Duty as a Moral Good

Does the idea of a moral right or duty make sense independently of the idea of a moral good? If so, how? If not, why not?

Having a right or duty assumes value in the thing that the right or duty is oriented toward. This may or may not be explicitly known, and indeed in a given situation may not be able to be known other than as a trusted assumption. Nevertheless, some value will hold the place of a moral good at some level of a hierarchy of values.

Humans have a limited ability to process and hold data. Our reality however, for all intents and purposes, presents us with an unlimited data set. This overwhelming level of complexity presents a significant problem for both knowing and acting within the world.

To think and act from a sense of right and duty has been shown to be effective across human civilizations. Such an approach to morality ignores neither consequences nor virtues, it rather incorporates them into a functional whole.

Humans begin with certain limited innate values. Babies have basic approach and avoidance responses to sensations and perceptions. Humans also have the innate capacity to develop more values through learning. This capacity is large and flexible incorporating imitation, trial and error, and logic. These values are relations between the first person subject and objects or second person subjects. The innate and learned value scales of the second person subjects then take a place within the value scale of the first person subject. Thus there is an ever expanding and adjusting array of values and relations.

Let’s look at a common everyday example. Jill has an assigned chore from a parent to take the trash can to the end of the driveway every Wednesday morning. This is a duty. If she does it robotically without outwardly or inwardly questioning why, then she appears to be doing her duty without a reason or an idea of a moral good. She doesn’t know why she does it, and she doesn’t know what it’s for. Although this isn’t wholly true. She does it because she’s been assigned this chore by her parent. We can assume that there’s a history of doing and not doing things for her parent with all of the attendant complexities that go along with that over time. So there is a reason. This proximate reason is the smallest possible known reason. Without it the chore would not occur, unless there was a very unusual circumstance like sleep walking.

For there to be a duty there has to be a feeling of obligation, something that should be done, something that has to be done. Either a reason why Jill feels bound to perform the duty, or a reason why someone else would think that Jill should be bound to perform the duty.

From Jill’s perspective we could say that her reason is simply that her parent assigned her this task. Is this a moral good, to do what is directed by a parent? To think so we are saying that Jill sees a value in her duty to her parent. This can be for different reasons, and they aren’t exclusive. It could be to avoid punishment, for a direct reward, because other people have told her it’s important, because she knows her parent is tight on time and she likes helping, etc. This is a very simplified analysis, and yet we still find a moral good behind the duty.

It’s easy to see how such a thing is a limited view of an expansive set. The parent is getting Jill to put the trash can out to the road on Wednesday morning because it’s part of their duty to make sure the trash gets picked up, and they’ve delegated that task to Jill. Is there a moral good behind this activity?

Let’s say the parent didn’t see it as part of their duty to make sure the trash was taken out. Trash would pile up and overflow the container near the house. That would attract animals. Neighbors would complain potentially to the parent, and certainly to others through gossip, thus hurting the parent’s reputation. Also, someone would complain to the municipality which would issue a civil infraction ticket, have their department of public works collect the trash, bill the parent for the amount, if that wasn’t paid put it on the tax bill, and if that wasn’t paid take the property into government possession for back taxes. Also, trash would build up in the house after the can was full. This would attract mice. This could lead to the parent and/or Jill getting sick. This simple example does commonly happen, and even at these levels, on a regular basis in many municipalities. If such a thing were allowed to be too commonplace in a given area health and disease issues could plague the society on a larger scale. This counterfactual reveals some of the moral goods that could potentially be violated if the duty wasn’t performed.

This, however, doesn’t mean that Jill or even the parent have to be aware of all of these moral goods. Their level of awareness could range from a single proximate reason or all the way through understanding how the contemporary health and sanitary laws have evolved over millennia of trial and error across the rise and fall of civilizations. In practical effect for the limited context such a knowledge differential most likely makes no difference.

Here we can see the role that consequences and virtues play in dealing with duties. Emergent behavioral truths are discovered through interaction between people and with the world, they are communicated through history, narrative, and traditions, certain virtues are desired in people to achieve certain functions because certain duties have been found to be necessary to attain or avoid certain discovered consequences. Reality places selective pressure on the society for its continued existence, with morality accounting for behavior being a major selective feature. Therefore we have a convergence of morality across societies with similar selective pressures, and divergence where the selective pressures are able to be fulfilled differently or are themselves different.

The idea of the moral good that gives reason for a right or duty can be precise or imprecise, proximal or distal, singular or plural, limited or expansive, concrete or abstract, stable or dynamic. Duties are the action points that incorporate virtues and consequences into a functional unit selected to perform in a range of related contexts applied to a given context. These connections are inextricable and self-reinforcing.



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