DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L018-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

1. Duty and other normative concepts

Related to the concept of duty are a number of other important normative concepts. Among these are the concepts of obligation, right, permission and prohibition. The relations between permissions, prohibitions and duties are fairly straightforward: if we are permitted to do something, then we do not have a duty not to do it; if we are prohibited from doing something, we have a duty not to do it (see Deontic logic). The relationships between duties, obligations and rights are not as obvious.

According to most modern use, obligation and duty are taken to be coextensive, if not identical. So, to have a duty to do something is the same as to have an obligation to do it. However, there is a narrower view concerning duty. According to this, duties must result from roles, namely, from status, occupation or position. For example, subjects are said to have duties to their sovereign, physicians to their patients and parents to their children. The duty arises from the role (being a subject, physician or parent). Obligations are distinct from duties on this view. Obligations result only from voluntary actions; for instance, an obligation might result from the making of a promise. It may be that the distinction between duties and obligations is currently seldom recognized because many of our roles are taken on voluntarily. Although there is much to be said for the narrower view, for the rest of this essay current usage will be followed and it will be assumed that duties and obligations are substantially the same.

One important view about the relationship between rights and duties is that there is a correlation between, at least, some rights and duties. A version of this thesis is expressed in the two following principles Ross (1930: 48).

  1. A right of A against B implies a duty of B to A.

  2. A duty of B to A implies a right of A against B.

It should be noted that accepting these principles does not force us to accept the less plausible view that there is a general correlation between rights and duties, such that every right implies a duty and every duty implies a right. As has been pointed out, there may be duties concerning individuals which are not duties to those individuals. Likewise, individuals may have rights which are not rights against anyone in particular. About such cases the above principles are silent. Rather, the proposal is that there is a correlation between, for example, Smith’s having a duty to Jones, and Jones’ having a right against Smith (see Rights).

An evaluation of these principles requires that we examine the following questions. (1) What can have duties? (2) To what can there be duties? (3) What can have rights? (4) Against what can there be rights?

The answers to (1) and (4) are fairly clear. It is reasonable to think that in order for an entity to have a duty, or for there to be a right against it, that entity must be able to recognize that it is subject to a normative requirement, a cognitive ability lacked by beings that are not rational (see Moral agents). Consequently, only persons (rational beings), such as humans, can have duties and we can have rights only against persons. This still leaves open whether non-persons can have rights and whether we can have duties to non-persons. Can we, for example, have duties to nonhuman animals, or, perhaps, the biosphere? Can such things have rights against us? (See Animals and ethics; Environmental ethics.)

One important view is that non-rational beings cannot have rights and we cannot have duties to them. Again, the thought is that a required cognitive capacity is lacking. It is sometimes argued that having any right, let alone a right against someone, requires the ability to claim it. Even according to this view, however, we might have duties concerning non-persons, or with respect to them. We could, for example, have a duty not to cause non-persons unnecessary pain, without its being a duty to anyone. Accepting this view would not require rejection of either of the principles.

An alternative view argues that for an individual to have a right, or for us to have a duty to that individual, does not require that individual to have anything like the cognitive capacity needed to have a duty, or to be the sort of thing against whom others can have rights. The standards are different. Perhaps all that is needed is being sentient, or having interests. If so, then we could accept that some non-persons can have rights against us and that we can have duties to some non-persons. This also is consistent with both of the principles.

One possible reason for rejecting the principle that a duty of B to A implies a right of A against B is the thought that we can have duties to ourselves, but cannot have rights against ourselves. The idea that persons can have rights against themselves is difficult to accept. That persons can have duties to themselves, such as that of self-improvement, seems much more plausible. However, if we take it that a duty to a person involves what is owed to that person, then the idea is much less plausible: can we really owe anything to ourselves? Alternatively, it might be that we have duties that concern ourselves, without their actually being duties to ourselves. If this is so, then no reason has been offered for rejecting the two principles (see Moral standing).

Citing this article:
Frazier, Robert L.. Duty and other normative concepts. Duty, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L018-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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