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The definition of the term duty given by lexicographers is: "something that is due", "obligatory service"; "something that one is bound to perform or to avoid". In this sense we speak of a duty, duties; and, in general, the sum total of these duties is denoted by the abstract term in the singular. The word is also used to signify that unique factor of consciousness which is expressed in the foregoing definitions by "obligatory", "bound", "ought" by and "moral obligation". Let us analyse this datum of consciousness. When, concerning a contemplated acts one forms the decision "I ought to do it", the words express an intellectual judgment. But unlike speculative judgments, this one is felt to be not merely declaratory. Nor is it merely preferential; it asserts itself as imperative and magisterial. It is accompanied by a feeling impelling one, sometimes effectively, sometimes ineffectively to square his conduct with it. It presumes that there is a right way and a wrong way open, and that the right is better or more worthy than the wrong. All moral judgments of this kind are particular applications of a universal judgment which is postulated in each one of them: right is to be done; wrong is to be avoided. Another phenomenon of our moral consciousness is that we are tuted a hierarchical order among our feelings, appetites, and desires. We instinctively feel, for example, that the emotion of reverence is higher and nobler than the sense of humour; that it is more worthy of us as rational beings to find satisfaction in a noble drama than in watching a dog-fight; that the sentiment of benevolence is superior to that of selfishness. Furthermore we are conscious that, unless it has been weakened or atrophied by neglect, the sentiment attending moral judgments asserts itself as the highest of all; awakens in us the feeling of reverence; and demands that all other sentiments and desires, as motives of action, shall be reduced to subordination to the moral judgment. When action is conformed to this demand, there arises a feeling of self-approbation while an opposite course is followed by a feeling of self-reproach. Starting from this analysis we may expose the theory of duty according to Catholic ethics.

Duty in Catholic ethics

The path of activity proper and congenial to every being is fixed and dictated by the nature which the being possesses. The cosmic order which pervades all the non-human universe is predetermined in the natures of the innumerable variety of things which make up the universe. For man, too, the course of action proper to him is indicated by the constitution of his nature. A great part of his activity is like the entire movements of the non-human world, under the iron grip of determinism; there are large classes of vital functions, over which he has no volitional control; and his body is subject to the physical laws of matter. But, unlike all the lower world, he is himself the master of his action over a wide range of life which we know as conduct. He is free to choose between two opposite courses; he can elect, in circumstances inumerable, to do or not to do; to do this action, or to do that other which is incompatible with it. Does then, his nature furnish no index for conduct? Is every form of conduct equally congenial and equally indifferent to human nature? By no means. His nature indicates the line of action which is proper, and the line which is abhorrent to it. This demand of nature is delivered partly in that hierarchical order which exists in our feelings and desires as motives of action partly through the reflective reason which decides what form of action is consonant with the dignity of a rational being, comprehensively, and with immediate practical application to actions in those moral judgments involving the "ought". This function of reason, aided thus by good will and practical experience, we call conscience.

We have now reached the first strand of the bond which we know as moral obligation, or duty. Duty is a debt owed to the rational nature of which the spokesman and representative is conscience, which imperatively calls for the satisfaction of the claim. But is this the be-all and the end-all of duty? The idea of duty, of indebtedness, involves another self or person to whom the debt is due. Conscience is not another self, it is an element of one's own personality. How can one be said, except through a figure of speech, to be indebted to oneself? Here we must take into consideration another characteristic of conscience. It is that conscience in a dim, undefinable, but very real way, seems to set itself over against the rest of our personality. Its intimations awake, as no other exercise of our reason does, feelings of awe, reverence, love, fear, shame, such as are called forth in us by other persons, and by persons only. The universality of this experience is testified to by the expressions men commonly employ when speaking of conscience; they call it a voice, a judge, they say that they must answer to conscience for their conduct. Their attitude towards it is as to something not completely identical with themselves; its whole genesis is not to be accounted for by describing it as one function of life. It is the effect of education and training, some say. Certainly education and training may do a great deal to develop this impression that in conscience there is another self implicated beyond ourselves. But the quickness with which the child responds to its instructor or educator on this point proves that he feels within himself something which confirms his teacher's lesson. Ethical philosophers and conspicuously among them Newman, have argued that to him who listens reverently and obediently to the dictates of conscience, they inevitably reveal themselves as emanating, originally, from "a Supreme Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing, retributive". If, however, we accept Newman's view as universally true, we cannot easily admit that, as is generally asserted and believed, many men obey conscience and love righteousness who nevertheless, do not believe in a personal, moral ruler of the universe. Why may not the most uncomprimising theist admit that the moral guide which the Creator has implanted in our nature is powerful enough successfully to discharge its function at least in occasional cases, without fully unfolding its implications? One of the leading Unitarian moralists has eloquently expressed this opinion.

The profound sense of the authority and even sacredness of the moral law is often conspicuous among men whose thoughts apparently never turn to superhuman things, but who are penetrated by a secret worship of honour, truth and right. Were this noble state of mind brought out of its impulsive state and made to unfold its implicit contents, it would indeed reveal a source higher than human nature for the august authority of righteousness. But it is undeniable that that authority may be felt where it is not seen--felt as if it were the mandate of a Perfect Will, while yet there is no overt recognition of such a Will: i.e., conscience may act as human, before it is discovered to be divine. To the agent himself its whole history may seem to lie in his own personality and his visible social relations; and it shall nevertheless serve as his oracle, though it be hid from him Who it is that utters it. (Martineau, A Study of Religion, Introduc., p. 21.)

Nevertheless it must be admitted that such persons are comparatively few; and they, too, testify to the implication of another self in the intimations of consciousness; for they, as Ladd says

personify the conception of the sum-total of ethical obligations, they are fain to spell the words with capitals and swear allegiance to this purely abstract conception. They hypostatize and deify an abstraction as though it were itself existent and divine. (Ladd, Philosophy of Conduct, p. 385.)

The doctrine that conscience is autonomous, independent, sovereign, a law-giver deriving its authority from no higher source, will neither, logically speaking, satisfy the idea of duty, nor sufficiently safeguard morality. One cannot, after all, owe a debt to himself, he cannot lay a command on himself. If moral judgments can claim no higher origin than one's own reason, then under close, severe inspection they must be considered as merely preferential. The portentous magisterial tone in which conscience speaks is a mere delusion; it can show no warrant or title to the authority which it pretends to exercise when, under stress of temptation, a man who believes in no higher legislator than conscience, finds arising in his mind the inevitable question, Why am I bound to obey my conscience when my desires run in another direction? he is perilously tempted to adjust his moral code to his inclinations; and the device of spelling duty with a capital will prove but a slender support to it against the attack of passion.

Reason solves the problem of duty, and vindicates the sanctity of the law of righteousness by tracing them to their source in God. As the cosmic order is a product and expression of the Divine Will so, likewise, the moral law which is expressed on the rational nature. God wills that we shape our free action or conduct to that norm. Reason recognizing our dependence on the Creator, and acknowledging His ineffable majesty, power, goodness, and sanctity, teaches us that we owe Him love, reverence, obedience, service, and, consequently, we owe it to Him to observe that law which He has implanted within us as the ideal of conduct. This is our first and all-comprehensive duty in which all other duties have their root. In the light of this truth conscience explains itself, and is transfigured. It is the accredited representative of the Eternal; He is the original Imponent of moral obligation; and disobedience to conscience is disobedience to Him. Infraction of the moral law is not merely a violence done to our rational nature; it is also an offence to God, and this aspect of its malice is designated by calling it sin. The sanctions of conscience, self-approbation, and self-reproach, are reinforced by the supreme sanction, which, if one may use the expression, acts automatically. It consists in this, that by obedience to the law we reach our perfection, and compass our supreme good; while, on the other hand the transgressor condemns himself to miss that good in the attainment of which alone lies the happiness that is incorruptible. To obviate a possible misapprehension it may be remarked here that the distinction between right and wrong hangs not upon any arbitrary decree of the Divine Will. Right is right and wrong is wrong because the prototype of the created order, of which the moral law forms a part, is the Divine Nature itself the ultimate ground of all truth intellectual and moral.

Erroneous ethics

We have already touched upon the main weakness of the Kantian theory, which is to treat conscience as autonomous. Another mistake of Kant is that in his system duty and right are made coterminous. A moment's reflection is sufficient to perceive that this is an error. There are many conceivable good actions which one can do, and which it would be highly praiseworthy to perform, yet which no reasonable person, however rigorous his ideal of conduct might be would say one is bound to perform. Duty and right are two concentric circles. The inner one, duty, embraces all that is to be observed under penalty of failing to live rationally. The outer contains the inner, but, stretching far beyond, permits an indefinite extension to the paths of virtue that lead to consummate righteousness and sanctity. Every philosophic system which embraces as one of its tenets the doctrine of determinism thereby commits itself to the denial of the existence of moral obligation. Duty implies that the subject of it possesses the power to observe the law, or to disobey, and the power to choose between these alternatives what reproach can a determinist mentor logically address to one who has committed a wrong action? "You ought not to have done so"? The culprit can reply: "But you have taught me that free will is a delusion; that no one can act otherwise than he does. So, under the circumstances in which I found myself, it was impossible for me to refrain from the notion which you condemn. What, then, can you mean by saying that I ought not to have meted as I did? You reproach me; as well reproach a tiger for having eaten his man or a volcano for having ruined a village."

With regard to the existence of duty every form of pantheism, or monism, logically finds itself in the camp of determinism. When man is looked upon as one with the Infinite his actions are not really his own, but belong properly to the Universal Being. The part assigned to him in his activities, is similar to that played by a carbon burner in relation to the electric current generated by a dynamo. The Divine power passing through him clothes itself with only a seeming individuality, while the whole course of action, the direction which it takes, and the results in which it culminates, belong to the Supreme Being. If this were true, then lying, debauchery, theft, murder were equally as worthy as truthfulness chastity, honesty, benevolence; for all would be equally manifestations of the one universal Divinity. Then a classification of conduct into two opposite categories might still be made from the standpoint of results; but the idea of moral worth, which is the very core of the moral life and the first postulate of duty, would have vanished. Hedonism of every shade--epicurean, utilitarian, egoistic, altruistic, evolutionary--which builds on one or another form of the "greatest happiness" principle and makes pleasure and pain in discriminating norm of right and wrong, is unable to vindicate any authority for duty, or even to acknowledge the existence of moral obligation. No combination of impulses, if they are estimated from the merely biological or purely empirical standpoint, can, by any juggling of words, be converted into a moral hierarchy. The hedonist is doomed to find all his endeavour to establish the basis of the moral order terminate in "is", but never in "ought", in a fact, but never in an ideal. Lecky has neatly summed up the hedonist solution of the problem of duty: "All that is meant by saying we ought to do an action is that if we do not do it we shall suffer."

Pleasure, say the epicurean and the egoist, is the only motive of action; and actions are good or bad accordingly as they produce a surplus of pleasure over the pain, or contribute to or diminish welfare. Then, we ask, must I always pursue what seems to me the most pleasurable or the most remunerative? If the answer is yes, we are again landed in determinism. If the reply is that I can choose, but that I ought to choose what produces the most happiness, then I ask, why ought I to choose the course which produces most happiness or pleasure if I prefer to do otherwise? To this question the epicurean and the egoist have no answer. Besides, the most pleasurable conduct may be one that all reasonable men condemn as wrong, because it is injurious to some one else. Here the egoist is compelled to hand the difficulty over to the altruist. The latter endeavours to dispose of it by pointing out that the object of good conduct is not merely the agent's own happiness, but that of everybody concerned. But again, why am I bound to take into account the welfare of others? and the altruist is silent. The evolutionist of the Spencerian type intervenes with a ponderous theory that in gauging the measure in which actions produce welfare or diminish it not merely the immediate, but also and more especially, the remote results must be considered. He then proceeds to show that, as an hereditary consequence of our ancestors' experience that remote results are more important than immediate, we have come to fancy that remote results have a certain authoritativeness. Also, from unpleasant experiences of our ancestors, we inherit a tendency, when thinking of injurious actions, to think too of the external penalties which were attached to such actions. These two elements blending into one, give rise, we are told, to the feeling of moral obligation. So the common conviction that moral obligation has really any binding authority is a mere delusion. Spencer is honest enough to draw the inevitable corollary of the doctrine which is that our sense of duty and moral obligation is transitory and defined to disappear. Ethical writers of the "independent morality" schools have devised a beautifully simple way of escaping from the embarrassment of accounting for the validity of moral obligation. They ignore the subject altogether and refer the disappointed inquirer to the metaphysician. Ethics, they blandly declare, is a descriptive, not a normative science; hence that imposing array of works professing to treat scientifically of morals, yet calmly ignoring the pivotal factor of the moral life.

Historic development of the idea of duty

To trace the development of the concept of duty would be to review the history of the human race. Even in the lowest races there is to be found some moral code, however, crude and erroneous. Another universal fact is that the race has, everywhere and always, placed morals under a religious or quasi-religious, sanction. The savage, in a measure corresponding to his crude moral and intellectual development, witnesses to this universal impulse by observing inumerable customs because he believes them to have some sanction higher than that of his fellow tribesmen or their chief. The great nations of antiquity, Chinese, Chaldean, Babylonlan, Egyptian, saw in their deities the source or sanction of their moral codes--at least until the religious and the moral ideal became simultaneously corrupted. In Greece and Rome, likewise religion and morals were intimately associated, until religion proved false to its trust. The same phenomenon is found in the Aryan race of India and Persia, while the Semitic peoples, especially the Jews, always continued to look to religion for the reason of their moral codes. When classic paganism had introduced among the gods the vices of men, the ancient tradition continued to be vindicated by the poets, and by some of the philosophers. The magnificent testimonies of the Greek tragic poets, of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero to the superhuman origin of the moral law and duty need not be quoted here. But when religious tradition lost its force and philosophy became the guardian of morality a conflict of rival schools, none of which possessed sufficient authority to make its tenets prevail with the mass of the people, was the inevitable result; and as religious faith declined, the tendency to find a non-religious basis for duty became more pronounced. The consequence was that the idea of duty faded, and systems arose, which, like our present day "independent morality", had no place for moral obligation.

The unity of the moral and religious ideal was restored and rendered perfect by Christianity. The Gospel vindicated the Divine origin of duty, and declared that its fulfilment constituted the very essence of religion. This idea has been the chief motor force to raise the Western world out of the moral chaos into which denying paganism had dragged it. The doctrine that every man is an immortal being created by God to be united with Himself in an endless existence, provided that he observe the law of righteousness, in which God's will is expressed, sets forth the dignity of man and the sacredness of duty in their full nobility. The wickedness of moral delinquency reveals itself in this, that it is a sin against the Most High--an idea scarcely known to antiquity outside the Hebrew people. The Christian religion brought out more clearly and taught with the authority of God, the code of the natural law, much of which unaided reason developed only in hesitating accents and without the authority necessary to impose it effectively as obligatory on all. The Christian was taught that the fulfilment of duty is the one supreme concern of life to which all other interests must be made to bow and that its fulfilment is enforced by the most tremendous sanctions conceivable. The Gospel gave a satisfactory solution to the anomaly which had perplexed philosophers and misled them to erroneous doctrines concerning the meaning of the moral life. How can virtue be man's perfection, good, and end, when the fulfilment of duty means in many cases, the frustration of many natural desires and wants? The history of duty, replies the Christian, lies not all within the confines of earthly life; its ultimate goal is beyond the grave. The Christian doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and the sonship of man leads to a clearer perception of the chief duties and of their importance. Human life is seen to be a sacred, inviolable thing in ourselves and in others; woman the equal, not the slave of man; the family is ordained of God, and its cornerstone is monogamous marriage. The State, too, is placed on a firmer basis, since Christian doctrine teaches that it draws the warrant of its existence not from force, or a more consensus of human wills, but from God. Finally, the Christian law of love correlates the outer circle of righteousness with the inner one of strict duty. Love of God becomes the adequate motive for striving after the highest personal sanctity; love of our neighbour for the widest exercise of benevolence far beyond the limits of strict duty. In the person of the Master, Christianity offers to us the lawless Exemplar of the moral ideal, the perfect conformity of will and action to the Divine Will. His example has proved potent enough to inspire with heroic loyalty to duty "the millions who countless and nameless, the stern hard path have trod". The moral standards of our civilization have been developed and maintained by the efficiency of the Christian idea of duty. Contemporary conditions furnish unmistakable indications that these standard become debased and discredited when they are torn from the ground whence they sprang.


The obligation of living according to our rational nature is the parent of all particular duties. These are generally divided into three groups: (1) duties to God, (2) duties towards ourselves, and (3) duties to others.

(1) To God, the Supreme Master of the universe, our Creator, the All Holy, All Good, we owe honour, service, obedience, and love. These duties are comprehended under the general term religion. Since He is Truth itself, we owe it to Him to believe whatever He has revealed to us in a supernatural manner; to worship Him in the way which in revelation, He has taught us is most pleasing to Him; and to obey the authority which He has constituted (see CHURCH). Reverence due to Him forbids all profanity and blasphemy of Him or whatever is sacred to Him. Lying is an offence against His Divine nature, which is Truth itself. These generic duties cover all the specific duties that we owe to God, and embrace, besides, those duties which devolve upon us as members of the Catholic Church.

(2) Our duties towards ourselves may all be included under one principle: life, the goods of person, mental and physical, have been given to us in trust, with the obligation of using them to obtain our supreme good and end. Hence we may not destroy them, or abuse them as if we were independent master of them. Therefore suicide, abuse of our faculties, mental or physical, exposing our life or health to danger without a reasonable motive, are prohibited; as also are all actions incompatible with the reverence that we owe to our moral nature. We are bound to strive for the development of our intellect and for temporal goods as far as these are necessary to the fulfilment of the moral law. As duty is a debt to some one other than ourselves, we cannot, strictly speaking, use the term duties to ourselves. They are due to God; they regard ourselves.

(3) All our duties towards others are implicitly contained in Christian precept: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself". God wills the welfare of all men; hence the obligation of making His will the rule of mine binds me to will their welfare, and to order my conduct towards them with a due respect to the rational nature which they possess, and to the obligations which that nature imposes on them. The application of this principle gives birth to duties towards the minds and wills of others (prohibition of scandal and lying); to the lives of others (prohibition of murder, etc.); to their good reputation (prohibition of insult, detraction, or defamation of character).

As material goods are necessary to us in order to live according to the rational law, evidently God in imposing moral obligation wills also that we have at our disposal the means necessary to fulfil our duty. Hence arises that moral control over things which is called a right. The needs of a moral life requite that some things should be permanently under our control; hence the rights of ownership. Now a right in one person is nugatory unless others are bound to respect it. So to every right there is a corresponding duty.

Thus far we have sketched the line of duty incumbent on each one towards others as individuals. Besides these there are social duties. The primary society, the family, which is the unit of civil society, has its foundation in our nature; and the relations which constitute it give rise to two groups of rights and correlative duties--conjugal and parental. Besides the family, a wider, broader, association of man with his fellows is needed, generally speaking, in order that he may develop his life with all its needs and potencies, in accordance with the dictates of reason. God has intended man to live in civil society, and man becomes the subject of duties and rights with regard to the society of which he is a member. The society, too, acquires a moral unity or personality which is also the by the society to impose laws which constitute a binding obligation. This right, called authority, is derived from the natural law, ultimately from God. For, since He wills civil society as a means for the due development of human nature, He wills that authority without which it cannot exist. As the lower and animals cannot be the subject of rights we do not owe them any duties; but we owe duties to God in their regard. (see ETHICS; LAW; OBLIGATIONS).

About this page

APA citation. Fox, J. (1909). Duty. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fox, James. "Duty." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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