This essay was originally published in the July 1970 issue of The Objectivist and later anthologized in Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982).
One of the most destructive anti-concepts in the history of moral philosophy is the term “duty.”
An anti-concept is an artificial, unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The term “duty” obliterates more than single concepts; it is a metaphysical and psychological killer: it negates all the essentials of a rational view of life and makes them inapplicable to man’s actions.
The legitimate concept nearest in meaning to the word “duty” is “obligation.” The two are often used interchangeably, but there is a profound difference between them which people sense, yet seldom identify.
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged Edition, 1966) describes the difference as follows: “Duty, obligation refer to what one feels bound to do. Duty is what one performs, or avoids doing, in fulfillment of the permanent dictates of conscience, piety, right, or law: duty to one’s country; one’s duty to tell the truth, to raise children properly. An obligation is what one is bound to do to fulfill the dictates of usage, custom, or propriety, and to carry out a particular, specific, and often personal promise of agreement: financial or social obligations.”
From the same dictionary: Dutiful — Syn. 1. Respectful, docile, submissive . . .”
An older dictionary is somewhat more open about it: “Duty — 1. Conduct due to parents and superiors, as shown in obedience or submission . . .” “Dutiful — 1. Performing, or ready to perform, the duties required by one who has the right to claim submission, obedience, or deference . . .” (Webster’s International Dictionary, Second Edition, 1944.)
The meaning of the term “duty” is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest.
It is obvious that that anti-concept is a product of mysticism, not an abstraction derived from reality. In a mystic theory of ethics, “duty” stands for the notion that man must obey the dictates of a supernatural authority. Even though the anti-concept has been secularized, and the authority of God’s will has been ascribed to earthly entities, such as parents, country, State, mankind, etc., their alleged supremacy still rests on nothing but a mystic edict. Who in hell can have the right to claim that sort of submission or obedience? This is the only proper form — and locality — for the question, because nothing and no one can have such a right or claim here on earth.
The arch-advocate of “duty” is Immanuel Kant; he went so much farther than other theorists that they seem innocently benevolent by comparison. “Duty,” he holds, is the only standard of virtue; but virtue is not its own reward: if a reward is involved, it is no longer a virtue. The only moral motivation, he holds, is devotion to duty for duty’s sake; only an action motivated exclusively by such devotion is a moral action (i.e., an action performed without any concern for “inclination” [desire] or self-interest).
“It is a duty to preserve one’s life, and moreover everyone has a direct inclination to do so. But for that reason the often anxious care which most men take of it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of doing so has no moral import. They preserve their lives according to duty, but not from duty. But if adversities and hopeless sorrow completely take away the relish for life, if an unfortunate man, strong in soul, is indignant rather than despondent or dejected over his fate and wishes for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it and from neither inclination nor fear but from duty — then his maxim has a moral import.” (Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. R. P. Wolff, New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969, pp. 16 – 17.)
And: “It is in this way, undoubtedly, that we should understand those passages of Scripture which command us to love our neighbor and even our enemy, for love as an inclination cannot be commanded. But beneficence from duty, when no inclination impels it and even when it is opposed by a natural and unconquerable aversion, is practical love, not pathological love; it resides in the will and not in the propensities of feeling, in principles of action and not in tender sympathy; and it alone can be commanded.
“[Thus the first proposition of morality is that to have moral worth an action must be done from duty.]” (Ibid., pp. 18 – 19; the sentence in brackets is Wolff’s.)
If one were to accept it, the anti-concept “duty” destroys the concept of reality: an unaccountable, supernatural power takes precedence over facts and dictates one’s actions regardless of context or consequences.
“Duty” destroys reason: it supersedes one’s knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions.
“Duty” destroys values: it demands that one betray or sacrifice one’s highest values for the sake of an inexplicable command — and it transforms values into a threat to one’s moral worth, since the experience of pleasure or desire casts doubt on the moral purity of one’s motives.
“Duty” destroys love: who could want to be loved not from “inclination,” but from “duty”?
“Duty” destroys self-esteem: it leaves no self to be esteemed.
If one accepts that nightmare in the name of morality, the infernal irony is that “duty” destroys morality. A deontological (duty-centered) theory of ethics confines moral principles to a list of prescribed “duties” and leaves the rest of man’s life without any moral guidance, cutting morality off from any application to the actual problems and concerns of man’s existence. Such matters as work, career, ambition, love, friendship, pleasure, happiness, values (insofar as they are not pursued as duties) are regarded by these theories as amoral, i.e., outside the province of morality. If so, then by what standard is a man to make his daily choices, or direct the course of his life?
In a deontological theory, all personal desires are banished from the realm of morality; a personal desire has no moral significance, be it a desire to create or a desire to kill. For example, if a man is not supporting his life from duty, such a morality makes no distinction between supporting it by honest labor or by robbery. If a man wants to be honest, he deserves no moral credit; as Kant would put it, such honesty is “praiseworthy,” but without “moral import.” Only a vicious represser, who feels a profound desire to lie, cheat and steal, but forces himself to act honestly for the sake of “duty,” would receive a recognition of moral worth from Kant and his ilk.
This is the sort of theory that gives morality a bad name.
The widespread fear and/or resentment of morality — the feeling that morality is an enemy, a musty realm of suffering and senseless boredom — is not the product of mystic, ascetic or Christian codes as such, but a monument to the ugliest repository of hatred for life, man and reason: the soul of Immanuel Kant.
(Kant’s theories are, of course, mysticism of the lowest order [of the “noumenal” order], but he offered them in the name of reason. The primitive level of men’s intellectual development is best demonstrated by the fact that he got away with it.)
If “genius” denotes extraordinary ability, then Kant may be called a genius in his capacity to sense, play on and perpetuate human fears, irrationalities and, above all, ignorance. His influence rests not on philosophical but on psychological factors. His view of morality is propagated by men who have never heard of him — he merely gave them a formal, academic status. A Kantian sense of “duty” is inculcated by parents whenever they declare that a child must do something because he must. A child brought up under the constant battering of causeless, arbitrary, contradictory, inexplicable “musts” loses (or never acquires) the ability to grasp the distinction between realistic necessity and human whims — and spends his life abjectly, dutifully obeying the second and defying the first. In the full meaning of the term, he grows up without a clear grasp of reality.
As an adult, such a man may reject all forms of mysticism, but his Kantian psycho-epistemology remains (unless he corrects it). He continues to regard any difficult or unpleasant task as some inexplicable imposition upon him, as a duty which he performs, but resents; he believes that it is his “duty” to earn a living, that it is his “duty” to be moral, and, in extreme cases, even that it is his “duty” to be rational.
In reality and in the Objectivist ethics, there is no such thing as “duty.” There is only choice and the full, clear recognition of a principle obscured by the notion of “duty”: the Law of Causality.
The proper approach to ethics, the start from a metaphysically clean slate, untainted by any touch of Kantianism, can best be illustrated by the following story. In answer to a man who was telling her that she’s got to do something or other, a wise old Negro woman said: “Mister, there’s nothing I’ve got to do except die.”
Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.
Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if — ” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “ — if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think — if you want to know what to do — if you want to know what goals to choose — if you want to know how to achieve them.
In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awareness of the principle which the anti-concept “duty” has all but obliterated in his mind: the principle of causality — specifically, of Aristotelian final causation (which, in fact, applies only to a conscious being), i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.
In a rational ethics, it is causality — not “duty” — that serves as the guiding principle in considering, evaluating and choosing one’s actions, particularly those necessary to achieve a long-range goal. Following this principle, a man does not act without knowing the purpose of his action. In choosing a goal, he considers the means required to achieve it, he weighs the value of the goal against the difficulties of the means and against the full, hierarchical context of all his other values and goals. He does not demand the impossible of himself, and he does not decide too easily which things are impossible. He never drops the context of the knowledge available to him, and never evades reality, realizing fully that his goal will not be granted to him by any power other than his own action, and, should he evade, it is not some Kantian authority that he would be cheating, but himself.
If he becomes discouraged by difficulties, he reminds himself of the goal that requires them, knowing that he is fully free to reconsider — to ask: “Is it worth it?” — and that no punishment is involved except the renunciation of the value he desires. (One seldom gives up in such cases, unless one finds that it is rationally necessary.)
In similar circumstances, a Kantian does not focus on his goal, but on his own moral character. His automatic reaction is guilt and fear — fear of failing his “duty,” fear of some weakness which “duty” forbids, fear of proving himself morally “unworthy.” The value of his goal vanishes from his mind, drowned in a flood of self-doubt. He might drive himself on in this cheerless fashion for a while, but not for long. A Kantian seldom carries out or undertakes important goals: they are a threat to his self-esteem.
This is one of the crucial psychological differences between the principle of “duty” and the principle of final causation. A disciple of causation looks outward, he is value-oriented and action-orientated, which means: reality-oriented. A disciple of “duty” looks inward, he is self-centered, not in the rational-existential, but in the psychopathological sense of the term, i.e., concerned with a self cut off from reality; “self-centered” in this context means: “self-doubt-centered.”
There are many other differences between the two principles. A disciple of causation is profoundly dedicated to his values, knowing that he is able to achieve them. He is incapable of desiring contradictions, of relying on a “somehow,” of rebelling against reality. He knows that in all such cases, it is not some Kantian authority that he would be defying and injuring, but himself — and that the penalty would be not some mystic brand of “immorality,” but the frustration of his own desires and the destruction of his values.
A Kantian or even a semi-Kantian cannot permit himself to value anything profoundly, since an inexplicable “duty” may demand the sacrifice of his values at any moment, wiping out any long-range plan or struggle he might have undertaken to achieve them. In the absence of personal goals, any task, such as earning a living, becomes a senseless drudgery, but he regards it as a “duty” — and he regards compliance with the requirement of reality as “duty.” Then, in blind rebellion against “duty,” it is reality that he begins to resent and, ultimately, to escape, in search of some realm where wishes are granted automatically and ends are achieved without means. This is the subconscious process by which Kant makes recruits for mysticism.
The notion of “duty” is intrinsically anti-causal. In its origin, a “duty” defies the principle of efficient causation — since it is causeless (or supernatural); in its effects, it defies the principle of final causation — since it must be performed regardless of consequences. This is the kind of irresponsibility that a disciple of causation would not permit himself. He does not act without considering — and accepting — all the foreseeable consequences of his actions. Knowing the causal efficacy of his actions, seeing himself as a causal agent (and never seeking to get away with contradictions), he develops a virtue killed by Kantianism: a sense of responsibility.
Accepting no mystic “duties” or unchosen obligations, he is the man who honors scrupulously the obligations which he chooses. The obligation to keep one’s promises is one of the most important elements in proper human relationships, the element that leads to mutual confidence and makes cooperation possible among men. Yet observe Kant’s pernicious influence: in the dictionary description quoted earlier, personal obligation is thrown in almost as a contemptuous footnote; the source of “duty” is defined as “the permanent dictates of conscience, piety, right, or law”; the source of “obligation,” as “the dictates of usage, custom, or propriety” — then, as an afterthought: “and to carry out a particular, specific, and often personal promise or agreement.” (Italics mine.) A personal promise or agreement is the only valid, binding obligation, without which none of the others can or do stand.
The acceptance of full responsibility for one’s own choices and actions (and their consequences) is such a demanding moral discipline that many men seek to escape it by surrendering to what they believe is the easy, automatic, unthinking safety of a morality of “duty.” They learn better, often when it is too late.
The disciple of causation faces life without inexplicable chains, unchosen burdens, impossible demands or supernatural threats. His metaphysical attitude and guiding moral principle can best be summed up by an old Spanish proverb: “God said: ‘Take what you want and pay for it.’” But to know one’s own desires, their meaning and their costs requires the highest human virtue: rationality.