Sunday, December 07, 2003
Is Duty a Theology?

A duty is a moral obligation that an agent has towards another person, such as the duty not to lie. Etymologically, duties are actions that are due to someone else, such as paying money that one owes to a creditor. In a broader sense, duties are simply actions that are morally manditory. Medieval philosophers such as Aquinas argued that we have specific duties or obligations to avoid committing specific sins. Since sins such as theft are absolute, then our duty to avoid stealing is also absolute, irrespective of any good consequences that might arise from particular acts of theft. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, many philosophers held the normative theory that moral conduct is that which follows a specific list of duties. These theories are also called deontological theories, from the Greek word deon, or duty, since they emphasize foundational duties or obligations. We find one of the first clear indications of this view in The Law of War and Peace (1625) by Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). For Grotius, our ultimate duties are fixed features of the universe, which even God cannot change, and comprise the chief obligations of natural law. Some moral theorists at the time based their list of duties on traditional lists of virtues.

One problem with traditional duty-based ethics involves the list of prescribed duties. What was self-evident in the 17th and 18th centuries seems less self-evident today. The existence and nature of God are more widely questioned now, hence it is speculation to claim that we have a set of duties toward God. Advocates of personal liberty question the traditional duties to ourselves. For example, the right to suicide is now widely defended, and the right to self-rule implies that I can let my faculties and abilities deteriorate if I so choose. Finally, many of the traditional duties to others have also been under fire. Defenders of personal liberty question our duties of benevolence, such as charity, and political duties, such as public spirit. For some, the traditional list of self-evident duties needs to be reduced to one: the duty to not harm others. Another problem with traditional duty theory is that there is no clear procedure for resolving conflicts between duties. Suppose I am placed in a situation where I must choose between feeding myself to avoid starvation, or feeding my neighbor to keep her from starving. Consequentialist theories provide a clear formula for resolving this conflict: the morally correct choice is the one which produces the greatest benefit (either to myself, or to society at large). Traditional duty theory, by contrast, does not offer a procedure for determining which obligation is primary.

Kant adopts the distinction between perfect/imperfect duties and direct/indirect duties. He also endorses the distinction between duties to oneself and duties to others. Kant further refines the notion of duty by arguing that moral actions are ultimately based on a single, "supreme principle of morality" which is objective, rational, and freely chosen: the categorical imperative. Although the categorical imperative is a single principle, Kant gives four formulations of it:

1. The Formula of the Law of Nature: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature."

2. The Formula of the End Itself: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."

3. The Formula of Autonomy: "So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims."

4. The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: "So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends."

The last serious attempt to revive duty-based ethics is W.D. Ross's The Right and the Good (1930). Like his 17th and 18th century counterparts, Ross argues that our duties are "part of the fundamental nature of the universe." Accordingly, Ross falls into the deontological (or nonconsequentialist) camp of ethicists. Ross believes that when we reflect on our actual moral convictions they reveal the following set of duties:

Fidelity: the duty to keep promises

Reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them

Gratitude: the duty to thank those who help us

Justice: the duty to recognize merit

Beneficence: the duty to improve the conditions of others

Self-improvement: the duty to improve our virtue and intelligence

Nonmaleficence: the duty to not injure others

Ross does not include duties to God, self-preservation, or political duties. By appealing to our actual moral convictions, Ross attempts to address the problem of including principles that are not duties by our standards today. This list is not complete, Ross argues, but he believes that at least some of these are self-evidently true.

So, what do you perceive to be your duties?

- posted by -g @ 7:04 AM | | 0 rocks in pond


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