DUTY: The moral obligation to do or omit to do something, also any act or omission which is perceived to be morally binding. The derivation of the word (due+ty) shows that a duty was originally thought of as something expected, or an obligation. Similarly, the derivation of the German Pflicht from the Old High German phlegan, plegan (Modem Germ. pflegen), shows an original connection of the idea with fixed custom or rule. As custom becomes law in an objective respect, so it becomes duty in a subjective respect. The doctrine of duty has formed a chief article of ethics since the earliest times. The Stoics in particular developed with peculiar care the conception of conduct in accordance with duty. They did not get beyond a eudemonistic principle, confined to this world, but still they understood by happiness a life according to nature, which they interpreted as a life in harmony with the divine reason of the universe. Cicero’s work De officiis rests upon that of the Stoic Panætius. The first book treats of the honestum, the second of the utile and the third of the choice between the two. The same division and manner of treatment was adopted by Ambrose in a work of the same title. Neither of them brings to light a scientific principle and psychological motivation. Both wrote merely for practical purposes, Cicero for his son Marcus, and Ambrose for his young clergymen. However, these two works, with their superficial conceptions and accidental arrangement, formed the standard of ethics until Kant revealed the true essence of duty.


Duty is the form of ethical conduct. This form is conditioned by the law, by the unconditioned demand, “thou shalt,” which through mediation by the conscience applies itself to the will of man and binds him to obedience. The consciousness of this obligation is Kant’s “categorical imperative “; but Kant considered all morality as a legal fulfilment of duty, thus overlooking the radical nature of evil, which the law can repress but not eradicate. De Wette perceived this gap in Kant’s system of morals and tried to bridge it over by adducing the fact of redemption. But it was Schleiermacher who, correcting the exaggeration of Kant, assigned to duty its proper place in ethics. Accordingly, the production or realization of the highest good is the moral task. Virtue is the moral power used for the performance of this task, and duty gives form to the virtuous moral action. The abnormal development of man under the dominion of sin makes the formula of duty, the law, indispensable, although it must be gradually dispensed with by the subversion of sin and the realization of the highest good.


The law defining duty becomes really moral only by its continual reference to redemption, which, by means of grace, has opened to sinful man the possibility of ethical action. In the conduct of the individual in accordance with duty there is always an additional factor besides the formula of duty as defined by the moral law. This is the “individual court of appeal,” this expression being used to denote in a comprehensive sense the individual ethico-religious feeling and conscience.  In the doctrine of duties casuistry holds still a necessary place, since in practical life it is impossible to reduce moral law to an abstract formula. Ethics can furnish only the general formulas of duty. Man himself must find his duty by applying the law to his own person, and he must shape his action in accordance with duty by resorting to his own “court of appeal.” Since the Christian can perform an ethical act only in union with the Redeemer, and aided by his grace, no distinction can be drawn between religious and moral duties, or between duties toward God, our fellow men, and ourselves. As the Stoics taught, every sin is a sin against God. The proper division is suggested by the fact that we, on the one hand, imitate in our life the moral example of Christ, while, on the other hand, we have to cooperate in the realization of the moral community, the kingdom of God. Thus we may distinguish between duties toward ourselves and duties toward society. The Roman Catholic Church still holds to the so-called consilia evangelica, i.e., precepts of the Lord, or of the apostles, by means of which man may attain supererogatory merits and elevate himself to a higher plane of morality (see CONSILIA EVANGELICA). But there is nothing so excellent or sublime that it can not be expressed by the form of duty. Duty is the absolute standard of morality. See Ethics.



BIBLIOGRAPHY: For works covering the subject consult ETHICS.