From New World Encyclopedia

The concept of a duty is the concept of a requirement. If one has a duty to (e.g.) pay the rent, then one ought to pay the rent. The concept of a duty is one of a cluster of normative concepts, also sometimes called deontic concepts (Greek: deon, duty). Duties come in a many shapes and sizes. There are, e.g., moral duties, legal duties, parental duties and civil duties. The most important distinctions between duties include the distinctions between (1) natural and acquired duties, (2) positive and negative duties, (3) perfect and imperfect duties, and (4) prima facie and ‘all things considered’ duties.

Historical Perspective

The notion of a duty is closely linked with the concepts of ‘ought’ and ‘obligation’ and expresses moral action as ‘’required’’. Doing one's duty is acting in accordance with the moral law, and this entails that the requirements of moral duty can easily come into conflict with the requirements of self interest. A person’s self interest may dictate that he should (e.g.) tell a lie although it is his duty to tell the truth. In such a circumstance, duty imposes itself on one as a constraint on action which is independent of what one most wants to do. This strong sense of obligation, of actions which one ‘’must’’ perform, is a relatively late arrival in western ethical thought.

This robust sense of actions which one ‘’must’’ do—no matter what—is not at all conspicuous in ancient ethical thinking, which tends to emphasise the relation between ‘right action’ and the agent’s own benefit. Right action is understood as that which is done by the practically wise person, and consequently as that which displays virtue (arête). So right action is subordinated to virtue, which is in turn linked to happiness (eudaimonia; literally ‘having a good guardian spirit’). Ancient thinkers tend to argue, then, that it is in an agent’s best interests to behave virtuously because virtuous activity is closely linked to eudaimonia. (Just how close the link between virtue and happiness varies according to the theorist. Aristotle, for example, takes virtue and its exercise to be the most important constituent in happiness, but acknowledges the importance of external goods such as health, wealth, and beauty. By contrast, the Stoics make virtue necessary and sufficient for happiness and thus deny the necessity of external goods in achieving eudaimonia.) This means that the idea of duty as radically opposed to self interest is largely absent from ancient thought.

In western ethical thought, the concept of duty arrives on the scene as a result of the influence of Christianity and the identification of moral right with the will of God. Morality is conceived as a set of requirements, which one must fulfil. The Ten Commandments nicely capture this sense of morality, which has crystallized into what has become known as deonological ethics. The greatest deontological thinker, Kant, says “the moral law is a law of duty, of moral contraint,” and that “duty and obligation are the only names for our relation to the moral law” (Critique of Practical Reason). Kant argues that our fundamental moral duties may be derived from the “supreme principle of morality (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals), the Categorical Imperative. In brief, the crucial claim is that one’s duties are determined by the requirements of logical consistency and are independent of the good results brought about by an action. It is wrong to lie, even when lying will bring about a terrible result for oneself.

Although a duty based conception of morality has dominated ethical thinking for the last 200 years (at least in the Anglophone tradition), in more recent times, some theorists have urged a return to a more ancient ideas which ground moral action on well being or "eudaimonia." This is largely due to Elizabeth Anscombe’s influential argument that duty based conceptions of morality are inadequate because they rely on an incoherent notion of “law with a lawgiver.”

The Concept of a Duty

The concept of a duty is the concept of a requirement. If one has a duty to (e.g.) pay the rent, then one ought to pay the rent. Duties are normative requirements: they concern what should happen, rather than what does actually happen. The word normative is an adjective which comes from 'norm'. In a philosophical context, the word 'norm' usually means standard, or rule, or principle, as opposed to what is 'normal' for people to do, i.e., what they actually do. For example, the rules of arithmetic are normative, because reasoning can be assessed against these rules and judged as correct or incorrect, irrespective of whether this usage is the normal usage'. If everyone were to calculate '7 + 5' as '57' they would have made a mistake, for they would have misunderstood the rules (norms) of arithmetic. So even if this mistake were 'normal', a normative appraisal would hold everyone’s actual thinking to the arithmetic rule, which legislates how they ought to think. The concept of a duty is one of a cluster of normative concepts, also called deontic concepts (Greek: deon, duty). This cluster of concepts includes (some senses of) the words 'ought', and 'should', as well as 'right', 'wrong', 'obligatory', 'forbidden', 'permissible', and 'required'. There are close relations between these concepts. For example, we might say that if someone is required to do something, then he ought to do this action; and if he ought to do it, then it is right for him to do so. So the concept of a normative requirement, or duty, may be defined in terms of right and wrong. Duties require certain actions from us, and to the extent that we do not do what they prescribe, we have done wrong.

Duties come in a many shapes and sizes. There are, e.g., moral duties, legal duties, parental duties and civil duties. This article will focus mainly on moral duties. (Moral duties are the subject of normative ethics.) A moral duty is a standard with which moral agents ought to comply. “Thou shall not murder” is an example of a moral duty: it is meant to guide our actions, and to the extent that we do not comply, we may be judged morally, that is, morally blamed.

Although our duties are quite a variegated bunch, it is possible to draw some helpful distinctions between different types of duties. The most important distinctions between duties include the distinctions between (1) natural and acquired duties, (2) positive and negative duties, (3) perfect and imperfect duties, and (4) prima facie and ‘all things considered’ duties; and it is to these that we shall now turn.

Natural and acquired duties

How do we come to be bound by duties? The class of duties may be divided into two groups, corresponding to a difference in the way in which we become duty bound. This distinction is that between what we shall call (1) natural duties, as opposed to (2) acquired duties.

'Natural duties' are a class of duties that apply to us without our having assumed any particular societal role, or having made any contracts or promises. Natural duties are incumbent on all of us as moral agents and are not voluntarily acquired through participation in any practice. Defining the exact nature of a moral agent not a simple matter, but we may safely exclude plants and animals from the class of entities which are bound by duties. (Note that it is a separate question as to whether human moral agents have duties to animals or the environment.) Natural duties include the duty 'not to injure', the duty 'not to harm the innocent' (Rawls 1972, 109), the 'duty to help one another' (114, 338), the duty to ‘uphold justice’, and a duty of mutual respect (337).

Natural duties bind all of us simply in virtue of the types of creatures we are, i.e., moral agents. In contrast, acquired duties do not bind all moral agents in the same way. Acquired duties are taken on by some of us, in virtue of something we have done, or as a result of a particular relationship we might have to have to others. One type of acquired duty includes those obligations we bind ourselves with through contracts and promises and covenants. These are essentially defined by an agreement, institution or practice, the rules of which specify what it is that one is required to do: these assume that we have, in some sense, 'taken them on by voluntarily (Rawls 1972, 113). So, some acquired duties derive from acts, such as making a promise. If you make a promise to do the dishes by morning, then you have a duty to do the dishes by morning. This duty specifies that you ought to do something quite specific, in order to meet what it requires. If you did not voluntarily utter the words necessary to make the promise, i.e., you were coerced, then you are not bound by any obligation at all.

Another type of acquired duty results from special relationships which obtain between individuals and groups; these duties are sometimes called role responsibilities. For example, parents have duties to their children, doctors to their patients, and so on. These are duties or responsibilities acquired in virtue of occupying a distinct role or station (Hart 1968, 212-214). Other examples of such duties include a general’s duties to protect and preserve his army, and a lifeguard’s duty to monitor and ensure the safety of swimmers. These duties may be voluntarily acquired, as when a doctor pledges an oath to care for her patients, or they may be obtained simply by having a certain relation to others, as, for example, a mother’s duty to her children, and sons and daughters’ duties to their parents. One might say that the duty is acquired because it depends on one having assumed a particular role, but that assuming the role need not always be something that is voluntarily undertaken. Parental duties, for example, would seem to obtain quite independently of whether one had decided to become a parent.

The terminology I have employed here diverges somewhat from that preferred by some philosophers (e.g. Rawls 1972). These philosophers distinguish between the concepts of a duty and an obligation. On this view, one acquires an obligation voluntarily by means of some type of action. (For example, one may acquire an obligation to collect someone at the airport, by making a promise to do so.) In contrast, according to these philosophers, duties arise only from roles, such as being a parent or a doctor or a lifeguard.

My reason for departing from this usage is that many of our roles are acquired voluntarily, as when someone marries, and thereby acquires a marital duty of fidelity. For this reason, the concept of an obligation as arising from a voluntarily action cuts across the notion of a role responsibility. I shall follow, then, what seems to be the usual practice, and simply treat a duty as equivalent to an obligation.

Lastly, it is also worth noting that it is possible to regard 'natural duties' as duties which derive from one’s role in the community of rational moral agents, and in this sense, these duties are role related responsibilities of a certain sort. While this is correct, in so far as it goes, the crucial distinction emphasized here is that they are not roles which one acquires. All moral agents are bound by these duties simply in virtue of their capacity to understand and abide by moral requirements. This licences calling them 'natural duties' and contrasting them with 'acquired duties'.

Positive and negative duties

According to Rawls, the intuitive difference between positive and negative duties resides in the fact that positive duties require us to do 'good for another' (Rawls, 1972, 114), while negative duties prohibit us from doing something morally bad. Negative duties may therefore also be called prohibitions: they are rules that forbid us to do certain things. 'Thou shall not murder' is a typical example of a prohibition. By contrast, examples of positive duties include duties to alleviate suffering and to tell the truth.

The distinction between negative duties (prohibitions) and positive duties depends on the distinction between acting and refraining from acting. For example, a prohibition on murder requires one to refrain from killing innocent persons, whereas a duty of beneficence requires one to actively go about trying to do good for others. One might, for example, fulfill a positive duty of beneficence by working for charities on the weekends. Negative duties place limits on what one is permitted to do, and in this respect require one to refrain from acting in certain ways. By contrast, positive duties to uphold justice, render mutual aid, and give mutual respect, require positive effort (action) on our part.

It is worth noting, too, that a negative duty, a prohibition, which commands us to refrain from lying, cannot be straightforwardly transposed into a positive duty to tell the truth. A prohibition against lying prohibits acts of intentional deception, but failures to tell the truth may not involve this sort of intentional deception. For example, suppose that a wife asks her husband whether he approves of a dress she is wearing. A response along the lines of ‘I really like the colour’ may not strictly meet the requirement to tell the truth, but may indeed fulfil the requirement not to lie.

Perfect and imperfect duties

As we have seen with respect to the distinction between positive and negative duties, moral duties do not bind us in exactly the same way. Another important distinction between duties derives from the work of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant; it is the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties.

According to Kant, perfect duties are negative and strict: we simply are forbidden from doing these sorts of actions. Examples of perfect duties include 'Thou shall not murder' and 'Thou shall not lie'. By contrast, imperfect duties not strict, for they do not specify how much we ought to do to. Although one, for example, ought to act beneficently as far as possible, the 'as far as possible' is left indeterminate: not every action that fails to measure up is wrong; there is more leeway in meeting one’s imperfect duties.

While the distinction between positive and negative duties corresponds quite closely to the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties, they are not the same. There is nothing in the idea of a positive duty which entails that it must be imperfect. A duty to do as much good as one can, as (e.g.) suggested by W.D. Ross, is clearly a positive duty, but could also be interpreted strictly, such that one is always required to do as much good as one can. This shows that the category of positive duties does not map onto the category of imperfect duties. By contrast, however, the category of negative duties does appear to map onto the category of perfect duties. Remember though that calling negative duties 'negative' arises from the fact that they require us to refrain from acting is certain types of ways, whereas calling duties 'perfect' aims to highlight the fact that they have application to every single action a person might undertake.

Prima facie and all-things-considered-duties

The distinction between 'prima facie' and 'all things considered duties' derives from the work of W.D Ross. The broader context for drawing this distinction pertains to the question of whether duties, moral rules, are inviolable, i.e., hold absolutely, or whether they may sometimes legitimately be broken. The main problem for the moral absolutist (see the article on Deontological ethics) is that absolute moral rules may come into conflict under certain circumstances. For example, with reference to Kant’s famous discussion of he inquiring murderer, it seems possible that one might be caught in a dilemma in which one must lie in order to save another person’s life. Assuming that both of these duties (i.e., a prohibition on lying, and duty to save the life of an innocent person) are absolute, the question arises as to how to accommodate most peoples’ intuition that one should tell the lie in order to save the life. Ross’s distinction between 'prima facie' and 'all things considered duties' is meant to help solve this problem.

Ross recognises a variety of moral duties and denies that there is any overarching explanation for why these are our duties. He also claims that there is no hierarchy between these duties such that some duties (e.g prohibitions on murder) always trump other duties (such as prohibitions on lying). Ross’s solution is to deny that moral rules are absolute, and to argue that one may in exceptional circumstances break deontological rules.

Ross distinguishes between prima facie duties and what he calls duties proper. The concept of a prima facie duty is the concept of a duty, which though it is a significant reason for not doing something, is not absolute, but must be weighed up against other duties. A duty proper refers to the action that must be done when all the prima facie duties have been considered and weighed. To illustrate, Ross thinks that we have duties to keep our promises, and duties of benevolence: these are, then, prima facie duties. Insofar as these prima facie duties come into conflict (and one cannot keep a promise and act with benevolence), one must decide on the basis of contextual details, which of these duties is most pressing. The action which is judged to be, all things considered, the right thing to do, is the duty proper. Ross’s theory is an example of a moderate deontology, that is, deontology without absolutism.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kant, I., and Mary Gregor (ed.). 1998. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge Univerity Press. ISBN 9780521626958
  • Rawls, J. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674000780
  • Ross, W.D. 1930. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Zimmerman, M.J. 1996. The Concept of Moral Obligation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521497060

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