A Short Philosophy of Duty

” What should I do ? Most of the philosophical texts on duty begin by citing this moral questioning of Kant. Is it a duty to quote Kant when philosophizing on duty? In a certain academic discourse, yes. Because duty is first and foremost a matter of ritual within a community of practice and belonging. If, for example, you are part of a group practicing a martial art, your duty is to go and train several times a month. But does this mean that the isolated individual has no duties towards himself? Are we just collective animals? Isn’t it contradicting the very sense of duty to make it depend on others?

What then of a duty that would contradict our labour contract or our community membership, a duty to say no, a call more compelling than that of habit and obedience? Etymologically, duty is a debt, a transfer of belonging. How can one have a debt to oneself? The answer belongs to the ideas of personal ethics, moral commitments, good resolutions, the will, self-discipline: if I set myself, via the exercise of an autonomous reason, a value that I consider universally admirable – “the moral law within me”, said Kant – I must try to conform to it, even if it costs me.

A Gorbachev in 1989, for example, may not believe in capitalism, but he does believe in social freedom, favouring the self-determination of individuals rather than the yoke of tyrannical power. He knows, as Tocqueville showed, that freedom might lead to the idiocy of many and to the greatness of a few. But this is the Enlightenment project: to establish democracy, even if we know that humans are infantile. They must eventually be able to become adults on their own and think for themselves, to emerge, Kant would still say, out of mental minority.

But a devious mind might wonder if the philosopher, as a good moralist, does not himself have the professional and somewhat mechanical duty, the obligation to advise autonomy, to speak of duty towards oneself. One does not expect a thinker to encourage the absence of responsibility, the cowardice of the blind enjoyer, slow suicide, inconsistency, immaturity. Duty is thus often associated with a form of predictability, of trust. The philosopher is expected to moralize as well as the bus driver is expected to drive her bus, respecting stations and schedules rather than suddenly taking everyone down a ravine out of anger. Duty is sometimes the courage to do what is not necessarily creative: repeat, defend, preserve. Sorry for being boring, I am driving…

But let us now consider an idea that is more taboo than the idea of duty to oneself. Imagine a tyrant emperor who considers that everyone owes something to him. Everyone would have a duty to dedicate their work and part of their life, their time, or their body to the Emperor. Such a situation takes duty out of the lyrical field (I owe it to myself) and places the concept back in the political field of domination. If this tyrant is a state, then it is an entire nation that has to abide by the rule of order. These are the two dead ends of our modernity. The individual-king most often fails to be a being of pure duty towards himself, that is to say of pure integrity, because lyricism, the I, is a position which cannot by definition erase the desire for sensuality. On the other hand, the citizen fails to be a perfect subject of the State because “voluntary servitude”, to use an expression of La Boétie, is not sustainable for an autonomous and conscious subject. But it is possible for a subjected unconscious, and this is why Big Data exploiters manage to use those who are not activelly aware of our electronic and contractual servitude. How can we escape the duality between the lyricism of duty and the sacrifice of collectivism? Perhaps thanks to a virtue that our modernism has forgotten or relegated to Hollywood fiction: epic duty.

Being epic is a co-creative middle ground between the lyricism of the ego-trip and voluntary servitude. The Greeks saw in the epic the highest degree of the human adventure, as if the epic group were a super-individual. Action begins with thinking about the forces that move us, and those are ultimately concepts, notions, ideas, values. Collective styles.

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