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.