BY JORDI FAXON
There are few notions as pervasive in Western society as duty. By duty, I’m referring to an individual’s externally enforced responsibilities, specifically without the individual’s consent: the universal responsibilities we all hold as members of a society (e.g. to pay taxes) and as human beings (e.g. to refrain from murder). This is a well-established imperative in political discussion in the U.S., and the question of why we have a duty to our brethren must, if not be discredited, at least be fully understood.
I’m most interested in this concept because it seems to be at odds with another very pervasive concept in our country: liberty. We respect our rights as individuals in society, as we extol—nay, proselytize—the importance of the individual, for instance, when voting. Do these two matters stand at odds? Can our freedom to start an enterprise, run for office, organize a non-profit fundraiser, or write a letter to local politicians, contradict our duty to uphold the welfare of the rest of the country?
On its face, duty seems to supersede liberty because we’d say an individual’s liberty is grounded by her duty to respect those who her undertakings would influence. It would be wrong, we’d say, for someone to pursue a selfishly profitable business model that would put a local population at harm because the individual isn’t acknowledging the impact he has on those inadvertently in his sphere of influence.
But what do we give up here? Extending the practice of prioritizing the individual withinthe society over the individual per se might lead to some uncomfortable conclusions. For instance, to continue the example of enterprise, would any remarkable innovation on the part of a business owner that causes competing companies in the same industry to tank be an immense injustice? We don’t want to undermine this ability because we respect the liberty of an individual to pursue economic success at the expense of other companies.
While advocates of duty over liberty might claim that the duty of an individual to catalyze technological advancement for the sake of greater human efficiency or comfort is at play here, I don’t think it’s the case because this is never a responsibility that befalls anyone externally, but is an act taken on by an individual, under the sole propulsion of self-will.
So these two moral anchors battle on, narrated by the pens of the great thinkers of centuries past. By no means will I attempt to carry on the torch by providing original insight, but I hope I’ve illuminated for you all—if in a somewhat cursory and bipartisan manner—the ideological feud that defines our country.