Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Duty free

I have trouble with the idea of duty. To me it implies something compulsory, something I'm expected to do whether I like it or not because that's the custom. Whether I want to do it, whether I'll enjoy doing it, is irrelevant.

I'm sorry but I just refuse to do something I haven't freely chosen, simply because other people expect it of me. They can talk about "duty" as much as they like, but I prefer to decide for myself what's the right thing to do.

People talk about the "duty" to look after your elderly parents, fight for your country, report road accidents, pay taxes, give evidence in court, serve on a jury, or vote in elections. But is it always right to do these things? No, of course not. In many instances there are very good reasons for not doing them, and self-respect and the public interest demand that you refuse.

Should I look after my elderly parents if they never loved me, always behaved badly to me and were glad to see me gone? Should I fight for my country if I believe the war is pointless, brutal and unwinnable? Should I give evidence in court at the risk of facing hostile lawyers and reliving an emotional trauma?

The decision should be up to the person concerned. They shouldn't feel pushed into something they have deep reservations about. They shouldn't be doing it just to look good or to avoid public disapproval. They should be doing it because they genuinely believe it's the correct thing to do.

I've done jury service twice, but not because it was seen as my duty. I did it because I believe people should be tried by their peers, by people like them, and not by someone remote from their own lives. I did it because I wanted to see if the jury process was as fair and objective as it's made out to be (and the answer was yes). I felt I had done it for the right reasons and not the wrong ones.

Forget duty. How about passion and commitment?

"What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure - as a mere automaton of duty?" - Friedrich Nietzsche.

Pic: Witness Nicole Alvarez at the trial of Michael Jackson's physician.


  1. I do have a pretty strong sense of duty. If I've taken on a responsibility, I see it through even if it becomes a burden. But I wouldn't take on a job in the first place if it felt wrong to do so or if I really didn't want to.
    I'm also fairly unlikely to break the law, so would serve jury duty or give evidence if called to do so, because it's unlawful not to. If I were to break the law deliberately, it would be for a reason that was important to me, not to prove a point. If I had to do jury duty, it would be an absolute bloody nuisance because I'm always busy and there would be so much rearranging to do, which would mean asking other people to do my jobs.
    If it ever became compulsory to vote, I'd spoil the ballot paper. I always vote, but only because I choose to.

  2. I get your idea, Nick. And I sympathize.

    However, I do think you are confusing two different concepts. Unless you are a recluse living in the woods you will have 'duties' within society. It's an ethical, moral obligation. A responsibility we owe to each other.

    I believe you are referring to freedom of choice. An entirely different matter.


  3. Maybe you're defining "duty" differently than I would, but I think there are indeed things we have a duty or responsibility to do. As a citizen in a democracy, I think voting is an obligation. Of course you can refuse, but then I think you forfeit your right to complain about the outcome. There are duties that go with various occupations - as a psychologist I have a legal "duty to warn" if someone comes into my office and tells me they intend to kill someone. I forfeited the right to refuse by becoming licensed as a psychologist.

    The most clear-cut example I can think of in terms of duty is to children. Once you have them, I believe you are morally obligated to see to their care and protection. And yes, you do that regardless of its inconvenience or degree of pleasure it brings you. Anyone can refuse to do anything. But you have to accept that there are consequences to those choices. Refuse to obey a subpoena to court? Your choice, but you may sit in jail for it. Refuse to follow traffic laws? Then you pay fines. Refuse to take care of you children? Then they get removed from your care,

    And on and on. Of course you shouldn't feel obligated to take care of elderly parents who were abusive Of course you shouldn't participate in a war you believe to be unjust. But that doesn't mean there aren't any duties - there are things you do just because you aren't a morally bankrupt person.

  4. Z: Yes, I'm clearly defining duty differently from other people. But I would say taking on a responsibility is not the same as doing your "duty", as it's very much a personal decision.

    Talking of jury service, I was astonished at the number of people who had objections to it and got themselves exempted. And quite a lot of job-categories are automatically exempt.

    I actually think voting should be compulsory, because the very low turnouts nowadays mean whatever government is elected, they never have a clear majority of the electorate and therefore have no real mandate. But again, I wouldn't define compulsory voting as a duty but as a democratic necessity.

  5. Ursula: I would say an ethical, moral obligation is not the same as a duty because again morality (what you think is right or wrong) is very much a personal decision.

    As you say, freedom of choice is different from duty. Which is precisely why I dislike the idea of duty, because it's something that's forced on you.

  6. I'm not the greatest fan of Wordsworth but his 'Ode to Duty' makes sense of how I feel about it.
    I have moral responsibilities which I have taken upon myself voluntarily.
    I see it as my duty to undertake those responsibilities.
    Responsibility thrust upon me by society is another matter.
    Then I'll weigh up the whys and wherefores of what is being asked of me before deciding what to do.

    I'm glad you found jury service a good eexperience....I didn't come across juries in my line of work but colleagues who did said that they would trust a jury to sniff out something amiss with a case - nomatter how the judge directed them.

  7. Agent: I don't really see duty and responsibility as being the same. I think responsibility is something you take on willingly. Like the responsibility of bringing up a child - nobody forces us to have children.

    Again, the "duty to warn" is something you've taken on willingly as part of becoming a psychologist - which was a personal decision. Nobody forced you to be a psychologist.

    Yes, of course if you refuse to carry out a "duty" you have to face the consequences. Any free choice involves possible negative outcomes.

    And surely there are things you DON'T do because you're not morally bankrupt - like dropping bombs on Iraqi civilians.

  8. Helen: You totally understand what I'm saying - along with Wordsworth!

    That's true about juries sniffing out something that's amiss. In one of my cases, it was clear to us that this black guy hadn't attacked two police officers and that they were lying through their teeth.

  9. I only served on one jury. This guy was pulled over for drunk driving. He failed all of the sobriety tests, but instead of blowing in the breathalyzer, he sucked on it. They couldn't get a clear reading. Is that ridiculous or what?

  10. I will admit, there is something about jury duty that rubs me the wrong way. Receiving a summons that states I must drop everything and report to court in three weeks, and if I don't, there will be a warrant out for my arrest? And the stipend doesn't even cover the cost of parking.

    Maybe because I've been called three times in the last decade, I've lost my patience with it. The majority are DUI cases and I guess I don't like being inconvenienced because someone else decided to drive while intoxicated. It seems more of a punishment to me, because they will just get behind the wheel again and I've wasted a week of my life.

    Sorry for the rant.

  11. Susie: Jury service seems to have caught people's attention! Sounds like the guy was deliberately foiling the police by not using the breathalyser properly.

    Bijoux: Good point about the jury being "punished" for someone else's misdemeanour! I didn't see it as a waste of time though, I found the way the other jurors scrutinised the evidence (or lack of it) was really fascinating.

  12. Dear friend,

    My garden needs attendance. You know it is your duty to deal with it for me. What is keeping you?



    PS can you remember my name, that is your duty also!

  13. Grannymar: No, no, it's your neighbours' duty to look after an oldie's garden. It's also their duty to do your shopping, do the housework and read you bedtime stories. What are they waiting for?

  14. I think a balanced and self a wares sense of duty is a good thing

    Nuff said

  15. I specifically said "once you have" children you have certain duties. And ditto once you become licensed in a profession. The initial act may be a choice, but the duty follows. And I do believe you have duties to do (and not do) things because you are a human. Of COURSE you can choose to be a prick instead, but I don't see how that's laudable.

  16. John: Okay, I don't think I can add anything to that.

    Agent: I'm sorry, I'm obviously rubbing you up the wrong way again. I hope I'm a responsible and ethical person rather than a prick, but maybe I deceive myself.

    I'm beginning to think this blog needs a cooling-off period. Everyone's getting a bit fractious, including me probably.

  17. Nick, don't faint!

    Our mutual acquaintance, offered to roll out my new bin for me if needed!!!!

    You could have knocked me down with a feather.

  18. Grannymar: Blimey, that's a turn-up for the books! I saw him yesterday but he didn't mention his neighbourly offer.

  19. Don't cool off! Post your kitchen.

  20. Susie: I hardly ever take photos of anything! Just imagine a big Aussie-type kitchen diner, with cooking area, big table for six and two comfy chairs. But the cabinets aren't quite as stylish as yours.

  21. I have had my share of doing my duty and now avoid accepting any. I do not have to any more but having experienced situations where one cannot really avoid taking on such duties, I can well understand the aversion to it.

  22. Ramana: Indeed, I think I know the duty you refer to, and you coped with it very well. But I think too much "duty" can lead to a lot of hidden resentment and frustration.

  23. I prefer the concept of me taking responsibility better than someone telling me it's my duty. But I also know some people, especially soldiers, who take pride in doing their duty. They choose the action and like the word. To me it's being able to choose that's important.

  24. Jean: I agree, taking responsibility I feel comfortable with, "doing my duty" kind of gets my hackles up. But sure, if other people are okay with the idea of duty, I've no problem with that.