Society and Culture

Let’s Bring Back the Concept of Duty

Thinking about the behavior of the investment bankers last fall and of Republican governors more recently, I am struck by the way that public discourse on public miscreants has been stripped of the vocabulary of virtue. Consider two of the four cardinal virtues, temperance and prudence. The want of temperance and prudence explains a lot about the financial meltdown last summer, but they are words without even positive connotations any more, let alone words that denote virtues. What parent among you has used “temperance” or “prudence” in advising your children how to live their lives? You rightly suspect that they’d break into giggles as soon as you left the room. Or before.

The disappearance of the word “duty” is weighing on us most heavily. The phrase “dereliction of duty” is still around, and I saw it used a few times about Governor Sanford, but it’s a cliché, like “let bygones be bygones.” Nobody thinks about what a “bygone” is. Nobody thinks about what “duty” means. In place of “duty,” we use the word “responsibility.” But they aren’t the same. “England expects that every man will do his duty” asked something far sterner of Nelson’s men than “England expects that every man will fulfill his responsibilities.”

We need to bring back the concept of duty for two reasons.

First, it’s time to be honest about hierarchy. Some people end up with great responsibilities that other people don’t. I don’t want a world in which the underlings pull their forelocks as their betters sweep by. We already have plenty of that. People at the top of American society are fawned upon in ways that might have made Louis XIV blush. What we don’t have is a corresponding ethic of obligation. The goal of reintroducing structure in roles is not to make underlings know their place, but to make overlings know their place.

At it stands, the overlings try to have it both ways, like parents who try to be buddies with their children, refusing to accept the full price of being the grown-up. Similarly, CEOs and college presidents and senators and governors—everyone who can’t be just buddies with everyone else—have duties that are different from the duties of their subordinates, and must be prepared to bear burdens and pay costs that their subordinates are not expected to bear and pay. We can’t have an ethic of obligation among the elites when we’re all on a first-name basis and we let people act as if they’re just one of the guys or one of the gals.

Bringing back the concept of duty would also encourage appropriate behavior among people who betray their duty. I am not quite asking for ritual suicide among those who fall short (though I can think of a few people for whom it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea). But great failures should have great prices. Governor Sanford should have resigned immediately, without trying to wait out the furor. The investment bankers who could see in retrospect that they had been negligent should be devoting their private fortunes to recompensing as many people as they can. (Yes, my disbelieving readers: People actually used to think they had a moral obligation to pay their debts even if they were not legally obligated to do so. See Mark Twain.) The reaction of the fallen ones’ colleagues, the press, and the public should not be that “mistakes were made,” but that people failed in their duty. Oprah and Barbara shouldn’t be jockeying for exclusive interviews. The fallen ones should go into seclusion, and be expected to go into seclusion.

I don’t think I’m being hopelessly idealistic. Many societies across history have enforced an ethic of obligation on their elites reasonably effectively. The United States has sometimes been among them. But if we are to restore that ethic, it won’t be done by passing laws saying that miscreants should be ashamed of themselves. It will be done by restoring the language of virtue to everyday life—one editorial page at a time, one blogger at a time, and, indispensably, one parent at a time.

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