Weighing Without a Scale: Duty, Honour and Dignity


What is duty? – A dictionary will let us know it is a moral or legal obligation. Legal obligations we can make unambiguous sense of. One is obligated in the sense that failure to comply will lead to persecution in a clearly defined manner. The obligation of law is not an invisible bond, but a simple statement of consequences – do this, or else…

Moral duty, on the other hand, is a mystery. Indeed, we have done legal duty a disservice, for the law is not in truth meant as a statement of consequences; if it were, what then when there are no observers, no one to enact the promised consequences! The law states, as the moral duty does, that one should. Here the moral duty sets a period while law, perhaps in admittance of should’s obscurity, adds a tangible motivation; a because. You should; if you do not, then… Law made the astute observation that handcuffs are more certain to be binding than should.

The age old question, what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, while curious concerns itself with powers not known to be – it should rightly be replaced by the greatest dilemma of philosophy, touching the very core of human thought and action: what happens when should meets why? For all the words spoken of it, for all the attempted justifications, moral duty in its final instance seems to demands a should merely by its own existence. Why? however, demands a because. To why?, a should only has meaning if there is a because; you should, because…

Perhaps the paradox of this question is a symptom of the same illness that the question about the collision between the immovable and the unstoppable suffers from: rarely do the non-existing meet. Should, is it not one of the treasures we have invented for ourselves, as real as possible?

A stone does not fall to the ground when dropped because it should but because it is pulled down by a force – in this case gravity. Similarly we humans act not because we should, when we are pulled. When we are driven towards an action by a force – be it fear, desire, respect, love or sources we may not have clear words for – reason is the last thing we refer to. Indeed, it may often be from a sense of duty, a feeling that “I should.” The should is an effect, not a cause; we are driven to think that we should – not being driven by a should.

Here law stands stronger since it may trigger more forces: if one does not feel that one should for an abstract purpose, at least the desire to avoid the legal punishment may be strong enough. Religious duty may weigh even heavier. A deep rooted belief in a supernatural power beyond ourselves can easily be imagined to instill a feeling of duty, one which does not disappear when the police disappears.

One may still ask why one should act a certain way towards a supernatural being or force, and perhaps no absolute philosophically valid answer can be given. However, the mere belief in such a force, and exactly the mysterious and to us incomprehensible nature of it – the idea that there is something beyond us that we cannot fully grasp, may subjectively instill a feeling of should. At least, room is left for the existence of a because, even if we cannot grasp it.

What does a religious duty mean to non-religious? Nothing. A because that one does not believe does not instill a feeling of should. On what basis can a should in itself hope to convince then! – surely, this too is meaningless unless one believes in it oneself. This is the problem of the secular duty. Wants, desires and emotional attachments – the forces that pull us – are not reasonable: you feel or you do not feel, and reason cannot say which will be the case.

“Without God, everything is allowed”. Interpreting God here as a symbol of belief, this is indeed the case. When we say “he has a duty to…”, we are simply saying that we feel he has a duty, we believe so. Feel is perhaps more correct than believe here because such an opinion or expectation, particularly the kind we have an urge to immediately express, occurs almost as a reflex – preceding any becauses we may give. In any case, we can only give becauses for why we think “he” should; whether “he” cares for these is a different issue. What does it matter to the Christian eating beef that the cow is holy to hindus!

One does not tell a wheel to roll, one pushes it. One does not simply tell people they have a duty, one makes them feel it. This is what pushes the mind – to action. Referring to consequences can create such a feeling only when one cares about the consequences. Here we encounter the collision between should and why? again. Why should I care? The answer is simply that there can be no question of should. A because convinces only if one cares about it – one should care about something, simply, because it affects something one cares about. I like cheese not because I should, but simply because I do.


One thought on “Weighing Without a Scale: Duty, Honour and Dignity

  1. Pingback: Reason: Personal Excuse or Social guidance | Interactive philosophy

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