Duty (from “due,” that which is owing, O. Fr. deu, did, past participle of devoir; Lat. debere, debitum; cf. “debt“) is a term that conveys a sense of moral commitment to someone or something. The moral commitment is the sort that results in action and it is not a matter of passive feeling or mere recognition. When someone recognizes a duty, that person commits himself/herself to the cause involved without considering the self-interested courses of actions that may have been relevant previously. This is not to suggest that living a life of duty precludes one of the best sorts of lives but duty does involve some sacrifice of immediate self-interest.
Cicero is an early philosopher who acknowledged this possibility. He discusses duty in his work “On Duty.” He suggests that duties can come from four different sources:
- a result of being human
- It is a result of one’s particular place in life (your family, your country, your job)
- It is a result of one’s character
- One’s own moral expectations for oneself can generate duties
From the root idea of obligation to serve or give something in return, involved in the conception of duty, have sprung various derivative uses of the word; thus it is used of the services performed by aminister of a church, by a soldier, or by any employee or servant.
Many schools of thought have debated the idea of duty. While many assert mankind’s duty on their own terms, some philosophers have absolutely rejected a sense of duty.