A Quick Update
I was on a podcast. Twice! Nathan Cheever started his new Vertical
Thinking podcast. It’s a podcast dedicated
to discussing different ideas of meaning and value, rather than just the mundane. In the first
we discussed Kierkegaard’s Two Ages and the meaning of passion. In the second
we discussed Ian T. Ramsey’s Models and Mystery and explore ideas of metaphor,
meaning, and theology.
Additionally, this month I gave two talks at a local tech conference. Unfortunately it was one of those
“you had to be there to see it” events, but I did post the slides of my talks to my Github.
I know it’s November, and I really ‘ought’ to write a bit about gratitude, but
another topic has been on my mind and I want to write about it. That is
the topic of duty.
Since I was a young boy, duty has always been impressed on me as important. My
father was in the military, I was involved in scouting (even attaining the rank
of Eagle), and participated in my church youth programs. In each of those
cases, I was instructed to do my duty. When I myself joined the military, I was
inspired by the stories of those who had fulfilled their duties.
Despite this, I, to my shame, allowed myself to fall into a pattern of belief
that began to downplay and even undermine the importance of duty. It was the
belief that no obligation or commitment could be expected of a man, except that
he had freely entered into it. Unfortunately, this is a belief that I think has
become fairly widespread these days. To this I aim my comments.
We all have a duty
Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
- Ecclesiastes 12:13 (KJV)
I understand that some will disagree with me, (in that they agree with my
former self). I’ll admit that the above belief does seem pretty standard.
In civil law, no person can be held to fulfill any contract they did not
enter of their own free will. It would be unjust.
However it is that feeling of justice, that requires that
we acknowledge that we have responsibilities, obligations and duties. Even
ones we never consented to.
To explain this, we must first ask, what do we mean by something being just
or unjust? Well, definitions vary, but generally justice can be defined as an
individual receiving that which they deserve – good for good, and evil for evil.
To believe this then, we must have a sense of right and wrong, good and evil.
And not just a sense, but a belief that their exists right and wrong. That it
exists apart from human belief or knowledge of it. Anything else is merely our
preferential feelings playacting as impartial judiciousness.
So to believe in justice, is to admit to a belief in moral truth. But then
if there are moral truths, then they indicate that there are certain actions
that we ought, or ought not to do. And what is a duty but something you ought
do or refrain from doing?
Ok, so what?
If you think all I have done is a mere rhetorical trick, I would go back to
what I claimed earlier. Our belief in justice, the same justice that we claimed
prevented any obligation from being assigned without an individuals consent,
requires that we believe in universal moral truths. Furthermore, those truths exist
beyond human preferences. Since they exist regardless of human recognition,
then they also exist as obligations without prior consent of any human. In
short people have a duty to do good, and they don’t have to recognize it to still
have that duty.
As an analogy, we must all breath in air to continue living. We never agreed to
this arrangement, it is simply a “fact of life”. Similarly, moral standards are
a fact of life. The only difference is that we have the freedom to choose not
to follow them.
Executing our Duties
Thank God I have done my duty
- Final Words of Admiral Nelson
Now, what is interesting about acknowledging this is that it actually teaches
us about how we must help each other in fulfilling our individual duties.
I often see good meaning individuals attempt to “help” others by relieving them
of their duties. They will seek to complete the obligations another individual
has, or take them away. As an example, I once suggested that we give the young
men in my church the responsibility to shovel the walks and driveways
of the local widows and elderly. I was wisely reminded that there were already
men assigned from the congregation to look after these families, and that my
suggestion would deprive them of fulfilling their duty.
Sometimes we are driven by a malignant and enabling form of “love” that seeks to
protect other by taking away the “stress” and “pressure” of fulfilling a duty.
But this merely eliminates any potential for growth, which can only come
through struggle against opposition.
Other times is is less a preoccupation of protecting the individual, but a
desire to see a certain result. While certainly we can agree that if someone is
derelict in their duties, another person stepping in and fulfilling them can
have an outcome. For example a mother writing a school report for her child,
may achieve the result that the homework was done. The derelict individual,
however, has not been benefited ,the child has not learned.
So should we never help another? Of course not. But our help should be focused
on getting an individual to fulfill their duties, not to fulfill their duties
for them. It can sometimes be distinction that is difficult to disentangle, but it
is an eternally important one. I believe, when the time comes
for reckoning on how we have comported, justice will be less interested in the
exact details of what we achieved, but rather who we have become. And if we shirk
or cause others to shirk or reject their duties, we have merely become a stumbling
block in their eternal development.