This post examines the virtue of duty. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What good is duty?

“If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.” ―Nietzsche[1]

A duty is often described as something of a burden (e.g. in phrases like “it is my unfortunate duty…”, “duty-bound”). A duty can be a sort of lingering, unfinished business: When one “discharges” a duty, it implies a sort of relief.

So it’s worth asking: in what sense is duty a virtue? Why is it a good thing you would want to seek out in your life?

To say that you have a duty is another way of saying that you have a purpose and that that purpose involves your agency (it’s not a passive purpose). To lack a purpose of this sort can lead to despair, while having a purpose can contribute to hope.[2] People who do not know their duty are more likely to be plagued by questions like “what am I here for?” “why bother to get up in the morning?” They may wallow in frivolity or a “bullshit job,” wondering vaguely what is the point of it all.

As a simple example of how duty can improve well-being, consider this study:

Some [elderly nursing home] residents (the experimental group) were given a plant to take care of, while others (the comparison group) were also given a plant, but were told the staff would take care of it. After three weeks the experimental group had significantly higher wellbeing levels, including sociability, vigour, and self-initiative.[3]

What is duty?

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” ―Helen Keller[4]

The word “duty” derives etymologically from words meaning “due” and “debt” — it suggests something that is owed, an obligation. It usually means that some sort of service is owed (as opposed to some sort of thing, or some cash equivalent, except in some specific usages like “customs duties”). If someone is asked “what is your duty?” they typically respond with a verb-phrase: a description of an action.

If you have a duty, it is your responsibility to see that the duty is carried out. Duty and responsibility overlap, and may be nearly synonymous. “Duty” has more of a sacred ring to it, with “responsibility” being more down-to-earth and secular (responsibility also has a backwards-looking sense to it that duty doesn't have, as in “who was responsible for putting that there?”). A dutiful or responsible person is one who is characteristically diligent in carrying out her or his duties, and this is where duty-as-a-virtue comes in.

There are two parts to being dutiful: 1) knowing your duty, and 2) carrying out your duty conscientiously.

Knowing your duty

“Noble examples stir us up to noble actions; and the very history of large and public souls inspires a man with generous thoughts. It makes a man long to be in action, and doing something that the world may be the better for; as protecting the weak, delivering the oppressed, punishing the insolent.” ―Seneca[5]

How do you know your duty? Sometimes you take on duties explicitly, for instance if you offer to take care of a neighbor’s dog while they’re on vacation, or if you take a vow or make a promise. Professions and offices typically come with duties inseparably attached to them: if you take on such a role (e.g. lawyer), you take the associated duties too (e.g. faithfully defend your client’s legal interests). Religions often come packaged with certain duties (e.g. Mormon missionary service, the Muslim hajj, Catholic confession); “penance” is a variety of religious duty designed to expiate sins.

You may voluntarily take on a duty from a sense of engagement or purposefulness. This is a way of unreservedly jumping into life as a participant rather than a by-stander, and means that you have to put philosophical skepticism aside and commit yourself. Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita might be interpreted in this vein. Sometimes in myth and story, a duty will take the form of a quest or a mission. The paradox of asserting your freedom by choosing to bind yourself to a duty is also something that the existentialist philosophers liked to chew on.

Conscience is sometimes described as a sort of sixth-sense that allows you to perceive your duty; other times as a kind of agent that tells you your duty. Similarly, some people claim to hear the “call of duty” — they discover their “calling.” In these senses, your duty was there all along, and you just needed to become aware of it.

Steve Martin as The Jerk: "I've got a special purpose!"

Other duties are implicit: if you’re raising a child, it’s your duty to take care of their basic needs, and nobody expects you to first take an explicit vow or search your conscience in order to do this. Which duties are implicit and bind people without their explicit consent, and what those duties require of people, are part of what defines a culture. What do parents owe their children; what does filial piety demand from children; what are the duties of serfs and lords toward one another; what does a just government owe its citizens, and what obligations can it justly place on its citizens; what do nobles owe society; what are our religious duties; are there universal duties that everyone owes their fellow-man? Questions like these are part of the intracultural negotiation of what it means to be a good person.

Loyalty usually includes duty, and this can be a mixture of explicit and implicit duties.

The applause light glow around the word “duty” can be used in manipulative ways. An institution that wants to conscript you into its service will sometimes try to reframe this as your duty rather than its imposition: “jury duty” for example. This rhetorically attempts to put the burden of objecting to the conscription on you, rather than the burden of justifying it on the institution.

Doing your duty

“Never shirk the proper dispatch of your duty, no matter if you are freezing or hot, groggy or well-rested, vilified or praised, not even if dying or pressed by other demands. Even dying is one of the important assignments of life and, in this as in all else, make the most of your resources to do well the duty at hand.” ―Marcus Aurelius[6]

Once you know what your duty is, in general terms, to be dutiful you must then carry it out. This requires at least the following:

  1. Resolve / commitment / dedication. This translates knowing your duty into actions that fulfill that duty. Resolve is a sort of hand on the crank that keeps turning until your duty is done.
  2. Diligence. If you know your duty in general terms, or in terms of the goal it is meant to meet, you may still need to do some work to break that down into what that duty requires of you specifically and right now. To do your duty, you need to put in that work. 

    “[L]et him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain light, and prays vehemently that the dawn may ripen into day, lay this other precept well to heart, which to me was of invaluable service: ‘Do the duty which lies nearest thee,’ which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second duty will already have become clearer.” ―Thomas Carlyle[7]
  3. Conscientiousness. You keep your duty at the forefront of your thoughts, and judge all of your actions at least in part by how they further or interfere with fulfilling your duty.
  4. Industriousness. You put in the work, doing what it takes to accomplish your duty.

In some circumstances, you might fail in spite of having done your duty (my duty was to defend the bridge, which I did honorably, but our position was nonetheless overrun by stronger enemy forces); in others, failure might mean precisely that you have failed in your duty (my duty was to defend the bridge, but I unthinkingly neglected to guard against saboteurs and the bridge was demolished).

Related virtues

Aside from commitment, conscientiousness, dedication, diligence, engagement, filial piety, loyalty, purposefulness, resolve, responsibility, and service, which I’ve already mentioned, other virtues that are related to duty include patriotism & citizenship, accountability, and reliability.

  1. ^

    Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1888)

  2. ^

    Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (1963)

  3. ^

    J. Rodin & E.J. Langer “Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1977), as described in T. Lomas, K. Hefferon, & I. Ivtzan Applied Positive Psychology (2014) p. 105. That paper also made claims about a dramatic effect of the intervention on mortality; see this page for some skepticism about that.

  4. ^

    Helen Keller, journal, December 10, 1936

  5. ^

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the Younger), De Beneficiis 

  6. ^

    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅵ.2

  7. ^

    Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus Ⅱ.9 (1836): “The Everlasting Yea”

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