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October 26, 2015 / Congau

Limited Duties

A duty is what we must do. Isn’t that a simple and reasonable definition that we can all agree on? We must do it, not because we are physically forced to, but because we are bound by some commitment that we have previously made. These “musts” are luckily limited in number since our commitments are limited.

Now some philosophers seem to want to extend our duties to the entire domain of morality. Then they actually count among the duties not only the things we must do, but also what we should and could do. That, alas, makes our duties infinite and there is no way we could ever fulfill them. There is literally no end to all the morally good acts that we could do.

We could for example help the poor, yes, we definitely should, but the moment that moral advice is made a duty, it opens up a bottomless ocean of moral requirements that can never conceivably be filled. Which poor are you to help? All the poor of this world? Impossible of course. As many as you can? How many is that? You could work night and day to alleviate poverty, but surely, even on the brink of exhaustion you could probably still do a little more, and a little more…

And then there are all the other good deeds that we could possibly do, and they would be neglected if we focused all our energy on poverty. We would have to ignore our duties to do our duties, and in any case we would be infinitely far from being dutiful. The saint would be no closer to it than the blackest sinner.

As a moral guideline the notion of duty becomes meaningless once it extends beyond all limits. What is the point of trying if you cannot even begin to succeed? Whenever you are told that there is something you must do, it has to be possible for you to actually do it, if not the requirement will have no meaning. You must not do what you cannot do. No one can demand that you do what is physically impossible, and therefore your duties have to be within the range of what is possible. Your duties are limited.

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