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

3. The grounds of duties

Given that to have a duty is to be subject to a binding normative requirement, we might naturally wonder how it is that we could become subject to such a requirement. Who or what binds us? This, perhaps, is the most difficult and most interesting question concerning duties.

One tradition says that only God could be the source of our duties (see Religion and morality §1; Natural law). Given God’s existence, it might be thought that God has authority over us and can impose duties on us. God would then have a right to our obedience. Giving us the Ten Commandments can be thought of as one way that God has imposed duties on us. If this is correct, then we have a duty to obey them. A problem with this view is that it has the implication that if God does not exist, then there are no duties. Another problem with it is that it is unclear why we are required to do as God commands. That is, it is unclear why God has authority over us. Indeed, a similar question can be asked about anyone or anything else, whether a person, institution or society, that is supposed to be able to impose duties on us. Why should we think that they have the authority to impose duties on us, or what gives them the right to tell us what to do?

Perhaps instead of having duties imposed on us by other humans, it is the structure of the universe itself that imposes the duties. On this view, duties (or moral laws) would be analogous to physical laws. Just as we are subject to physical laws, such as Newton’s law of gravitation, we are subject to binding normative requirements, for example, the duty to help others who are in need. It is not that the universe has authority over us and we must obey its command, rather it is that normativity is part of the very fabric of the universe.

Various problems with this view have been raised. One is that the features of the universe that produce the duty would be very strange, unlike anything else about which we know (see Naturalism in ethics; Moral realism §6). A second is that it is difficult to see how we could learn about these duties. We do not have any perceptual experience of them, and perceptual experience is widely thought to be the way that we gain knowledge about the world (see Moral knowledge). The third objection rests on the action-guiding nature of duty. The idea is that it is a necessary feature of accepting something as being required by duty that we are to some extent motivated to do it. How is it that duties imposed on us by the structure of the world motivate us (see Moral motivation)?

If duties are not imposed by things independent of us, perhaps we impose them on ourselves. Indeed, as Kant argued, it might be that a duty can only be imposed by the person having it (see Kant, I. §9). A non-Kantian expression of a similar idea is this. Only moral agents can have moral duties. Moral agents are responsible for their actions, and being responsible for an action requires that the agent does it (see Responsibility). However, freedom is not sufficient for moral agency. For example, it seems that children are free, but not moral agents. Moral agency also requires that agents act rationally, that they act on reasons that they accept as adequate. This means an action is performed because of the nature of the action. If duties could be imposed on us by others – God, society, or the universe – then we would not be moral agents. We would not be acting on adequate reason because our reason for acting would not be the nature of the action. Instead, we would be acting because the action was imposed as a duty. It would be like obeying a command simply because it was a command and not because what was commanded was appropriate for the situation. So for something to be someone’s duty, it must result from that person – only we can impose duties on ourselves. A similar point is this: moral agents have authority over themselves, but are subject to no other authority (see Autonomy, ethical).

Numerous questions can be raised about the idea that we impose duties on ourselves. Why is giving ourselves reasons for actions imposing duties on ourselves? After all, if we have authority over ourselves, can we not change our duties at will? Indeed, what is it to have authority over ourselves? A possible answer to these questions is that the second condition of moral agency, that we act rationally or act from adequate reason, provides additional normative constraints on what we can do as moral agents. In particular, this condition may require a sort of impartiality: a reason for a rational agent acting in a certain way in a particular situation must be a reason for any rational agent to act in the same way in similar situations (see Impartiality; Universalism in ethics §5).

If we were to accept that others cannot impose duties on us and we cannot impose duties on ourselves, would there be any use for the notion of duty? Is the idea of a duty, of morality itself, a fiction to be discarded? Not necessarily. There could be other explanations of why we think that the notion of duty is relevant to our actions.

One position is that we cannot do without some notion of duty: it is a useful instrument. On such an account, the reasons for accepting a system of morality would not be moral reasons. Instead, the reasons would be ones of self-interest, or a combination of self-interest and interest in others (see Prudence §2). The idea is that people will generally be better off living in a society where there are social institutions and conventions regulating behaviour (see Contractarianism). For example, killing might be proscribed because it is to everyone’s mutual advantage not to have to worry about being killed. A problem for this view is that there may be some people in a society who contribute such a small amount to the society that there is no reason to cooperate with them. Indeed, some may contribute so little that there is not even any reason to refrain from killing them.

Another approach suggests that what seem to be claims about duties, for example, that there is a duty to refrain from killing, actually are not claims at all. Since they are not claims, they cannot be true or false. They are merely expressions of attitudes. For example, if someone says, ‘We have a duty to help those in need’, no claim is being made; the utterance is merely the expression of a positive attitude towards helping those in need. It is as if the person said, ‘Hooray for helping others’ (see Emotivism). The main challenge for this view is to explain why much of moral conversation seems like reasoned argument. One strategy for dealing with this challenge is to argue that there is a logic of attitudes that mirrors the logic of claims or propositions.

In addition to the difficulties in giving an account of how we come to be subject to duties, the entire project of trying to characterize ethical concerns in terms of duties has come under criticism. One main objection is that the idea of duty is so closely connected to the idea of God as a lawmaker or imposer of duties that the concept has no place in secular philosophy (see Anscombe 1958). Another is that concentrating on duty blinds us to the rich diversity of considerations that are relevant to ethics. Instead of asking what our duties are, we should be asking how we should live (Williams1985) (see Virtue ethics).

Citing this article:
Frazier, Robert L.. The grounds 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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