In Defense of Duty

The aftermath of America’s deadliest shooting in Las Vegas has brought to light many acts of heroism between strangers.  I found one extraordinary act in particular of special interest.  A woman chose to stay with a dying man for four hours.  Something deep inside her told her that she could not allow another person, even one who was a complete stranger, to die alone.  This was a more intensely human act than that of the Good Samaritan, though one consistent with this great parable.  A person who is dying can call evoke in us our deepest solicitude.  This woman felt it was her solemn duty to attend to this man.  She could not abandon him to die without the comfort of another human being.

Some may object that the word “duty” does not do justice to such a generous and heroic act.  We often think of duty in terms of drudgery.  Cleaning the house, making beds, raking the yard, doing the dishes are various duties we are often reluctant to perform.  But these are duties on a lower plane.  We have a duty to our neighbor that operates on a moral, even Christian level.  The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev has remarked that “Our attitude to all men would be Christian if we regarded them as though they were dying, and determine our relation to them in the light of death, both their and our own death.  A person who is dying calls forth a special kind of feeling.  Our attitude to him is at once softened and lifted to a higher plane.”

We hear far more talk about “rights” than about “duties”.  This is a point that is made abundantly evident in Mary Ann Glendon’s award winning book, Rights Talk.  We assert our rights, but must perform our duties.  Hence, our rights do not cost us anything.  Our duties can be onerous.  Yet duty is more profound than rights.  Duties can be the correlatives of rights.  A student who pays his tuition has a right to learn.  Therefore, the teacher has a corresponding duty to teach.  Parents have the duty to care for their children who, in turn have the right to care.  Nonetheless, there are duties for which there are no corresponding rights.  A dying person does not have the right to be attended to by a stranger.  Here is where duty transcends rights and through the generosity of one’s being a person does what needs to be done without having any regard to satisfying a right, his own or anyone else’s.  Such generosity, as Jacques Maritain states, springs from the “deepest requirements of being, those through which beings resemble God”.

Duty also precedes rights.  We may have a right to be happy, but we will not achieve that goal if we do not perform our duty.  The Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore has captured this notion beautifully when he writes as follows:  “I slept and dreamed that life was joy.  I awakened and saw that life was duty and behold, duty was joy.”  The historian of philosophy, Will Durant, has said something similar:  “Never mind your happiness; do you duty.”  Happiness is something that “happens” when we have fulfilled our duty.

We are asleep to the moral order when we naively believe that life owes us happiness.  The fact that there is so much unhappiness in the world is a clear indication that happiness is not as readily possessed as picking apples from an apple tree.  “Happiness was born a twin,” said Robert Browning, meaning that happiness cannot be a private possession.  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  In order to be happy, we must involves ourselves with others.  Our duty to serve the good of our neighbor is antecedent to happiness.  Duty comes first.  Our reluctance to do our duty is the key to understanding the unhappy state of mankind.

Duties are more profound than rights because they more faithfully characterize the essence of the human being as generous, loving, and one who is destined to serve others.  We were born to fulfill our duty through love.  Rights, important as they are, are more of a legal concept.  Duty is rooted in our being.  On the other hand, rights are more profound with regard to God since He has the right (and not the duty) to create us by virtue of His divine prerogative.  God is also just, which means that He owes it to Himself to give His creatures what they require by their nature.  Man has his duties; God has His rights.  The correspondence between Divine Right and human duty may very well capture the essential drama of the creation of man and his return to God.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Amazon.com. Articles by Don: