What’s My Duty?

Serious minded people talk a lot about duty. So do ordinary people. Duty means what is ‘due’ or ‘owed’. I recently asked to be excused from Jury Duty because it would cause ‘undue hardship’. (Undue means not owed.) Debtors must pay their Creditors, or ‘pay the consequences’. ‘Whoever pays the piper gets to call the tune’. If you don’t like the tune, you must find who’s paying, and hope to strike a bargain to change it. I want to discuss what duty means, to whom is it owed, and how we can and should fulfill it. A complex  project.

A few days ago I chatted with a niece about duty. Her children are adult. She has many skills, centering around design, crafts and visual art. Recently she withdrew from a stressful community service job, and was looking for a useful replacement. Neither her income nor her character allow her to retire completely. Like many of us, she has a low sense of self-worth. Her religious teachings (which I share) ask all of us to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself ‘ and to express that by living the  Golden Rule. But knowing we’re all born with self-love ruling our nature, we must, as Isaiah says: ‘16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes. Cease to do evil, 17 learn to do well. Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed; judge the fatherless, plead for the widow’ (Isaiah Ch. 1).

The hard question my niece asked was ‘Do I have a duty to myself; can I do something I like; is it all right to love myself?’ I didn’t answer with the quick ‘Of course!’ that came to mind. But I am sure we have duties to ourselves, with this proviso. Recreation, entertainment, hobbies, improving our health, finding better pay, etc., may be first in time, but not in importance. The goal should be helping others in whatever ways we can . By the way, she wants to make Butterfly Art. Sounds lovely! Her mother (my big sister) was an artist and her father was a craftsman. Together they made ‘elfigys’, like the one shown here.


The Constitution says Americans have a right to ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. A right is meaningless without a guarantor (in this case, the USA) who feels obligated to fulfill it. Obviously the nation can’t make anyone live, be free, or pursue anything. Instead, the Declaration is interpreted in the negative form – i.e., these ‘rights’ won’t be taken away arbitrarily, without due  process. (There’s that ‘Due’ again!)

If children tell their parents ‘You Promised! You owe us’ (a favorite restaurant supper, a visit to the zoo, a trip to see their cousin’s tennis tournament, etc), most parents would feel obligated. But sometimes they just can’t meet it, due to sickness, shortage of money, or more important obligations. So we all know that owing and paying our debts is endlessly varied, and that some debts are more binding than others. Legitimate debts are to legitimate authorities. But there are many debts (or demands) laid on individuals and groups, by other individuals and groups whose only ‘authority’ is their ability to harm or even kill.

Legitimate authorities include town counsels, county police, state governments, federal government, and (for many) the moral law, and the Lord God. Sadly, in an increasingly polarized and self-oriented society, the latter don’t have much influence. But here’s a fine piece published by Chicago Divinity School’s William Schweiker on 6/28/22 giving a hopeful note to this issue. He believes there’s evidence of increasing sense of people’s obligation (or debt) to their neighbors, broadly speaking. I hope so.

Schweiker refers to Kant’s commitment to duty. Kant’s famous dictum – the so-called Categorical Imperative – says “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. That is, every rational person can see that it must be followed. But we all know that people can speak rationally while having immoral goals. Hypocrisy is common everywhere, and those who intend evil can convince others – and even themselves – that their goal is good. Though Schweiker doesn’t mention it, Kant found fault with Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ in Matt 7:12: In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, claiming that if you wished ill to yourself, you could justify wishing ill to others. I think understanding the true meaning of the Rule will prohibit the ‘irrational fault’ that Kant found with the Lord’s Word.

Thinking of Kant (1704 – 1824) and morality always reminds me of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688 – 1772) and his theology, which I follow. Although their lives overlapped for almost 50 years, and they knew of each other’s work, the two men never interacted. With an extremely uncharacteristic loss of temper, Kant excoriated Swedenborg in his 1899 publication Dreams of a Spirit Seer.  The only rational explanation I’ve found for this attack was that Swedenborg beat Kant to the punch with a claim that the latter was considering – namely that Revelation can be a legitimate source of Truth.

What do we owe our country in times of war? Is there such a thing as a ‘just war’? Surprisingly, that question is the topic of a 2016 ‘Poetry Class’ from The Poetry Society (UK). It gives a wonderful comparison and history of Caesar Augustus’ ‘Propagandist’ -the poet Horace – and the famous 1920 poem of EnglishmanWilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori. (For some reason the text of the poem wasn’t given in the UK website; but I found it on the web.)

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Who was responsible for the horrors of that First World War? There’s no clear answer, as shown in this discussion of its causes by 10 scholars, taken from a 2014 article in the BBC News Magazine. To summarize, the egos of some obviously self-important rulers, and the ‘blank cheques’ they offered to gain supporters for their causes led to a flammable condition in Serbia and Croatia. First came local outbreaks, which spread quickly and set the European continent afire, and in less than 3 years the world was engaged in the conflagration we call World War I.

How much allegiance we owe to our country is greatly disputed. My parents were born in the 1890’s – the era of Robber Barons. However, Teddy Roosevelt started the ‘Trust Buster’ movement. They believed it would work, but effectively it has almost disappeared. Their acceptance of Congressional  decisions was total, as was their confidence in Capitalism (of the Adam Smith, Republican Party variety).

What is this country to which we owe allegiance? Our national anthem says it’s ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. That language brings to mind our conflicts and wars, from the Revolution against Britain (they say the Rebellion) to the current (proxy) war against Russia in Ukraine. In rhetorical terms, it’s often said we go to war to protect democracy – what Lincoln called ‘Government Of the People, By the People and For the People’. What does that mean? Here’s one opinion.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – ’59) was a Frenchman often commemorated on his birthdate or birth year or when someone (like me) wants to compare how our country and its Democracy appear to foreigners. He was very intellectual (a member of L’Academie Francaise), and wanted to describe and critique “Democracy in America” – the title of his 1840 publication. He and his companion Gustave de Beaumont were originally sent by their government to study American prisons (thought to be progressive), but he later decided to publish a general comparison of the French style of government with our Democracy. He criticizes both.

In Tocqueville’s view, their version was authoritarian, because the people didn’t seek to govern any way but violently, and their authorities reacted in kind. By comparison, he said our people were poorly educated, and easily persuaded to vote against their own benefit. He spent about 10 months here, interviewing people in half a dozen cities, passing through many villages between, and suffering the terrible conditions and risks of early travel. His and Beaumont’s comments are sarcastic and often amusing, but his 800 page book may not be worth the effort to read. At least that’s the view of the author of this 2017 Federal Highway Admin essay, who thinks it’s boring and tedius. I won’t try.

Tocqueville was certainly critical: ‘”I know no country,” he wrote, “in which, generally speaking, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.” He added that the lack of great writers in the United States was due to the absence of “freedom of spirit” brought on by a majority intolerant of minority views.’ (quoted from a Constitutional Rights Fndn article The Citizen in De Tocqueville’s America.) It’s a judgement I find quite appopriate to our land today.

Contemporay French writer Bernard-Henri Levy used the Bicentennial of Tocqueville’s birth to remind people of his original purpose – examine our prison system – and to critique it today. The system’s not at all good, especially Rikers Island correctional facility. Levy presents it as a horror show of ignorance, madness, racism and violence, hidden in the East River Bronx district, at the foot of Long Island, close  to Laguardia – an unnoticed cancer on an affluent neighborhood with American Flags flying everywhere. As an aside, Levy also finds our almost religious attitude towards Old Glory, and the rules governing it’s use and disposal by ritual burning (like ‘cremation’?) bizarre and antiquated. He says that in France, the national flag le Tricolore has all but disappeared, except on government buildings and state occasions. The same writer outlines Tocqueville’s purpose and perspective about America in a different Atlantic Article: In the Footsteps of Tocqueville published in 2006.

The real Tocqueville is hard to discover. As so often with influential public intellectuals, he’s probably a mix of liberal and conservative. Sanford Lakoff argues this, in a long 2009 article from The Cambridge Review of Politics. It’s paywalled, so I’ve copied the extract: “Alexis de Tocqueville is not easily characterized as either a liberal or a conservative. In this respect he resembles Edmund Burke. Both may be best understood as “liberal conservatives”—figures who straddled both camps. On a number of specific dimensions, including their attitudes toward aristocracy, colonialism, property, rationalism, the tyranny of the majority, pluralism, and the meaning of history, they are remarkably similar. Their thinking foreshadows the rapprochement between liberals and conservatives in the latter half of the twentieth century reflected in the prominence of right-of-center parties and leaders and in the work of such political thinkers as Raymond Aron and Michael Oakeshott.”

It seems to me that most of our politics comes down to making money. Calvin Coolidge (1872 – 1933) – our 30th President – said ‘The business of America is business.’ And he supported that claim by doing nothing to interfere. The Whitehouse – a federal library of data – includes presidential biographies. Its piece about Coolidge illlustrates his reputation for listening, but not answering questions, because ‘it encouraged them to go on and on’. “A woman sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party confided to him she had bet she could get at least three words of conversation from him. Without looking at her he quietly retorted, ‘You lose.'”

I mention Coolidge since he reflects a perspective about the economy and politics that has increased steadily as a reaction to JFK’s, and after him, LBJ’s efforts to build the “Great Society”. The subsequent turn to a ‘laissez-faire’ government was pushed by the Chicago School of economics, and it’s most influential spokesman Milton Friedman. The latter is famous (or infamous) for having written an essay published in the NYT Magazine (1970) titled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Profits”.

The Federal Reserve is mandated with 2 goals: maximum employment and stable prices. That is seldom achieved. Recently inflation is at record levels here and abroad. And employment is down severely, due to layoffs across the board and less desire to work – especially on the part of low-income employees. When these goals aren’t met, Congress often passes legislation to prime the pump, using Quantitative Easing (QE) and other efforts to make more money available. But you won’t get people to borrow when they are already in debt and trouble (the unemployed, poorly educated, racially disadvantaged), any more than you can give a life-line to a drowning person by pushing on the rope! The people who DO borrow the money are the already wealthy investors and bankers who will buy property, or serve ‘share-holders interests’, while securing their own lucrative retirements – e.g., Oil companies, Banks, Realtors, Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers, etc.

Americans are known for pragmatism which means thinking of or dealing with problems in a practical way, rather than by using theory or abstract principles. (Thanks, Investopedia.) It’s a “method or tendency in philosophy, started by C. S. Peirce and William James which determines the meaning and truth of all concepts by their practical consequences” (from Collins Dictionary). I emphasize truth because although pragmatism does have practical consequences, which deal with the material world, there are emotional, mental, moral and spiritual consequences as well. Generally the idea of practicality includes money; making money is a practical goal for most people. But too often, making the most money, by hook or crook, is a person’s apparent goal, which can be the source of great harm to others, and even to those who do it – some to the point of madness. The idiom doesn’t say that money is bad, or even evil;  it says ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’. But there are other evils too, especially the desire to control everyone.

I believe my ultimate duty to other people is to help them – not for praise or credit or to get something in return – but because that’s the right thing to do. This duty isn’t natural or easy. It needs to be worked on and practiced, and requires help from a higher source. Whether I’ve gotten there I can’t say. But today that duty seems to be in short supply, though my news sources probably have a bias towards the negative;  most do.  A few days ago I heard some very sad and discouraging news about racism in California which has been all over the popular press, and addressed by President Biden. Hatred and violence against Asians – especially Chinese – has increased immeasurably since and due to the Pandemic. But a strange turn involves 3 California communities where Asians were killed by Asians in 3 mass shootings. In one case the killer was old and the victims young. Here’s a Jan 24, ’23 Washington Post article discussing it.

Let me end on a lighter note – actually 2 notes. The first is a written note. I recently  came across a business that gives only Good News; check out this website: futurecrunch.com.  It’s refreshing and free (but wants contributions). The second note is musical – in the form of a song – The House I Live In (that’s America to me). It was made popular by Frank Sinatra, and in 1945 turned into a 10 minute film with the same name, to fight anti-semitism. The music was written by Earl Robinson (a black man) who was blacklisted in the ’50s McCarthy era. Another black musician – Paul Robeson – sang that song. He had a checkered life as this Wikipedia article shows. He too was blacklisted, as well as hounded by the FBI, and denied travel documents. Later he regained some popularity, but his strength, mental health, and ability to perform declined until his death at home in Philadelphia. I don’t know when or where Robeson made this recording, but it’s very beautiful and strong. Some versions had deleted the line ‘My neighbors white and black’;  here is his version of That’s America to Me.