I never had much use for the word “duty.” It implies an expectation imposed by a higher authority. Doing something because someone told me to do so did not fly once I realized I could think for myself.
Whether it is true or not, “duty” to me at least implies blind faith in some entity, whether it be a sky-god or government.
“Son! There’s three enemy battalions headed our way…and even though there’s just twelve of us, and our deaths are certain, it’s our duty to stay, fight, and hold out as long as we can!”
Reason? That I will follow.
No thank you. History is replete with horrors all done in the name of “duty.”
The ancient Roman Stoics did write about duty, but with reason, not blind faith, as its foundation.
Whether they used the argument that we are all part-god since we can reason, or that we were designed by Zeus, or simply that we are the only species on the planet with exceptionally high cognitive abilities, the Stoics were emphatic that we, as humans, share a common bond, and because of that bond, we should recognize our duty towards everyone else in our daily sphere of functioning.
The fact of our present day and age is that duty and responsibility towards helping others is not emphasized at all.
Some might extend it to immediate family, or perhaps to other members of one’s faith, yet, for the most part, our culture is very much focused on “Me, myself, and I.”
There is nothing wrong with taking care of your own needs. In fact, that is what responsible people do so they don’t have to depend on the time, energy, and resources of others.
Yet, there is a hair-breadth’s line that for many is almost impossible to detect, between meeting one’s needs, and fulfilling one’s wants, the latter quite often at the expense of others.
What has made that line even more difficult to recognize in the early 21st century is technology.
It can be very useful in uniting people that in the past may have felt isolated, whether it be an LGBT teenager living in the Bible Belt, or an abuse survivor finding emotional support (but I repeat myself).
The downside of technology is that it is easy to create a bubble in which the only data that reaches you is that which reinforces your world view, meets your every pleasure, and decreases or even eliminates your connection with others outside that bubble.
With downloading music, ordering books online, and tweeting socially conscious memes, rather than actually venturing forth into the world, we are missing out on establishing ties with other humans and seeing how we are connected, all the while losing opportunities for helping others out, if not simply getting to know them on a direct and human level.
Regardless of which metaphysical or philosophical reasons the Stoics used for claiming we have a duty to our fellow humans, they were intent on having a good life, and they understood that in order to do so, a sense of duty towards others must be cultivated. They were practicing and teaching what the current Dalai Lama refers to as “enlightened self-interest.”
According to the Stoics, if you think happiness comes from serving only “me, myself, and I,” you are very much destined for unnecessary suffering.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, a key aspect to achieving happiness, tranquility, and a good life, is having a sense of social duty, where you to put the needs of others above your wants. If you cultivate a sense of duty to other humans (and I would also argue towards animals, who also are sentient), you are still taking care of yourself, but in the wisest manner possible.
No one is an island. However, technology has helped many to become exceptionally long peninsulas, which is not beneficial for anyone.
Acta Non Verba: Make it a point at the end of every day to ask yourself, “Who did I help today without expecting anything in return?” If you can’t think of anything, then make it a point to do so on the morrow.
One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. – Epictetus
It is through clear thinking that we are able to properly direct our will, stick with our true purpose, and discover the connections we have to others and the duties that follow from those relationships. – Epictetus
He remembers his kinship with all rational beings and never abandons his natural inclination to care for others. – Marcus Aurelius
Work hard, not like a slave who looks for pity or praise, but as one who strives single-mindedly to discharge his social obligations. – Marcus Aurelius
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Don Ross III via Unsplash.com.