DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L018-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

2. Kinds of duties

A number of distinctions have been offered between types or kinds of duties. The most important of these distinctions are those between positive and negative duties, prima facie and ‘all-in’ duties or ‘all things considered’ duties, perfect and imperfect duties, and subjective and objective duties.

The distinction between positive and negative duties is supposed to rest on a more fundamental difference between acting and refraining from acting. The idea is that positive duties concern what we are required to do, while negative duties concern what we are required to refrain from doing. Examples of positive duties might be the duties to help others and to develop our talents. Examples of negative duties might be the duties not to lie and not to kill.

A concentration on negative duties is often associated with deontological theories (see Deontological ethics). According to such theories, morality consists largely of constraints on action, none of which we can morally violate, but which may be relevant only in a limited number of situations. Deontologists often hold that the distinction between positive and negative duties can be morally significant: the negative duties are more important or more stringent than the positive ones. Indeed, it is sometimes held that there can be a duty not to bring about something, while there is no duty to prevent it from occurring (see Double effect, principle of). For example, there might be a very stringent duty not to kill someone, while there is, at best, a much less stringent duty to save that person’s life (see Life and death).

Teleological theories, especially consequentialist ones, even if they recognize a distinction between positive and negative actions, generally do not consider it to underpin a difference between negative and positive duties that has any moral significance (see Teleological ethics; Perfectionism; Consequentialism). Such theories are concerned with the promoting of values, and it does not matter whether the values are promoted by acting or refraining from acting. For example, if the value is respect for life, then it can be promoted equally well either by refraining from killing or by saving lives.

While it seems reasonable to think that there is some difference between positive and negative actions, that this involves a morally significant difference is much more contentious. Views about this divide roughly along the same lines as do those concerning the relative advantages of deontological and teleological theories. No doubt this will remain controversial as long as these approaches to duty compete.

An equally controversial and perhaps equally important distinction can be drawn, as it was by Ross (1930), between prima facie duties and ‘all-in’ duties (see Ross, W.D.). (Prima facie duties are sometimes called ‘pro tanto duties’ or ‘duties other things being equal’, while all-in duties are sometimes called ‘duties proper’ or ‘duties all things considered’.) A prima facie duty is not, contrary to its literal meaning, something that merely appears to be a duty. Rather, to say that we have a prima facie duty to perform some action expresses the idea that the action involves an important moral consideration, but one that can be (morally) outweighed, or overridden, by other moral considerations. For example, assume that an agent has a choice between keeping a promise and helping someone in need, but cannot do both. Keeping the promise is a prima facie duty because it involves the morally important consideration of fidelity; helping the person in need is also a prima facie duty as it involves the morally important consideration of beneficence. The agent’s all-in duty depends on the nature of all the relevant prima facie duties. That is, an all-in duty is what duty requires all things considered, in particular, given all prima facie duties.

Part of the motivation for this distinction is the idea that (all-in) duties can always be satisfied: there are never any real conflicts of duties. Using this distinction, we can attempt to explain apparent conflicts of duties in terms of conflicts of prima facie duties. When it seems that we have a duty to do two things, and we cannot do both, this distinction allows us to say that they are not really competing duties, but merely competing prima facie duties. (In some cases, of course, we would be permitted to do either, but would not have a duty to do either.) However, that all apparent conflicts of duties or moral dilemmas can be explained away in this fashion is not obvious. There seem to be situations where agents have to choose between courses of action that are so horrible that none is acceptable and the agent should feel regret no matter what is done. Whether such cases involve real conflicts of duties depends on two things. First, it depends on whether we take dilemmas to exclude there being a correct answer to the question of what duty requires. It may be that we call something a dilemma simply because the choices are so awful. Second, it depends on whether there is some inconsistency in feeling regret for doing something that was required by duty.

Regardless of the attitude that is taken to possible conflicts of duty, the notion of a prima facie duty faces difficulties. Foremost among these is the lack of a persuasive account of how all-in duty results from diverse prima facie duties. No satisfactory account has been given of the conditions under which one prima facie duty ‘overrides’ another.

The view that there is a distinction between perfect and imperfect duties is attributed to Kant (§10) (see Kantian ethics). He said that a perfect duty ‘allows no exception in the interest of inclination’ ([1785] 1903: 421). Although it is not clear exactly what he had in mind, one plausible view is that the distinction is between duties owed to particular individuals and duties that are not owed to anyone but which merely concern them. If we have a duty to someone, then that person has a right against us. (Kant thought that we can have duties to ourselves and may even have thought that we can have rights against ourselves.) If we have a duty that is not to anyone, then that duty does not involve a right against us. This, arguably, gives us more latitude in how to satisfy the duty. A duty not to kill is owed to each person, while a duty of charity is not owed to anyone, and can be satisfied by helping any of a number of persons. Perfect duties are usually associated with negative, stringent duties, while imperfect duties are associated with positive, less stringent duties.

Finally, if a theory allows for a difference between what a person sincerely considers to be required by duty and what is actually required by duty, then it can allow for a distinction between subjective and objective duty. Subjective duty is that which one sincerely takes to be one’s duty, while objective duty is that which is actually required by duty. There are other notions closely related to subjective obligation, which are sometimes offered as accounts of subjective duty. One is the notion of that which duty probably requires; another is that which it would be most reasonable to think that duty requires. Each of the latter is distinct from subjective duty, as I have characterized it. One may be sincere but incorrect about what duty probably requires. Also, one may have a sincere belief about what duty requires, which is not the most reasonable belief one can have.

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

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