by Jesse Fennig
Clash Daily Contributor
Perhaps the most misunderstood of the classical virtues [arete] is duty. It is generally, in modern eyes, viewed as a slavish devotion to a sterile code of action, devoid of judgment or reciprocity. This is a corruption of the true depth of this virtue, and a misinterpretation that has been employed to divide society, and strip the very meaning out of action.
Duty is indeed a code of behavior, but it’s a code of behavior based on the concept of reciprocity – if I do these things, then these benefits will accrue to me. If I fulfill the duties of my position, whether teacher or pastor or garbage man or farmer, I reap the appropriate benefits. If I do not fulfill those duties, then I do not. The same goes for societal or civic position. There are expectations based on our societal roles, which are essential to maintaining those roles.
An important note at this point – the benefits of duty are not assigned to the dutiful person, or given, or granted. They are created, by the nature of obedience to duty. Wealth is created by work. Respect is created by being respectable. Dignity is created by being dignified. There are proxies for all of these things built into society – money is a measure of wealth, deference is a measure of respect, and so on. These proxies can be assigned, but the benefit itself cannot. I’ll address the difference between money and wealth later, incidentally.
Now, our society has not abandoned duty entirely. No, we’ve done something far more destructive and insidious — we’ve exempted certain sectors of society from the strictures of duty. I’ll not name names, but when a segment of society has the proxies of the benefits of duty accrue to itself without any corresponding expectation, it creates a breach in society.
One group has all of the strictures of their duties, and sees the benefits accrue to themselves. Another group sees the benefits accrue without any of the obligations. This creates resentment between the groups, but much more frighteningly, it corrodes the idea of duty itself. It demonstrates to the dutiful group that fulfilling the obligations of duty is no longer necessary to reap the benefits, and members of that group will, given the least opportunity, join the dutiless.
Recall my earlier statement — the true benefit of duty can only be created, not assigned? As the dutiful jump ship to the dutiless, more and more assignment of proxy happens, while less and less creation of benefit happens. The price of a bushel of corn might change (money), but at the end of the day, a bushel of corn has been created (wealth). The creator of that bushel of corn is wealthier by that amount. Giving him twice the money doesn’t make the bushel more valuable, it makes the money less so.
The same goes for any other benefit of duty – enforcing deference for those who have not earned respect does not make them more respectable, it makes deference less meaningful.
At this point it can readily be seen that duty is inherent in arete. The understanding of reciprocity and of meaningful action is one that must exist for any of the other virtues to function.
Jesse Fennig is a thirty-something who spent his childhood in Africa, his youth in Ohio, and has not yet spent his adulthood, so is unwilling to commit to a statement about it. He spends altogether too much time thinking about the “whys” of modern society, and a lot of energy writing about them. His collected writings (such as they are) may be found at questionsforstrangers.wordpress.com. When not expressing sweeping opinions on the failings of society, he restores antique woodworking tools. He’s better at fixing them than using them.