On Duty

Ayn Rand bore no fondness for the concept of 'duty,' at least by that name. But another writer, Robert A. Heinlein, had insights on the subject that are well worth remembering.
Stephen-browne

Duty! The very word drives some Objectivists, dare I say it, irrational.

Rand herself dismissed the idea with contempt: “The meaning of the term 'duty' is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest.”

Yet, in her address to the cadets at West Point, whose motto is, “Duty, Honor, Country," she said, “There is a kind of quiet radiance associated in my mind with the name West Point — because you have preserved the spirit of those original founding principles and you are their symbol. You have chosen to risk your lives for the defense of this country. In my morality, the defense of one's country means that a man is personally unwilling to live as the conquered slave of any enemy, foreign or domestic. This is an enormous virtue.”

Can these be reconciled?

Author Robert Heinlein, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, once jokingly said, “Ayn Rand is a bloody socialist compared to me.”

Heinlein said of duty, “The two highest achievements of the human mind are the twin concepts of 'loyalty' and 'duty.' Whenever these twin concepts fall into disrepute — get out of there fast! You may possibly save yourself, but it is too late to save that society. It is doomed.”

I'm not at all sure the two thinkers disagreed on this subject to any great degree. I think what we are dealing with is a difference in lexical (dictionary) definitions.

Rand was fond of making philosophical points forcefully, by taking a concept represented by a word in common use, and forcing us to look at it from a different perspective — by attacking one definition or connotation (out of several) of the word. Note “the virtue of selfishness,” for example.

By taking a word with a universally negative connotation and speaking of its “virtue,” she blew a lot of minds and got them to think in ways they might never have considered.

I have sometimes wondered, though Rand was said to have been raised in a secular Jewish family without religious education, is it possible she ever heard of a saying of the First Century Rabbi Hillel? “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?”

“Duty” has different definitions, from the mundane to the sublime, centering around the idea of obligation. But there is nothing intrinsic in any of them that specify where the obligation comes from.

There is contractual duty. Military, police, and hospital personnel “have the duty,” when they are at work. They are obligated by the terms of their contracts, freely undertaken, to be at a post and not to leave it until relieved.

Then there is the duty not formally defined by contract, perhaps not even articulated to oneself. But when the occasion presents itself, a man knows his duty.

The German boxer Max Schmeling is famous for facing American boxer Joe Lewis, “the brown bomber” in the ring twice in the 1930s, winning once and losing the rematch.

Some interested in increasingly obscure sports history recall that his fights with Lewis were promoted in Germany as a symbolic contest between an Aryan superman and a black American untermensch. Hopefully they also remember that Schmelling refused to have anything to do with the Nazi propaganda efforts and in fact became lifelong friends with Lewis.

In a 1975 interview, Schmelling said, “Looking back, I’m almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal.”

But very few remember that in November 1938, during the Krystallnacht pogrom against the Jews, Schmelling hid the two sons of his Jewish friend David Lewin, and helped them escape the country. Few know it because Schmelling never spoke of it publicly. Henry and Werner Lewin became successful businessmen in America and told the story after his death.

For actions like this, and steadfastly refusing to join the Nazi party in the face of extreme pressure, Schmelling was drafted into the paratroops and sent on suicide missions on the eastern front, in the hopes the Nazis could make a proper Aryan hero of him, posthumously.

When asked about this, and why he didn't speak of it publicly, Schmelling replied simply, “It was my duty as a man.”

And here we get to the essence of duty, in the finest sense of the word. Duty is the price you must pay for the privilege of seeing yourself as the kind of person you want to be.

If you want to think of yourself as generous, you must act with generosity. If you wish to think of yourself as loyal, you must stand with those you think are worth supporting, however unpopular, unprofitable, or dangerous it is. And if you want to see yourself as brave, you must act with courage when the occasion demands it.

As Heinlein put it: “Do not confuse 'duty' with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.”

Stephen W. Browne is a writer, editor, and teacher of martial arts and English as a second language. He is also the founder of the Liberty English Camps, held annually in Eastern Europe, which brings together students from all over Eastern Europe for intensive English study using texts important to the history of political liberty and free markets. In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for his work supporting dissidents during the Milosevic regime. His regularly-updated blog is at StephenWBrowne.com.

13 comments from readers  

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I remember a few years ago seeing Max Schmelling's photo in his paratrooper uniform on the cover of a wartime issue of "Signal", the Nazis' international propaganda magazine.

When I looked up his name I was astonished to learn that at that time he was still alive. It was then that I learned the story of how he smuggled two Jewish lads out of Germany. Later, as a successful businessman in post-war Germany, he came to the financial assistance of his former opponent, Joe Lewis.

If duty is something one owes to a higher authority, what higher authority could any individual have than his or her own informed conscience?
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Good analysis, well stated. There is indeed a reason why "Duty, Honor, Country" have stirred so many, and it has nothing to do with self-sacrifice and everything to do with the choice of a hard path that can lead to paying the ultimate price [one's life] to preserve the ultimate virtue [freedom].
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I think the difference is understanding that I have a duty to myself, to live my life in the realm of principles I believe in.

This is a far cry from thinking I have a duty to others or to a system of beliefs that have nothing to do with what I think.

I don't have a problem with the word NO.
I say NO to duty in the name of some other person's idea of what is right and wrong.
In my world, I say what is right and wrong.
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I've always been struck by the respect for individualism and humanity in Heinlein's works. It was in one of his novels that I first read 'TANSTAAFL'. Another fiction writer to check out is Terry Goodkind, whose Sword of Truth series highlights the philosophy of individualism and self-responsibility.
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Excellent, excellent piece of writing, Mr. Browne! Although Miss Rand would frown, I "feel" it is my duty to salute your work largely because of the emotional response I had to your reasoning.
Well done!
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It is a man's duty to himself to formulate his principles and to live his life in accordance with those principles. I realized this as a child, long before I had heard of or read Ayn Rand. It was a lesson learned from my Dad, from reading history and about many heroic men, and from a great deal of introspective thought. To me, this is fundamentally what makes a man a real man. Sometimes this requires that a man go to war to protect his values, but more often this means a constant, enduring effort to be true to your principles in everyday life.

Max Schmelling must have been quite a man. He would have lived a very easy life had he gone along with the Nazis, at least until the end of the war.
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I think that duty in a sense is selfish because of the pride you feel when you perform a dutiful task. Not to be boastful publicly but to improve your self worth. I enjoyed reading and thinking about this topic.
Small
It's true that her precise definition cited directly would be nice to see here, it's still a moving article, and its meaning is appreciable. I have long wished to see some articulation on the point of the virtues of duty (not self-sacrificial, but self-preserving duty), and I am quite satisfied with his attention to the topic.

Well spoken, Mr. Browne--we need more people to realize the virtues of duty in times like ours!
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I value freedom and truth above everything. I was proud to be an American because the rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence were American ideals, unlike all other countries. I was kicked out of third grade class for exercising my freedom not to join in the Pledge of Allegiance. My reasons are not relevant. My freedom is, e.g., no other justification is necessary. Did I have a duty to declare my allegiance to my ideals? I believe I did. The duty was to myself, not to government. The "Pledge" was an attempt to instill blind obedience to government by indoctrination through a verbal chant. I did not fully understand that at the time but I rejected the ritual nonetheless. I now abstain from the "Pledge" on another basis. The last two administrations have officially rejected the habeas corpus right, and admitted to kidnapping, torture, and murder. I refuse to give my "allegiance" to these activities.
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Max Schmeling, one l. [Corrected. Thank you! -Publisher]

"Do not confuse 'duty' with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect."

To distinguish this concept from the evil anti-concept of "duty," Ayn Rand called it "responsibility."

Or as Kevin Traynor has it, "You've got to get your concepts straight. Responsibilities are voluntary commitments to things or persons you love. Responsibilities don't conflict with rights. The concept you [the antagonist in the book] mean is 'duty,' not 'responsibility.' A duty is a fictitious, causeless obligation to someone else backed by nothing but a fraud or a threat of violence."

Mysterious Boat, p. 55.
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I think Rand would approve of Heinlein's definition of duty the way he, no doubt, approves of her definition of rational selfishness. I was an Army Ranger, I had to volunteer 4 times 1)for the Army 2)Airborne School 3) for Ranger Battalion and 4) actual "Ranger" school. It was a value for value choice that I took on that duty and the responsibility it entailed. Anyway, great read!
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Excellent explication of how an inherent characteristic of humans to admire a dutiful person is actually a rational feeling.
Robert O
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Brilliant analysis, simply put. He answers a personal question long misunderstood, and uses examples of two
of my favorite writers, to do so.

No doubt such epiphanies happen frequently to his readers. I look forward to reading more interesting and thought provoking commentary by Mr. Browne. Bravo, sir, from a new appreciator.

I also aspire as a writer, but until recently have had neither the time nor the inspiration. Your short piece has been the inspiration, and now that my duty has been done, I will have the time, deservedly, to address that long put aside desire.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.