A duty is a responsibility or obligation to act (i.e., a positive or affirmative duty) or refrain from acting (i.e., a negative duty) certain ways in certain kinds of situations. Keeping promises, avoiding dishonesty and deception, and refraining from intentionally causing harm to others are examples of actions or inactions that might be considered moral duties and thus binding responsibilities. Although no universal, exhaustive list of specific moral duties exists, discussions of deontological (or “duty-based”) ethics and the types of duties people can be said to have frequently find grounding in, or make reference to, the works of several historically significant moral philosophers.
One of the earliest efforts to define and classify moral duties can be found in the work of German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632–94), whose On the Law of Nature and Nations specifies duties toward God, toward oneself, and toward others. Individuals have, for instance, duties to maximize their capacities and abilities, not harm themselves, avoid wrongful actions toward others, and to treat others with respect, dignity, and generally aim to promote their welfare.
A more celebrated and fully articulated variation of Pufendorf’s basic moral framework can be found in the ethical theory of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant’s “categorical imperative” is premised upon the notion of a single, overarching moral duty from which all other lesser duties can be derived. Although there are several variations, two of the most widely discussed include the universal law formulation (act only as you would wish all others to act in the same situation) and that of respect for the dignity of persons (always treat others as ends, not as means only). In any given situation, individuals’ specific moral duty can—in principle—be derived from consideration of the overarching categorical imperative (e.g., a person could be said to have a duty to be unbiased in making an administrative decision if he or she would want other administrators to be unbiased in the same situation).
Although Kant made no effort to list specific moral duties, a slightly more recent effort to classify and elaborate on types of moral duties comes by way of W. D. Ross (1877–1971). Though working within the tradition of Kant, Ross offered a more detailed and illustrative deontological account of human morality, cataloguing more explicit duties. From duties of fidelity, for instance, people incur a responsibility to keep promises, honor contracts and commitments, and avoid deception and dishonesty, whereas duties of reparation obligate people to repair or “make up for” injuries, harms, or damages that they have caused others.
Both fidelity and reparation are types of duty that stem from people’s own previous actions, whether a previous agreement or commitment, or a previous wrongful or harmful act. Duties can also originate in the previous acts of others, as is the case with those of gratitude. Where others have previously been of aid, been kind or generous, an obligation exists to be grateful and, moreover, to return that kindness, generosity, or assistance whenever reasonably possible. If, for example, a friend, colleague, or partner helped in a time of need, every effort should be made to return the favor when needed.
In addition to those issuing from previous acts, people can also be said to have duties to treat others, in the present, in certain kinds of ways. Two such duties outlined by Ross are those of non-harm and benevolence. The latter commits individuals generally to aid or otherwise contribute to the health and happiness of others through good decisions and deeds, while the former requires that people refrain from injuring the health and happiness of others. Although harming others is at times unavoidable and, at other times arguably necessary or justified, the duty of nonharm (or nonmalfeasance, noninjury) obligates people to avoid intentionally or negligently harming others. As well, it has been argued that the duty of non-harm incorporates a duty to prevent harm from coming to others, as much as it is reasonably possible to do so. While Ross did not rank order his list of duties, nonharm is widely interpreted as being the most crucial and, therefore, taking priority over other duties in most circumstances.
Another critical duty recognized by Ross is that of justice. Philosophical questions of justice ask people to entertain the ways in which benefits and burdens are distributed within a group, community, society, or larger entity. Where there are imbalances that result from an unfair distribution of wealth, health, or happiness (or opportunities to achieve them) within a society, those imbalances are something that a good society should seek to remedy. This awareness of and concern for rectifying such imbalances applies at the level of the individual as well, where duties of justice obligate people to seek to fairly distribute benefits and burdens—whatever they may be—and to choose and act so as to prevent, or disrupt current, unfair distributions. Inequities and disparities resulting from race-, class-, or gender-based prejudices are contemporary illustrations of injustices of particular relevance to criminal justice.
Moral duties also share an important relationship with moral rights, in that specific types of moral duties might be derived from the existence of certain types of moral (and perhaps legal) rights. What is morally required of people in a particular situation will, in part, depend upon whether and what moral rights are relevant to the situation. If it is the case that all human beings have a moral right to be treated with respect and dignity, people incur a corresponding moral duty to respect that right and to treat persons with respect and dignity; if natural rights protect human beings from being subjected to torture, then individuals have a corresponding duty to avoid participating in the torture of other human beings (and perhaps to seek to prevent torture more generally). In this way, the existence of moral rights implies corresponding moral duties.
The same logic can and has been applied to rights issuing from legislative and other bodies. If citizens of a country enjoy a constitutional right to privacy, then representatives of the government of that country are legally obligated to acknowledge that right and refrain from violating the privacy interests of citizens without good cause. Whereas legal rights are commonly clearly articulated, what moral or natural rights exist and from where they come are questions without conclusive answers. Nonetheless, consideration of moral, natural, human, and legal rights should play an essential role in efforts to delineate types of moral duty.
- Finnis, John. Natural Law and Natural Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
- Immanueal. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Pufendorf, Samuel. On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
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