Tag Archives: Max Weber

Duty to Nature

Index to this series

Summary and update (added October 14, 2018): When we do something, or propose to do something, we may explain it or justify it—give a reason for it—as being useful, right, or dutiful. Such is the theory of Collingwood, analyzed here, especially with regard to a question that has increasing urgency: have we a duty, not only to one another, but to nature?

When I originally composed this post, in February of 2017, I had recently analyzed several relevant chapters of Collingwood’s New Leviathan:

Those chapters are the last in the book’s Part I, called “Man.” Collingwood returns to the same ideas in Part II, “Society,” and specifically in Chapter XXVIII, “The Forms of Political Action.” I went on analyze this chapter, 18 months later; it discusses an abuse of the concept of duty by the German political theorist Treitschke.

By one interpretation of a passage in Herodotus, the ancient Persians perceived a duty to nature, through a teaching now attributed to Zoroaster. His teachings influenced Manichaeism, and thus in turn the “Albigensian heresy,” the subject of Chapter XLIII of the New Leviathan.

A theme of Collingwood is that we tend to explain what happens in the world the way we explain what we ourselves do. If our ethics are utilitarian, then, like the ancient Greeks, we may see things in nature too as serving purposes. If we govern our own behavior by laws, then we may also seek laws of nature, as physicists do now.

Since utility and law are general in form, they provide incomplete accounts of exactly what we do. Utility tells us that some kind of thing is useful for some other kind; law keeps us within some bounds, but leaves us free within those bounds. By contrast, duty is to be conceived as providing a complete account of what we do. Conscience tells us that we have a duty; then we have to reason out what it is. The corresponding science of the world is history, which studies us as free agents. Collingwood does not describe a corresponding science of nature as such, at least not in the New Leviathan; but at the end of his first book, Religion and Philosophy, he concluded that everything that happened must be an act of will. This was in the chapter called “Miracle,” which I looked at especially in “Effectiveness.”

It may be hard to distinguish lawful action from dutiful action. In the present post, I look at the examples of

  • paying off a student loan;
  • smoking cigarettes, when rules restrict it;
  • collecting armaments, because, at the Last Supper, by the account in Luke, Jesus recommended buying swords;
  • Islam, as a rule-bound religion;
  • Christian denigrators of Islam, who find in it rules that they think believers must be bound by, even as some Muslims find inspiration in the teachings of Prophet Jesus.

I conclude with the example of an Episcopal priest called Stephen Blackmer, for whom nature is a church and a member of his congregation.


This is a synthesis of some ideas from a recent spate of posts in this blog. A theme is the question of why we do what we do, and whether we can change what we do, especially to Nature.

Book cover with image of a bearded man in white robes with a cap or turban, long flowing hair below this, a staff in his left hand, index finger raised on his right hand
Farhang Mehr, The Zoroastrian Tradition.
I bought the book in Yazd, Iran, in 2012

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