The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Duty is one of the oldest topics in western philosophy and literature.

Even before the discussions of it that we find in Plato’s dialogues, we meet not only the idea of duty, but the tragic paradox of conflicting duties in ÆschylusThe Libation Bearers, in which the Furies and Apollo divinely enjoin contradictory obligations upon the hero Orestes—the one to spare his mother, the other to avenge his father by killing her. The following play, The Eumenides, resolves the paradox through the further intervention of Athena introducing trial by jury in place of the older revenge code, which leads to a transfiguration of the Furies. By contrast, SophoclesElectra (written some years later and covering the same material as The Libation Bearers) simply dismisses the conflict: when Orestes avenges his father, the Furies do nothing to him. In both cases, a common human instinct is revealed, that duty should somehow be a single thing without internal contradictions.

Sophocles seems to favor this “simple” form of conflict, in which one course of action is simply right in every case, and other claims or interests necessarily overridden: in Antigone, Sophocles does not seem to be inviting us to wonder whether Creon has a point even though the heroine is more in the right than he, but only to admire her unwavering courage in the face of her uncle’s wrong-headed opposition and her sister’s timidity. But Æschylus delights in such contrasts. Though the Oresteia is the only one of his trilogies that survives complete, we know from the testimony of ancient critics that several of his dramatic cycles consist in two plays presenting two incompatible moral perspectives that each seems compelling in its own right, followed by a third play that reconciles the disharmony. Æschylus does this through some kind of divine intervention; other, more philosophically-minded solutions have often proposed some kind of hierarchy of duties, as that duty to country outweighs personal affections (a persistent theme in the Æneid) or that fidelity to God is above all other obligations (exemplified in The Martyrdom of Polycarp).

The fact that duties in these plays are sanctioned by the gods is also significant. It forms continuity with a number of later theories of duty; many (not all) Christian ethicists derive the concept of duty from God’s power to reward and punish by assigning souls to heaven or hell, while in the political sphere, many authoritarians (particularly fascists) make comparable claims about the state. Duty, under these definitions, is not clearly different from expediency; refusing one’s duty is foolish in the same sense that not getting out of the way of a train is foolish.

But duty can be framed in quite different terms as well, and Plato’s Socrates is perhaps the first recorded example of such terms in the Republic. The dialogue opens with the famous story of the ring of Gyges, in which a peasant obtains a ring of invisibility and uses it to seduce the queen, kill the king, assume the throne, and satisfy all his desires—the point being, why would anyone practice virtue if he could get away with any vice? Socrates replies that the sense of duty can move us just as much as desire can, and that the man who chooses virtue for its own sake is happier than he who merely gets his way all the time. Interestingly, this same note often occurs in a religious context, both in religions that affirm eternal rewards and punishments and in those that do not. A constant refrain (sometimes literally) of the Jewish Psalms is that the psalmist “delights in the law of the LORD,” and, while he is obviously not an original source, C. S. Lewis accurately summarizes the cosmology and the spirit of Norse paganism in Letters to Malcolm when he writes, “The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.” Duty, thus conceived, inheres in human dignity or in the nature of the conduct itself, with no reference at all to consequences. Perhaps no ancient school articulated itself more entirely in terms of duty-apart-from-consequence than the Stoics, known to us today in such figures as Marcus Aurelius. Their notion of happiness consisted entirely in the fulfillment of duty, to the exclusion of all else, so that on their showing, a man who maintained his virtue was happy though he were in the midst of being tortured.

God so commanded, and left that command
Sole Daughter of his voice; the rest, we live
Law to ourselves ...

While the idea of unconditional obligation does seem to be implicitly present in the concept of duty, few people are willing to go as far as the Stoics in redefining happiness. Even Kant, whose ethical idealism resembles Stoicism in many respects, does not; on the contrary, he argues that happiness and duty are simply unrelated, because duty binds all people without exception, whereas happiness is different for each person, depending on what they want and like. However, Kant was prepared to assert that the only way to deserve to be happy was if one fulfilled one’s duty—you might not be happy if your conduct was unimpeachable, but you ought not be happy otherwise.

But there is another aspect to the question. Is duty interchangeable with virtue? Are there virtues that are not connected with duties, or not directly? Duty suggests action, or more exactly an obligation to act; a virtue ethicist (one who believes the virtues are primarily qualities of character that produce given behaviors, not the behaviors themselves) would therefore certainly say that duty is at most one part of virtue. The Jewish idea of חֶסֶד (chesed), traditionally translated “loving-kindness” or “faithfulness,” indicates a kind of generous loyalty on the part of God toward his people that far exceeds any “obligation” he could be conceived of as having—as a father loves his children, not because he owes them some kind of debt, but because they are his. Much the same concept appears in Christian doctrine under the name of charity. The very definitions of forgiveness and generosity imply something above and beyond that which is owed as a matter of justice; they imply gift. To go beyond duty, to do more than is required, would seem to be an incoherent idea, unless goodness consists in more than bare obligation.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
William Roper, Life of Sir Thomas More
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our analyses of topics like emotion, games, and sin. Be sure to also check out our podcast, Anchored, and our seminar series on the great minds of our tradition, Journey Through the Author Bank.

Published on 17th March, 2022. Page image of the Stoa Poikile or “Painted Porch,” the original home of Stoic philosophy; copyright Yiannis Mitos, obtained via (source).

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