The Death of Duty, or, Shalt Thou Really?

image“By a show of hands,” I told the peers in my first philosophy class, “how many of you ever asked to be born?”

Standing before them, I counted aloud, “OK, one…two…four in the back?”

Students glanced backward in disbelief. But no one had their hands raised.

You have a duty to do X. You have an obligation to refrain from Y. Says who?

Did you ask to be born? Even if you did, having elected to do so implies a preexistent volition that itself eliminates any attribution of duty. This would become a much more elaborate analysis if people would claim they indeed played a role in their being born, and though I would meet this second challenge (even unto making such a claim myself) I will avoid it here in favor of addressing that assumed majority who would nary claim they had any hand in having been born.

The very terms “having been born” or “I was born” are passive — try to refer to your birth in an active voice. An example would be, “I emerged into this Earthen plane in 1986.” The voice may be active, but the question yet remains: by what means did you emerge? If you could prove you single-handedly united your parents’ DNA then scampered out of the womb without your mother’s muscular assistance, we might lend you the point. Yet you never asked to be here, and you certainly didn’t birth yourself. 

In this light we might be tempted to cop out by blaming all our actions on our parents, but methinks human behavior involves a measure of indeterminism, a certain free will, but such is a lengthy and separate discussion — and all this occurs after birth.

So if you didn’t elect to be born, to whom are your actions beholden? By what creed are you inextricably bound? What involuntary servitude does your mere existence necessitate? None. We each emerge into this chaotic uncategorized world and then begin to exert our will upon and within it. Certainly a child lies under the authority of parental figures, but broadly speaking, does that child necessarily cradle duties or obligations to that parent? Indeed, isn’t early childhood a series of unfettered rebellious selfishness that successively diminishes in the years leading up to its eventual resurgence in adolescence? Does not the child start by crying, whining, demanding, literally pissing in the face of it’s parents? [I will refer the offended reader to Isa. 36:12 and 2 Kin. 18:27 for earlier use of this word]

Before getting too far, duty and obligation must be identified as concepts before I lay them to rest. I use the terms duty and obligation interchangeably, as I see no useful distinction between them. A duty is a concept or creed that requires behavioral compliance. On a lower level of common usage, there are acceptable grades of duty, such as a moral duty and a legal duty. But these duties must always retain their qualifiers “moral” or “legal.” Even then they really aren’t duties in the sense that I’ve described, as they may be seen as coercive demands. I am focused more in this higher-level, premoral, prelegal notion of duty. In the highest use of the term, by itself a “duty” does not exist

I focus on birth because it is here where most decree life begins. Unless someone can demonstrate a necessary and immediate interlocking of birth and duty, that is to say, unless you can prove that by mere virtue of birth you are obligated to refrain from or perform certain actions, then the idea of duty at the highest level is not possible.

So what does it mean? It means on the highest level you hold no obligations or duties to anyone or anything. Not to your parents, not your children, not your god. Now there are responsibilities (tasks of which you are in charge) you might willfully (and respectably) acquire, such as a job description you sign or the tasks of parenthood you embrace.

Furthermore, you may be constrained or compelled by moral or legal edicts that encourage certain behavior, but all these are secondary to a preeminent truth: you are in charge of you; all responsibilities you acquire or behavior you take under the conformity of morality or law were initially acts of your voluntary choice, therefore are no duties at all. Just because a person or a law commands something does not mean you must oblige.

There are consequences, no doubt, but a command itself requires an entity that has the ability to choose otherwise. You don’t tell a chair to sit because it cannot choose. But you can tell a person to sit, because they can choose.

Every act of moral detraction and civil disobedience pays homage to this truth, that there are no obligations linked to human behavior.

There are enough barriers and challenges in life without shielding ourselves from the truth that in every sensible instance we are bound merely by the whim of the will. Life is like a game of Monopoly we never chose to play. If you want to play, play. If you want to follow the rules, do so. If you want to cheat, cheat. If you want to quit, quit. Do whatever you want — because you already are.

You are not required to do anything. You are free to choose, to be, to think.

I think.