Thoughts on the Notion of Duty

By Ralph Lelii, English department

Last week in Theory of Knowledge class, we were exploring a variety of ethical perspectives. I spent an arrangement with my students exploring deontological ethical systems, those that derive from a notion of duty, of absolute principle. It is a word we don’t use much anymore outside of military and police communities, and I think that is somewhat unfortunate. Its etymology is from the Anglo-French duete, and the old French deu, which means what is justly owed or properly given.

When I asked my students if they feel a sense of duty, they all nodded yes. I asked them if they had ever consciously written down these duties, or reflected on them, and no one said they had, but I was struck that they all knew what was meant by the concept. I asked several to delineate, and their answers were quite moving, existentially lovely in fact. One junior said he has a duty to protect his brother who has an intellectual disability. The earnestness with which he pronounced this claim brought tears from the young woman directly to his right. Others spoke movingly of having a duty not to shame their parents, to achieve something of value in their lives, to be worthy of what they had been given. They seemed awkward and hesitant to speak, but seemed pleased when they received very positive affirmation from their classmates. There is something in the word itself that elicits a kind of inchoate pride and stature.

I mention it here because I sometimes think that we have sacrificed some of the eternal verities in our love and pursuit of post-modern liberation. I never hear a colleague speak of her duty, and yet I believe intuitively that duty is at the heart of so much that we do here. Its pejorative association comes, I suspect, at least in part from the disdain modernity holds for rigid moral codes, and yet I think we do in fact live, at least in part, according to deontological codes. When I see coaches late in the afternoon, as I did a week or so ago, the air cold and rainy, attending to their charges, keeping them until the last possible moment, repeating the drills again and again, I think “What is this if not duty.” I could, all of us could, name a thousand instances of colleagues staying after school for hours to work with kids on particular problems, driving them to appointments, listening to their endless tails of adolescent travail. In May, two sisters from Vietnam graduated with both George School and International Baccalaureate diplomas, and that was made possible by literally thousands of hours of devoted assistance from faculty, staff and administration. I suspect no one ever explicitly named it as “duty” but what was it if not that? What drives a history teacher to sit with these girls in consultation week after week for two years so that they came to write worthwhile and coherent essays in a second language if not the deontological love of the good implicitly expressed as duty?

When we gather in our meetings, this is often on my mind as I look out on our gathered body politic. What, I wonder, connects us? What do we owe each other as colleagues? Respect, certainly, but how might we answer if we were asked, as my students were, “What do you consider your duty to your profession at GS, to your colleagues, to your participation in this meeting, to all the myriad other communal tasks which weave together our otherwise discrete and private lives?”

When duty is defined as the perfunctory completion of that which is demanded, it seems clear why we eschew the word in modern parlance. It seems limiting, sterile, almost debilitating. But when we come to love that which we consider our duty, when duty and love are intertwined into one thing, then I think we are blessed, and our work results in a kind of abiding happiness, perhaps even a quality of grace, another beleaguered word which might benefit from a fresh shave and a shower.

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