## NL XVII: “Duty”

Index to this series

We sinned all”
(New England Primer)

We are trying to understand reason in its original form, practical reason. Why do we do what we do? It may be useful for something else, or right according to some law or rule. A third possibility is that what we do may be our duty: the fulfilment of an obligation.

“Queen Esther sues,
And saves the Jews”
(New England Primer)

Another kind of reason is told of by the logician Raymond Smullyan. I mourn Smullyan’s recent death: he has given me pleasure through several books, notably What Is the Name of This Book? I must have read about this in Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American for March, 1978 (when I turned 13): “Count Dracula, Alice, Portia, Others Consider Logic Twists.” (This was later reprinted as Chapter 20, “Raymond Smullyan’s Logic Puzzles,” in Penrose Tiles to Trapdoor Ciphers, 1989.) I may have found Smullyan’s book in the Alexandria Public Library; eventually I obtained my own copy from a junk shop in West Virginia. That copy is inscribed in blue ballpoint with the single name Weinstein. In the chapter called “Logic and Life,” in the section called “Some Characterizations of Logic,” several stories are told, and then:

This also reminds me of the story of a woman at a banquet. When the silver platter of asparagus came her way, she cut off all the tips, put them on her plate and passed the platter to her neighbor. The neighbor said, “Why do you do a thing like that? Why do you keep all the tips for yourself and pass the rest on to me?” The woman replied, “Oh, the tips are the best part, didn’t you know?”

We have seen in the previous chapter that rightness does exist, as a reason for our actions, and is distinct from utility, on etymological grounds. The word “right” is actually used, and it does not mean “useful.”

Now we observe how the word “duty” is used:

17. 11. It is formed by adding a common Romance suffix to ‘due’, which represents the Latin debitum, ‘owed’. ‘Duty’ in the abstract is the state of something’s being owed: ‘a duty’ is a thing owed.

As I did for Chapter IV, “Feeling,” I consult Skeat’s Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Skeat considers the Anglo-French source of “duty,” dueté, to be a “coined word.” He considers our related modern word “debt” to be a “bad spelling of dett, or in Middle English dette.” This word came from the Old French dette, which was itself “misspelt” in Middle French as debte. Skeat is thus a prescriptivist. What he prescribes is phonetic spelling. It is however a fact that English spelling is often not phonetic, but etymological. The bee in “debt,” though not pronounced, is a reminder of the Latin origin of the word—which, by the way, Skeat gives as dēbita, “a sum due,” the feminine form of the past participle whose neuter form (or masculine accusative) Collingwood gave.

Concerning “due” and “duty,” Collingwood makes a remark that is important for his argument:

17. 13. They are medieval words, and in the Middle Ages the idea of debt was associated less with the expectation of a money payment than with that of a payment in kind; or, still oftener, that of rendering to a ‘lord’ a ‘service’ not necessarily conceived as having a monetary equivalent.

This is important, because for Collingwood,

17. 5. The special characteristics of duty are (1) determinacy and (2) possibility.

17. 51. Duty admits of no alternatives. Whatever is my duty is an individuum omnimodo determinatum. There is only one of it; it is not one of a set of alternatives; there is nothing that will do as well.

Collingwood used that term, individuum omnimodo determinatum, in the “Utility” chapter (15. 72), to describe the kind of individual that utilitarian action does not deal with. In the example of a purchase of tobacco, the sum of money handed over can be put together in any way. Likewise, the sum of money paid to discharge a debt would seem not to be an individuum omnimodo determinatum. But then, as above, paying money in particular is not the root meaning of “duty.”

According to Collingwood, before “due” and “duty” came into English, the word “owe” had been used to translate the same idea from Latin (17. 14). To owe had originally meant to own, in our modern sense. As I understand The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (edited by T. F. Hoad, 1986), “own” is the original past participle of the verb “owe.” From “own” was formed a verb meaning “to possess as one’s own”; the verb fell out of use, except in the derivation “owner,” from which our verb “own” was later extracted. Meanwhile, again, to owe was originally to have: first as a possession, and then as an obligation or duty. The original past tense of “owe” was “ought” (17. 15).

17. 16. Etymologically, then, ‘it is my duty to do this’ and ‘I ought to do this’ mean the same; viz. that I am conscious of an obligation or debt incurred in the past by an act that generated the obligation, and to be discharged in the future by the act referred to as ‘this’.

Paying money may discharge a debt, but one might prefer to say that the payment is useful in the process of discharging the debt. We have here an example of the overlap of classes. There is no absolute distinction between philosophical classes, such as the classes of useful things and things owed; but something can always fall into both. This sounds like a dodge, but it fits the way things are. Am I taking all of the asparagus tips because it is useful for achieving pleasure; or because I have a right to pleasure; or because I have a duty, to myself or to those who love me, to give myself pleasure? All three can be true—or perhaps none. Again, the real question is, Whom do I want to be?

The overlap of philosophical classes is a theme of An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933): Collingwood’s “best book,” according to An Autobiography (1939), from which an excerpt tells us something of the burden of getting the word out:

I wrote [the Essay] during a long illness in 1932. It is my best book in matter; in style, I may call it my only book, for it is the only one I ever had the time to finish as well as I knew how, instead of leaving it in a more or less rough state. After settling accounts with my archaeological studies in a way to be described in the next chapter, I wrote in 1937 the second book of my series, The Principles of Art. Before it had gone through the press I was overtaken by the more serious illness which gave me both the leisure and the motive to write this autobiography; whose purpose is to put on record some brief account of the work I have not yet been able to publish, in case I am not able to publish it in full.

In the Essay itself, again, Collingwood asserts the overlap of classes:

The specific classes of a philosophical genus do not exclude one another, they overlap one another. This overlap is not exceptional, it is normal; and it is not negligible in extent, it may reach formidable dimensions.

… In the argument of this essay the overlap of classes is to serve as a clue to discovering the peculiarities that distinguish philosophical thought from scientific; and therefore it is important that I should convince the reader, if I can, of its reality; for although it is familiar in philosophy and also, as I have remarked, to common sense, it is a paradox from the point of view of science; and a reader trained chiefly in that field may be tempted to meet the assertion of its reality with a flat denial.

Collingwood gives a number of examples, including the one concerning us now:

Actions are commonly divided into classes according as they are done from motives of different kinds: desire, self-interest, duty. The distinction is important because, according to the view commonly held, the moral value of an act differs according to the motive from which it is done, acts done from a motive of duty being morally good acts, and so forth. If it could be held that acts done from these different motives fall into separate and mutually exclusive classes, this would greatly ease the task of assigning to each act its true moral worth. But in spite of this temptation to believe the contrary, moral philosophers have always recognized that in fact our motives are often mixed, so that one and the same act may fall into two or even into all three classes.

These and similar considerations make it clear that in our ordinary thought about moral questions, whether we call this thought philosophy or common sense, we habitually think in terms of concepts whose specific classes, instead of excluding one another, overlap …

Collingwood does not often refer to his earlier books in his later ones; but the writer of the later ones is the person who had the thoughts expressed in the earlier ones. If we start to think that the distinction between “forms of consciousness” is not so clear as the division of Part I of New Leviathan into chapters, then perhaps we ought to recall the “overlap of classes.”

In considering “Right,” we noted, “Regularian action in its essential form is the making and obeying of a single rule by a single agent at a single time” (16. 37).

A similar simultaneity is possible for the means and end of a utilitarian act (15. 35). I did not dwell on this when considering the “Utility” chapter. Often, in planning, the end precedes the means in time; in execution, the means precede the end. First you want apples, and then you decide to plant a tree. You plant the tree, and years later you achieve your end of having apples (15. 31, 33). But if your end is a weed-free garden, you achieve this simultaneously with the means, namely pulling up the weeds (15. 35). Finally, instead of just being removed, the temporal order can be reversed: the proverbial command, “Cut your coat according to your cloth,” implies that means can be planned before the ends (15. 37).

15. 38. What is essential in the relation between means and end, however, is not that there should be any special time-sequence but that there should be a logical interrelation such that each plan, the means-plan and the end-plan alike, is checked and corrected by reference to the other.

There is a corresponding remark about duty:

17. 2. In the simplest or essential case the acts of incurring and discharging the obligation are acts of the same person. I am immediately conscious of an obligation. Reflecting, I conceive it as my obligation: I regard both the initial act of incurring it and the terminal act of discharging it as acts which are (were, are to be) acts of mine.

17. 21. The words ‘initial’ and ‘terminal’ refer essentially not to temporal priority but to logical priority. There need not be a time-series in which the existence of an obligation is subsequent to its being incurred.

However, complications are possible, and this gives Collingwood an opportunity for being clever. Possibly person A incurs a debt, which person B feels obliged to discharge. This actually happens (17. 32), though Collingwood does not give an immediate example. I think of a parent’s feeling responsible for the behavior of a child; but Collingwood has something slightly different in mind. While it may be a “fact of consciousness” that B is responsible for the debt of A, it may also happen that the debt is actually discharged by a third person, C (17. 33).

17. 34. The importance of this case in the history of the European conception of duty will appear if we call A Adam, B the believer, and C Christ. The believer thinks of himself as saddled with responsibility for Adam’s sin, and as freed from it through assumption of it by God Himself in the person of Christ.

Collingwood may be describing facts of consciousness, but I don’t know that they are facts of my consciousness. Perhaps this means I really should quote Collingwood’s rather insulting follow-up remark:

17. 35. This is the idea of the Atonement, which has sometimes been denounced as a legal quibble forced upon an alien and inappropriate context. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The idea is an integral part of the ordinary moral consciousness, at least in Christendom; it is perplexing only to a man who is too weak in the head to follow the logic of a case where an obligation is distributed over three agents.

I don’t think logic is the problem. Somebody else can assume my debt, and a third person can actually pay it: no problem. My parents assumed the responsibility for my expensive private education, but they got help from philanthropic sources. For college I took on my debt myself, which I eventually paid; but the government would have paid, had I defaulted.

The problem with the doctrine of the Atonement is to understand why somebody should feel responsible for Adam’s supposed sin, and why that person should also feel that a mythical being has discharged the responsibility. What do these ideas do for one’s self-respect? We have seen in “Choice” how self-respect is needed, if a person is to have the maturity to engage in decisive action:

13. 64. This arousing of self-respect is extremely important in the practice of government and education. Persons thus engaged constantly find themselves meeting men who are incapable of decision. The rule for overcoming this state is: ‘Arouse his self-respect.’

I referred to Christ as a mythical being. In Religion and Philosophy (1916), Collingwood describes the importance of Jesus as an historical figure:

The whole value of an example is lost unless it is historical. If an athlete tries to equal the feats of Herakles, or an engineer spends his life trying to recover the secret of the man who invented a perpetual-motion machine, they are merely deluding themselves with false hopes if Herakles and the supposed inventor never lived. The Good Samaritan’s action is the kind of thing that any good man might do; it is typical of a kind of conduct which we see around us and know to be both admirable and possible. But if the life of Jesus is a myth, it is more preposterous to ask a man to imitate it than to ask him to imitate Herakles. Any valid command must guarantee the possibility of carrying it out; and the historical life of Jesus is the guarantee that man can be perfect if he will.

This is not a proof that Jesus did live, only that Christianity somehow requires the belief that he did. I don’t think this is the same as requiring belief in the complete accuracy of the Bible. In any case, as I read the young Collingwood, the lesson of Jesus, through his Incarnation, is the possibility of perfection. I suppose this is other side of the redemption of the Atonement. As Collingwood says later in Religion and Philosophy,

By the central doctrine of Christianity I mean that taking-up of humanity into God which is called the Incarnation or the Atonement, according as the emphasis is laid on God’s self-expression through humanity or man’s redemption through the spirit of God.

From New Leviathan, I quoted ¶17. 5: “The special characteristics of duty are (1) determinacy and (2) possibility.” Possibility seems clear enough. You ought to do only what you can do (17. 62). You may however be mistaken about what you can do. This does not let you off the hook; you still have to try (17. 61).

As for the determinacy of duty—its being an individual in every sense (17. 51)—, this means that my duty to do something is mine alone (17. 52) and is to do that thing alone (17. 53). Even though somebody else like Jesus may discharge my debt, that person is not obliged to do so; only I am. Again I ask what good that does, if the formal obligation is satisfied, while the sense of obligation remains.

One may then pay somebody else’s debt. This is something like what I understand Sidney Poitier’s character to tell his father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (which I first watched in a hotel room in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, when I was sick as a dog after a stressful weekend that involved my doçentlik—associate-professorship—examination). The father tells his son it’s his duty not to marry a white girl. The son says (in a speech that I take from IMDb):

You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you’re supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand.

Collingwood observes,

17. 31. An obligation may be incurred unawares. This is generally, but not always, where it nascitur ex delicto; through ignorance of the law, which excuses no man, the agent does not know what he is letting himself in for.

Children have no sense of having incurred an obligation to their parents. Parents may try to impose such a sense. In that case, there can arise a complication that Collingwood does not seem to mention: the owner of the debt can be transferred to the next generation.

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