties to ourselves. The classic opposition between deontological and consequentialist ethics thus becomes secondary, since both admit this presupposition. The more profound opposition is that between these two maximalist moralities and a minimalist morality, which would deny the idea of a moral relationship to oneself. According to this minimalist approach, although the way I treat others can be moral or immoral, the way I treat myself simply cannot be so: it is morally neutral. Van Gogh would have done something immoral had he cut off his brother’s ear (without his consent), but in cutting off his own ear, he did nothing morally wrong.
The purpose of this article is not exactly to reject minimalism, but rather to propose a reformulation of it. Indeed, it has been pointed out on numerous occasions that the denial that one has any duty to oneself, if it is to be morally attractive, has to assume an extremely questionable conception of the mind and more particularly of the will. We shall therefore begin by recalling these objections which, converging on the idea that there is indeed an ineliminable normativity in the relationship to oneself, seem at first sight to condemn minimalism…
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