Duty - Moral and Political

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by Joan Mesquida Sampol

The terms duty and obligation are used in a situation in which a person has no choice but to carry out or to abstain from carrying out an action. In these cases we say that a person has the duty of paying the price stipulated in the contract or the duty to help a person injured by a traffic accident. Nevertheless, this compulsion to carry out something should be qualified. There is a clear difference between a person who carries out an action when threatened with death by the Mafia, and a person who stops in a highway to help a wounded person lying there. In the first case, it is difficult to speak of the fulfilment of a duty. In the second case, the person acts in accord with justifying reasons that rely on some type of moral or legal requirement. By contrast, in the first case, the action does not derive from a legal demand but from the fear of facing up to the Mafia.

Frequently duty is opposed to right. However, this is a mistake. There are duties, such as the duty to help needy people, which do not correspond to the right of somebody to be helped. Also, particular rights such as the right to get a home or remunerated work do not correspond to the duty of another person to provide that home or work. Of course, these examples do not presume there is a special relationship like a family tie or a contract.

Although the concept of duty can be seen in relationships among individuals and diverse spheres such as of families, church or sport teams, in this entry duty will only be studied from a moral and political perspective. In the sphere of morals, the concept of duty raises several questions about, for instance, justification; Why are we subject to moral duties and what is the scope of moral duties? Regarding political obligation, the main issue we are dealing with is justifying the duty to obey the State. Unless the contrary is indicated, in this entry the terms "duty" and "obligation" will be used as synonyms.

I. Moral duty. The justification of moral duties

The reason why we have moral duties has been one of the central discussions of western philosophy for centuries. Two great philosophical traditions have arisen from this discussion. The first of them argues that moral duty is an essential characteristic of the human condition because individuals are moral agents. In consequence, duties should be fulfilled simply because of their existence, regardless of whether or not they serve the attainment of a certain end (deontological conception). The second of these traditions, by contrast, explains the existence of duties insofar as they are part of the fulfilment of a certain superior end (teleological conception).

We can find the roots of the deontological conception of moral duty in Greek and Roman philosophy and, more concretely, in stoicism, from Zeno to Cicero. The most influential thinker of this school, from the Modern Age until today, has probably been Kant. One of the fundamental pillars of his position has been his support of an individual's autonomy. In Kant’s view, the moral correctness of an action is determined by the aim of the individual who carries it out, independently of the consequences of this action. The importance of the weight given to the individual’s aim does not imply, however, that Kant believed that the moral correctness of an action depends on the individual's free will. Against this relativist opinion, Kant sustains a universal conception of morals, as he demands that in the individual's aim should exist the conviction that the action carried out would also be correct for anybody else. That is, one can believe that an action is morally correct if he can sincerely accept that the moral norm, capable of justifying his behaviour, could be a universal moral norm. Therefore, a person would not act correctly when lying or failing to fulfill her promises because it is hard to believe that anyone would admit as correct a generalised falsehood or a failure to honor one’s promises.

Although Kant, with this conception, moves away from moral relativism and from emotivism, his opinion has been the target of many critics, mainly for its excessive formalism. The idea of grounding the moral correctness of the action in a previous element, such as an individuals’ aim, independent of its consequences, may lead to  undesirable effects. Let us imagine a situation in which a Nazi official asks a person if her neighbours are Jews. If this person was a convinced Kant’s admirer, she would be inwardly struggling not to lie, because telling the truth would have dramatic effects on her neighbour’s life. The problem that underlies this conflict is that Kant’s ethics does not determine what consequences could justify the breach of a duty. Kant does not aim to achieve a concrete code of moral rules, but to establish some criteria or procedures to know in the abstract when a norm is morally correct. Hence, the formalism of his conception. We can still find this formalist character in current followers of Kantian Schools such as “discursive ethics” (Habermas, Apel, etc.).

Against the formalism of deontological ethics, we can situate the followers of teleological conceptions of ethics. These conceptions, whose origin goes back to Aristotle reveal that to act according to moral norms is not an end in itself but a means to achieve a superior end, like happiness. A norm becomes a moral norm when it brings people nearer to happiness. Therefore, the existence of a moral duty will be justified when its fulfilment contributes to the attainment of this superior end. These teleological theories rejected formalism but they haven’t found a unanimous concept of happiness. For some authors, happiness is achieved with the full access to certain material goods, while others see it as a more spiritual ascetic end. There is no unanimity on the most suitable approach to achieve this objective. From a utilitarian point of view, a moral norm should promote the happiness for most people. Other authors, like Rawls (1971), are opposed to utilitarianism and think that we cannot sacrifice the fundamental rights of a minority of individuals to help a majority. Granted such rights, the unequal treatment of people can only be justified when it helps the less favoured of the community, even though they are a minority.

One of the most important obstacles that this conception must overcome is its consequentialism. Unlike deontological ethics, which has been criticised because it ignores the role of the consequences of action, teleological ethics overemphasises the weight of consequences when determining the morality of a norm.  This emphasis fails because, at least in some cases, it is not possible to determine a priori the consequences that the application of a given norm will produce. This criticism is especially pertinent when the uncertainty of the consequences of an action is very high, for instance in certain genetic experiments with people, or in the use of stem cells. In these cases, the consequences could be that important medical advances would benefit many people. Nevertheless, nobody can assure this good result. Given this uncertainty, the consequentialist philosopher has difficulties offering satisfactory answers.

II. Extension and limits of moral duties

People must fulfil the duties derived from moral norms, either because this fulfilment is demanded by our nature as rational beings (deontological perspective) or because it will contribute to the benefit of individuals (teleological perspective). Nevertheless, only a small part of our actions is governed by moral norms. Most of them are morally irrelevant, unless we belong to a religious order with strict rules of conduct. But people do not usually belong to religious orders, at least in western countries, and for this reason the scope and the limits of moral duties are matters of great significance.|

1. The extension of moral duties

The extension of moral duties tries to answer the question of what actions are a matter of moral requirement. As Fishkin (1986) points out, human actions can be classified, from a moral perspective, into three groups. In the first group, we can find actions that are subjected to the dictates of moral norms. This is the area of moral requirement. The actions that surpass this requirement should be located in the second group, the area of heroism, the supermeritorious. In this area we can find actions that go beyond the moral duty and, therefore, despite their great value, it would not be morally incorrect to disobey them. Finally, there is an area of moral indifference, where actions lack moral relevance. The inclusion of an action in one category or another will depend on the moral conception accepted. From a religious point of view, this inclusion should be established by God’s revelation. However, an utilitarian will surely keep in mind a great many factors in order to evaluate if an action is supermeritorious or if it has moral relevance. We should consider that these circumstances can be contingent and may vary in time. For example, the act of helping people after an earthquake may change from being meritorious into a moral duty. Anyway, what is important to emphasize is that, in open societies, the moral relevance of actions has to be justified according to the basic moral values of the particular society. Consequently, when we say that moral indifference should prevail, we are claiming that, unless there are reasons justifying a moral requirement, human actions should be placed in the area of moral indifference.

2. The limits of moral duties

The problem of moral duties is not limited to knowing the actions that can be classified as a matter of moral requirement. The study of the limits of that requirement are also analysed. In general, these limits vary depending on the character of the duty, which could be positive or negative. We can see the distinction between positive and negative duties in Kant's work (1785), where duties are classified according to their fulfilment. If a duty requires an action, then it is a positive duty and if a duty requires an omission, then it is a negative duty. For example, the duty to help a friend would be a positive duty and the duty not to lie would be a negative duty. In addition, duties can be general or special. General duties are those whose fulfilment can benefit anybody, as the duty not to kill. Special duties are those duties that benefit people who have a concrete relationship with the person who is obligated by the duty. This is the case of duties derived from a contract or being members of a club. Positive duties are, usually, special duties, whereas negatives duties are, usually, general duties. The problem of the limits of moral duties arises, inter alia, when we deal with a duty that is positive in character and, at the same time, is a general duty.

While negative duties are easy to fulfil because they are omissions, positive duties demand an effort that can be more or less stringent, but they cannot have a limitless character. Let us imagine the case of a person who goes for a walk near a lake and sees somebody drowning. It seems that this person has the duty to save the swimmer, although it means spoiling a suit or arriving late for an appointment. These sacrifices are more stringent than those derived from the fulfilment of negative duties. Nevertheless, these sacrifices neither imply justified reasons going away and letting the swimmer drowning, nor should we save the swimmer's life at any price. Imagine for a moment what would happen if a person is not a swimmer or there are piranhas in the lake. It seems that to put his own life at risk is something that surpasses a level of moral requirements.
In these cases, the limit of moral duty seems clear but it is not always so easy to figure out when this is so. When we are dealing with duties like the duty to help people who are dying of hunger most of us can accept giving part of our salary to help them. Implicitly, we are admitting the existence of this moral duty. However, the disagreement may come when we have to determine its limits, that is, the percentage of our salary to give. The determination of this limit is a very complex problem and a clear and unanimous approach does not exist. Authors like Singer (1993) defend the non-existence of morally relevant differences among the swimmer who is drowning in the lake and the people who die of hunger in Africa. In the first case, if we should help the swimmer even though it can ruin an expensive suit, there are no reasons that justify a different treatment to a person who is dying of hunger thousands of kilometres away from us. Geographical distance does not justify unequal treatment. Therefore, Singer believes that we should give an important part of our salary, reserving only enough to cover our basic  needs (food, clothes, etc.). Nevertheless, I think that to increase the level of moral demand to limits that only a few people will be willing to assume is not a realistic view. Against this idealistic conception of Singer, other authors assert that a moral conception should not be a utopian ideal but a practical guide with more achievable goals. Some authors like Garzón Valdés (1986) point out that a moral duty cannot go beyond a trivial sacrifice. A sacrifice is considered trivial when it supposes, for example, an alteration in our way of life from which we can easily recover. These authors assert that to go beyond this trivial sacrifice is to move in to the area of supermeritorious actions.

III. Political obligation

Political obligation can be defined as a kind of moral obligation that refers to the individual's relationship with the State. Most discussions about this topic focus on giving an answer to the issue of the limitation of our freedom by the State. This question leads us to the problem of the justification of political obligations. There are two important theories on this matter.

The first of them is the communitarian theory. Most communitarians defend the idea that individuals cannot be understood as autonomous entities. Standing against an individualistic point of view, they understand individuals as persons integrated by a group of relationships with other individuals and institutions. Therefore, an individual's identity is configured by the role that each individual plays in her community. This social tie compels the individual to obey the norms established by the community. This conception, moreover, implies that the relationship between individuals and State is not something contingent. Rejecting the contractualist conception, communitarians reject the idea of a political obligation being an option that anybody can give up at any moment.

Contrary to communitarianism we see authors that defend an individualistic conception and reject the idea that individuals are, unavoidably, part of a community. For these authors, living in political communities and obeying certain common rules should be justified by other types of reasons. One of these reasons is based on the existence of an agreement between individuals accepting these political obligations. Authors who defend this theory are called contractualists. They believe that individuals, for reasons of their own self-interest, have freely agreed to live in a community under certain rules. This conception of individuals, as free beings, prevent contractualist authors from admitting the existence of political obligations that have been not accepted. They would consider this situation to be tyranny.

In a strict sense, a voluntarist conception of political obligation is hard to defend because nobody really signs a contract or document adhering to a community and accepting their political obligations. Against this objection, some authors have pointed out that this consent can be tacit (e.g. Locke). However, other authors simply reject this voluntarist character and claim that political obligation should be derived from hypothetical reasoning. In this case, legitimate political obligation would derive from what would individuals be willing to accept, ignoring their personal and social circumstances (e.g. Rawls 1971).

Related entries

Legal obligationObligation to obey the law.

Annotated bibliography

Ciceron Sobre los deberes, Madrid: Tecnos (2002). A classic work on moral and political duty

Fishkin, J. (1986) «Las fronteras de la obligación», Madrid: DOXA, 3. A good discussion about moral duties and their limits.

Garzón Valdés, E. (1986) «Los deberes positivos generales y su fundamentación», Madrid: DOXA, 3. A good introductory article about the justification and limits of general and positive moral duties.

Kant, I. (1785) Fundamentación metafísica de las costumbres (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten), Madrid: Alianza (2002). A classic work on moral duty

Kymlicka, W. (1995) Filosofía política contemporánea, Barcelona: Ariel. An useful and suggestive work about the main philosophical views dealt with here.

Locke, J. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A classic work on contractualism.

Mulhall, S. and Swift, A. (1992) Liberals and Communitarians, Oxford: Oxford University Press. An introduction to the thought of the main contemporary liberals and communitarians thinkers.

Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. An important conception of ethics between contractualism and Neo-Kantian approaches.

Singer, P. (1993) Practical Ethics: second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A suggestive work from a utilitarian point of view.

Steinberger, P. (2002) «Political Obligations and Derivative Duties», The Journal of Politics, vol. 64, n. 2. An introductory article about political obligation.

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