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Why Do Your Duty?

by Bill Meacham on September 20th, 2010

In a recent New York Times article a professor of philosophy says “Doing the right thing often demands going down the wrong side of the road of our immediate and long-range self-interests.” (1) This puzzles me. Certainly our immediate, short-term interests sometimes conflict with our duty, but I question whether our long-range interests conflict. If doing our duty conflicts with our long-range interests, why would we do it?

There are a number of reasons why we do our duty, or at least what we believe to be our duty. (I am leaving aside the question of how we know what our duty is.) As children we do what our parents tell us to in order to gain parental approval and avoid punishment. As citizens we obey the laws and social norms of our community so we can gain the approval and avoid the scorn of those whose opinions matter to us, not to mention avoiding fines and jail sentences. As adults, doing our duty means obeying the dictates of our conscience, an internal voice that judges our actions as right or wrong, as worthy of approval or disapproval. By doing our duty we gain a sense of uprightness, of rectitude, and we avoid feeling guilty. Further reflection leads us to wonder where the voice of conscience comes from and what the justification is for what that voice tells us. We find ourselves with a sense of duty and wonder who or what imposes that duty. Many believe that God defines the moral rules and imposes the duty to obey. God is thus a surrogate parent, and by being dutiful we gain divine reward and (we hope) avoid divine punishment. Kant alleged that the dictates of pure reason impose the duty to act so that the basis on which we act could be universalized without contradiction. For a rational being, contradiction is certainly unfavorable. Others postulate an unseen world of values, not unlike Plato’s Forms, which the moral sense in some way apprehends. The consequences of doing our duty in this view are an internal sense of being in harmony with moral reality, of being virtuous and worthy of approval, whether or not anyone actually approves.

In all of these cases, our long-range self-interest is at stake. Whether they be parental or community approval or disapproval, mundane or divine reward or punishment, feelings of righteousness or guilt, or feelings of harmony or disharmony with reason or with moral reality, in every case we are motivated by the consequences of our actions. We seek good consequences and try to avoid bad ones. In other words, we look out for our long-range interest.

Of course many times we don’t go through any cogitation about it. We just do our duty because it feels like the right thing to do. There are good reasons from evolutionary psychology why we evolved to have a sense of duty. A problem arises only when we sense a conflict between it and our desires for other kinds of gain. In those cases what is really at stake is not our duty versus our self-interest, but our long-term interest versus our short-term interest.

What the professor is getting at is the need to figure out what really is best for us in the long term. Doing something unethical – cheating in the stock market, say – might give a person immediate financial gain or even, if they got away with it for a long time, long-term gain. But they would have to live with a guilty conscience or live with the psychic effort of avoiding their conscience. That’s not a gain but a loss, and they would be better off doing the right thing.

And that is what philosophy is about, figuring out what is truly best for us and why. It requires self-knowledge, careful observation of life, critical thought and a certain degree of patience and humility, an ability to avoid jumping to conclusions or just accepting what authorities would like us to believe. It takes some work, but it is worth it in the long run.

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(1) Marino, Gordon, “Boxing Lessons,” New York Times 15 September 2010. Available online at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/15/boxing-lessons/, acccessed 17 September 2010.

From → Philosophy

2 Comments
  1. Ryan permalink

    So are you translating the term or idea of “duty” from an inverted view associated with the “I” that guides all of our actions and thoughts? Are you saying that “duty” is based on what affects our own interests only, and not from a utilitarian sort of view that we should be concerned with the effects that our “duty” will bring on others? Why do all actions need any sort of reasoning to distinguish what is right or wrong for that situation or for your long-term interests? You mention that inner voice that can direct us, and unless i am misunderstanding you which I could be, should that inclination to help the man with the flat tire on the side of the road take priority over the reasoning that doing so would cause you to be late to a meeting and only potentially negatively affect your long-term interest?

    I understand your concept of long-term vs short-term interests and can see a strong argument for your way of thinking. It just sounds to me as a more selfish way of viewing “duty.” Just a thought though. You’re very insightful and I enjoyed reading this.

    • Thanks for commenting, Ryan. My replies are in italics below.

      > Are you saying that “duty” is based on what affects our own interests only, and not from a utilitarian sort of view that we should be concerned with the effects that our “duty” will bring on others?

      I am saying that the reason we should be concerned with the effects of our actions on others is that those in turn have an effect on us. If you look at why people in fact do their duty, it is always because they think it is in their own interest to do so, on some level. If you are in quandary about what to do, thinking about how your actions will affect you in the long run will give you stronger reasons for doing something than just some abstract notion that you are supposed to do it.

      > Why do all actions need any sort of reasoning to distinguish what is right or wrong for that situation or for your long-term interests?

      As philosophers we think about what the concept of duty entails and why a thinking person should do their duty. We examine our lives. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. That is a little strong, perhaps, but the goal of philosophy is to understand reality and our place in it so we can figure out how to conduct our lives.

      > should that inclination to help the man with the flat tire on the side of the road take priority over the reasoning that doing so would cause you to be late to a meeting and only potentially negatively affect your long-term interest?

      If you ignore the person in need on the side of the road, you tend to become callous toward others and to cut yourself off from them. That is a very hurtful thing to do to yourself.

      > It just sounds to me as a more selfish way of viewing “duty.”

      I suppose it does seem selfish, but really it is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Being concerned for others is ultimately very good for you.
       

      You may be interested in a couple of other essays on the same topic:

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