Last updated
"Duty" by Edmund Leighton Leighton-Duty-1883.jpg
"Duty" by Edmund Leighton

A duty (from "due" meaning "that which is owing"; Old French : deu, did, past participle of devoir; Latin : debere, debitum, whence "debt") is a commitment or expectation to perform some action in general or if certain circumstances arise. A duty may arise from a system of ethics or morality, especially in an honor culture. Many duties are created by law, sometimes including a codified punishment or liability for non-performance. Performing one's duty may require some sacrifice of self-interest.


Cicero, an early Roman philosopher who discusses duty in his work “On Duty", suggests that duties can come from four different sources: [1]

  1. as a result of being a human
  2. as a result of one's particular place in life (one's family, one's country, one's job)
  3. as a result of one's character
  4. as a result of one's own moral expectations for oneself

The specific duties imposed by law or culture vary considerably, depending on jurisdiction, religion, and social normalities.

Civic duty

Duty [2] is also often perceived as something owed to one's country (patriotism), or to one's homeland or community. Civic duties could include:

Duties of employment

Specific obligations arise in the services performed by a minister of a church, by a soldier, or by any employee or servant. [3]


Examples of legal duties include:

Filial duty

Lady Feng and the Bear Admonitions Scroll Scene 4.jpg
Lady Feng and the Bear

In most cultures, children are expected to take on duties in relation to their families. This may take the form of behaving in such a way that upholds the family's honor in the eyes of the community, entering into arranged marriages that benefit the family's status, or caring for ailing relatives. This family-oriented sense of duty is a particularly central aspect to the teachings of Confucius, and is known as xiao, or filial piety. As such, the duties of filial piety have played an enormous role in the lives of people in eastern Asia for centuries. For example, the painting Lady Feng and the Bear, from ancient China, depicts the heroic act of a consort of the emperor placing herself between her husband and a rampaging bear. This is meant to be taken as an example of admirable filial behavior. Filial piety is considered so important that in some cases, it outweighs other cardinal virtues: In a more modern example, "concerns with filial piety of the same general sort that motivate women to engage in factory work in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia are commonly cited by Thai prostitutes as one of their primary rationales for working in the skin trade". [5] The importance of filial piety can be expressed in this quote from the Analects of Confucius: "Yu Tzu said, 'It is rare for a man whose character is such that he is good as a son and obedient as a young man to have the inclination to transgress against his superiors; it is unheard of for one who has no such inclination to be inclined to start a rebellion. The gentleman devotes his efforts to the roots, for once the roots are established, the Way will grow there from. Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character'".[ citation needed ]

In various cultures

Duty varies between different cultures and continents. Duty in Asia and Latin America is commonly more heavily weighted than in Western culture. According to a study done on attitudes toward family obligation:

"Asian and Latin American adolescents possessed stronger values and greater expectations regarding their duty to assist, respect, and support their families than their peers with European backgrounds". [6]

The deeply rooted tradition of duty among both Asian and Latin American cultures contributes to much of the strong sense of duty that exists in comparison to western cultures. Michael Peletz discusses the concept of duty in his book Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia:

"Notions of filial duty … are commonly invoked to mobilize the loyalties, labor power, and other resources children in the ostensible interests of the household and, in some cases, those of the lineage clan as a whole. Doctrines of filial piety … attuned to them may thus be a source of great comfort and solace to the elders but they can also be experienced as stressful, repressive, or both by those who are enjoined to honor their parents’ (and grandparents’) wishes and unspoken expectations". [7]

An arranged marriage is an example of an expected duty in Asia and the Middle East. In an arranged marriage relating to duty, it is expected that the wife will move in with the husband's family and household to raise their children. Patrilocal residence is usual; rarely does the man move in with the woman, or is the married couple allowed to start their own household and life somewhere else. They need to provide for the entire family in labor and care for the farms and family. Older generations rely heavily on the help from their children's and grandchildren's families. This form of duty is in response to keeping the lineage of a family intact and obliging to the needs of elders.

Criticisms of the concept


Friedrich Nietzsche is among the fiercest critics of the concept of duty. "What destroys a man more quickly", he asks, "than to work, think, and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure—as a mere automaton of “duty”?" ( The Antichrist , § 11)

Nietzsche claims that the task of all higher education is "to turn men into machines". The way to turn men into machines is to teach them to tolerate boredom. This is accomplished, Nietzsche says, by means of the concept of duty. ( Twilight of the Idols , “Skirmishes of an untimely man” § 9.29)

Arthur Schopenhauer's writings, among them On the Basis of Morality , had a profound effect on Nietzsche and led him to a series of inversions to show that morality was not based in "compassion or sympathy" but in life overcoming itself through the will to power. Among these inversions "duty" and "pity," from Immanuel Kant and Schopenhauer respectively.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand, a youthful admirer of Nietzsche, anchored her morality against Kant's notion of duty. "In a deontological theory, all personal desires are banished from the realm of morality; a personal desire has no moral significance, be it a desire to create or a desire to kill. For example, if a man is not supporting his life from duty, such a morality makes no distinction between supporting it by honest labor or by robbery. If a man wants to be honest, he deserves no moral credit; as Kant would put it, such honesty is 'praiseworthy,' but without 'moral import.'" [8]

See also

Related Research Articles

Applied ethics refers to the practical aspect of moral considerations. It is ethics with respect to real-world actions and their moral considerations in the areas of private and public life, the professions, health, technology, law, and leadership. For example, the bioethics community is concerned with identifying the correct approach to moral issues in the life sciences, such as euthanasia, the allocation of scarce health resources, or the use of human embryos in research. Environmental ethics is concerned with ecological issues such as the responsibility of government and corporations to clean up pollution. Business ethics includes questions regarding the duties or duty of 'whistleblowers' to the general public or their loyalty to their employers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ethics</span> Branch of philosophy concerning right and wrong conduct

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that "involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior". The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value; these fields comprise the branch of philosophy called axiology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Friedrich Nietzsche</span> German philosopher (1844–1900)

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a German philosopher, prose poet, cultural critic, philologist, and composer whose work has exerted a profound influence on contemporary philosophy. He began his career as a classical philologist before turning to philosophy. He became the youngest person ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of 24. Nietzsche resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life; he completed much of his core writing in the following decade. In 1889, at age 44, he suffered a collapse and afterward a complete loss of his mental faculties, with paralysis and probably vascular dementia. He lived his remaining years in the care of his mother until her death in 1897 and then with his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Nietzsche died in 1900, after experiencing pneumonia and multiple strokes.

Normative ethics is the study of ethical behaviour and is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the questions that arise regarding how one ought to act, in a moral sense.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piety</span> Religious devotion or spirituality

Piety is a virtue which may include religious devotion or spirituality. A common element in most conceptions of piety is a duty of respect. In a religious context piety may be expressed through pious activities or devotions, which may vary among countries and cultures.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mores</span> Customary behaviour

Mores are social norms that are widely observed within a particular society or culture. Mores determine what is considered morally acceptable or unacceptable within any given culture. A folkway is what is created through interaction and that process is what organizes interactions through routine, repetition, habit and consistency.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Categorical imperative</span> Central concept in Kantian moral philosophy

The categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept in the deontological moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Introduced in Kant's 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, it is a way of evaluating motivations for action. It is best known in its original formulation: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

In moral philosophy, deontological ethics or deontology is the normative ethical theory that the morality of an action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules and principles, rather than based on the consequences of the action. It is sometimes described as duty-, obligation-, or rule-based ethics. Deontological ethics is commonly contrasted to consequentialism, virtue ethics, and pragmatic ethics. In this terminology, action is more important than the consequences.

In most contexts, the concept of good denotes the conduct that should be preferred when posed with a choice between possible actions. Good is generally considered to be the opposite of evil and is of interest in the study of ethics, morality, philosophy, and religion. The specific meaning and etymology of the term and its associated translations among ancient and contemporary languages show substantial variation in its inflection and meaning, depending on circumstances of place and history, or of philosophical or religious context.

<i>Beyond Good and Evil</i> 1886 book by Friedrich Nietzsche

Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future is a book by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that covers ideas in his previous work Thus Spoke Zarathustra but with a more polemical approach. It was first published in 1886 under the publishing house C. G. Naumann of Leipzig at the author's own expense and first translated into English by Helen Zimmern, who was two years younger than Nietzsche and knew the author.

<i>Critique of Practical Reason</i> 1788 book by Immanuel Kant

The Critique of Practical Reason is the second of Immanuel Kant's three critiques, published in 1788. It follows on from Kant's first critique, the Critique of Pure Reason and deals with his moral philosophy. While Kant had already published one significant work in moral philosophy, the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), the Critique of Practical Reason was intended to both cover a wider scope and place his ethical views within the larger framework of his system of critical philosophy.

<i>The Antichrist</i> (book) 1895 book by Friedrich Nietzsche

The Antichrist is a book by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, originally published in 1895. Although it was written in 1888, its content made Franz Overbeck and Heinrich Köselitz delay its publication, along with Ecce Homo. The German title can be translated into English as either The Anti-Christ or The Anti-Christian, depending on how the German word Christ is translated.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Filial piety</span> Virtue and practice in Chinese classics and Chinese society at large

In Confucianism, Chinese Buddhism, and Daoist ethics, filial piety is a virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors. The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety, thought to be written around the late Warring States-Qin-Han period, has historically been the authoritative source on the Confucian tenet of filial piety. The book—a purported dialogue between Confucius and his student Zengzi—is about how to set up a good society using the principle of filial piety. Filial piety is central to Confucian role ethics.

On the Basis of Morality is one of Arthur Schopenhauer's major works in ethics, in which he argues that morality stems from compassion. Schopenhauer begins with a criticism of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, which Schopenhauer considered to be the clearest explanation of Kant's foundation of ethics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kantian ethics</span> Ethical theory of Immanuel Kant

Kantian ethics refers to a deontological ethical theory developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant that is based on the notion that: "It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will." The theory was developed in the context of Enlightenment rationalism. It states that an action can only be moral if (i) it is motivated by a sense of duty and (ii) its maxim may be rationally willed a universal, objective law.

The 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is known as a critic of Judeo-Christian morality and religions in general. One of the arguments he raised against the truthfulness of these doctrines is that they are based upon the concept of free will, which, in his opinion, does not exist.

<i>On the Genealogy of Morality</i> 1887 book by Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic is an 1887 book by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It consists of a preface and three interrelated treatises that expand and follow through on concepts Nietzsche sketched out in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). The three treatises trace episodes in the evolution of moral concepts with a view to confronting "moral prejudices", specifically those of Christianity and Judaism.

Role ethics is an ethical theory based on family roles. Unlike virtue ethics, role ethics is not individualistic. Morality is derived from a person's relationship with their community. The ethics of Confucianism is an example of role ethics, in particular the Three Fundamental Bonds and Five Constant Virtues.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Filial piety in Buddhism</span> Aspect of Buddhist ethics, story-telling traditions, apologetics and history

Filial piety has been an important aspect of Buddhist ethics since early Buddhism, and was essential in the apologetics and texts of Chinese Buddhism. In the Early Buddhist Texts such as the Nikāyas and Āgamas, filial piety is prescribed and practiced in three ways: to repay the gratitude toward one's parents; as a good karma or merit; and as a way to contribute to and sustain the social order. In Buddhist scriptures, narratives are given of the Buddha and his disciples practicing filial piety toward their parents, based on the qualities of gratitude and reciprocity. Initially, scholars of Buddhism like Kenneth Ch'en saw Buddhist teachings on filial piety as a distinct feature of Chinese Buddhism. Later scholarship, led by people such as John Strong and Gregory Schopen, has come to believe that filial piety was part of Buddhist doctrine since early times. Strong and Schopen have provided epigraphical and textual evidence to show that early Buddhist laypeople, monks and nuns often displayed strong devotion to their parents, concluding that filial piety was already an important part of the devotional life of early Buddhists.

<i>The Right and the Good</i>

The Right and the Good is a 1930 book by the Scottish philosopher David Ross. In it, Ross develops a deontological pluralism based on prima facie duties. Ross defends a realist position about morality and an intuitionist position about moral knowledge. The Right and the Good has been praised as one of the most important works of ethical theory in the twentieth century.


  1. Cicero, Marcus T. De Officiis. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1913. Print.
  2. Ekman, Joakim; Amnå, Erik (2009). "Political Participation and Civic Engagement: Towards A New Typology" (PDF). Youth & Society (Working Paper) (2): 4.
  3. Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Duty". Encyclopædia Britannica . Vol. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 736.
  4. Birds to holy rivers: A list of everything India considers “legal persons”, Quartz (publication), September 2019.
  5. Peletz, Michael Gates. Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia. Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2011. Print.
  6. Fuligni, A. J., Tseng, V. and Lam, M. (1999), "Attitudes toward Family Obligations among American Adolescents with Asian, Latin American, and European Backgrounds". Child Development, 70: 1030–1044. doi : 10.1111/1467-8624.00075.
  7. Peletz, Michael G. Gender, Sexuality, and Body Politics in Modern Asia. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2011. Print.[ ISBN missing ]
  8. Ayn Rand Lexicon duty.