Honor and Duty

Presented at the November 1, 1998 services of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Honor and duty are important concepts but, like so many important things, they are not objectively demonstrable. They are not "out there" among the measurable entities and features of the world that we share.

Yes, there are social relationships and behaviors to which the terms "honor" and "duty" can be attached. But these are not the things that people live and die for. The significance of "honor" is not contained in a purple heart, or in a trophy, or in a title or rank, no matter how multisyllabic and no matter how many parades there are or how loudly the trumpets blare. It does not consist in taking an oath, or in professing a belief or principle, however solemn, marvelous or sugar-coated. Because honor doesn't come from anything that anyone says or does, despite what many think. That is because honor doesn't come from the opinion of others or how you behave. Honor comes from how you live and what you do in the privacy of your own internal, solitary, personal inner sanctum, deep in the impregnable fortress of your own mind.

Oh, yes, people are always trying to describe and explain what goes in their own thinking and feeling so as to account for their actions to others. But we also know that people sometimes lie or are mistaken about such things. That is, they make excuses to others and to themselves, sometimes knowing that they are false and sometimes believing them, or wishing to believe them, even when it asks too much of anyone's imagination to believe them.

Perhaps there really are people on death row who have repented and are now ready to become model citizens. How can anyone say for sure that there aren't? Well, when they say that they've discussed the matter with God I think we can be pretty sure that someone is being fooled. But, seriously, it may very well be that, right now while I may seem to be talking a good story about honor and duty, I am, in reality, just thinking about how to fill up the time until we can beg you for money. How can you know for sure? You can't. Only I can know. And I could concoct some equally conceivable, if just as implausible, scenario that would put you, my dear listeners, into an equally poor light. And how could I know that it wasn't true? I can't. Again, only you can know.

Or can you? Can I? For all we know, we may be fooling ourselves. Because, very often, people are mistaken.

Truly, the subject of honor — we haven't even gotten to duty yet — is confusing enough to belong to the realm of religion. At least, there doesn't seem to be any objective or scientific facts or principles to account for the uncertainties here. For sometimes we are mistaken in bestowing honors on dishonorable people. At other times we are mistaken in suspecting the motives and so dishonoring those who are honorable. Again, there are people who blame themselves and wallow in guilt for minor and/or imagined crimes. But then there are people who are full of self-esteem and exude self-confidence, but who are also among the last people in the world to deserve their own self-regard.

So what are the absolute grounds or ultimate criteria on which can be hung the idea of honor? There are none. Like the concept of morality, it is one which can be perceived only subjectively, in the final analysis. Yet this doesn't mean that honor, any more than morality, is whatever anyone wants it to be. In fact, there happens to wide agreement about what is honorable and dishonorable, except when people get confused by supposing that there is some absolute, objective, ultimate criterion of being honorable, like being a member of a particular race, religion, or even a political party. To the extent that people agree about what brings honor and what brings dishonor, it's because they apply reason to the problem of how one ought to live and act and, in particular, to the problem of what our internal mental state should be in living the good life and doing what is right. And the general answer to the question is that there is honor in doing what is right for the right reasons. That is, we can justify our having self-esteem by our understanding that we have lived our lives as best we knew how as we have lived.

Now for some people — too many people, in fact — doing their best means no more than doing what they are told. That is the easy way, of course. But for Freethinkers it means surrendering themselves to a truly "Higher Power," which is that of thought. For Freethinkers, facts and reason and the principle that supports them both are paramount. For our bedrock belief — our "faith" if someone insists — is that it is possible to make sense and to gain understanding from our experience. Indeed, there is a limitless opportunity to acquire knowledge and understanding: of the universe, of ourselves, and of others, though there is a limited time in which to take advantage of the opportunity.

Ayn Rand tried to put the idea of "honor" in a nutshell when she wrote that, "Honor is self-esteem made visible in action." That is almost it, in my view. I suggest to you that, "Honor is justified self-esteem made discernible to ourselves in our thoughts and actions." It is justified when it is in accordance to our best understanding of both our internal experience and objective reality. It is discernible when we or others appreciate our thoughts and actions for what they are, or for as close to what they are as they may be. And, of course, since all these things are continually expanding, unfolding, and, we hope, improving, "honor" is a work in progress to some degree, just as we are.

Now the idea of duty is at the same time very different from and very like the idea of honor. To begin with, we can dispense, as we did for honor, with the idea that duty stems from ceremonial or legal niceties. This is even clearer for duty than for honor. People can swear to "love and cherish until death do they part," they can bear children, and they can sign contracts and loan papers promising all manner of things. But no one can be made to feel a duty that they do not feel. So, again, when I talk about "duty," I am talking about a sense of duty that we feel (or not) in the privacy of our own internal, solitary, personal inner sanctums, deep in the impregnable fortress of our own minds.

Any Rand grasped this as well. But while she approved of the concept of "honor," she thoroughly disliked — indeed, condemned — what she called the anti-concept of duty. An anti-concept, in turn, she defined as,

" … an artificial, unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The term 'duty' obliterates more than single concepts; it is a metaphysical and psychological killer: it negates all the essentials of a rational view of life and makes them inapplicable to man's actions."

Ms. Rand's objections to the notion of duty led her to find fault with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's analysis of morality in his The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morality. Or perhaps it's the other way around. But here's Any Rand again:

"The arch-advocate of 'duty' is Immanuel Kant; he went so much farther than other theorists that they seem innocently benevolent by comparison. 'Duty,' he holds, is the only standard of virtue; but virtue is not its own reward: if a reward is involved, it is no longer virtue. The only moral motivation, he holds, is devotion to duty for duty's sake; only an action motivated exclusively by such devotion is a moral action ... If one accepts that nightmare in the name of morality, the infernal irony is that 'duty' destroys morality. A deontological (duty-centered) theory of ethics confines moral principles to a list of prescribed 'duties' and leaves the rest of man's life without any moral guidance, cutting morality off from any application to the actual problems and concerns of man's existence. Such matters as work, career, ambition, love, friendship, pleasure, happiness, values (insofar as they are not pursued as duties) are regarded by these theories as amoral, i.e., outside the province of morality. If so, then by what standard is a man to make his daily choices, or direct the course of his life?

In a deontological theory, all personal desires are banished from the realm of morality; a personal desire has no moral significance, be it a desire to create or a desire to kill. For example, if a man is not supporting his life from duty, such a morality makes no distinction between supporting it by honest labor or by robbery. If a man wants to be honest, he deserves no moral credit; as Kant would put it, such honesty is "praiseworthy," but without "moral import." Only a vicious represser, who feels a profound desire to lie, cheat and steal, but forces himself to act honestly for the sake of 'duty,' would receive a recognition of moral worth from Kant and his ilk."

Any Rand, of course, was an atheist. And her ideas have, as a consequence, influenced many Freethinkers who saw in her popular works the first accessible approach to these important questions that was uncontaminated by supernaturalism of any kind. But I think Ms. Rand goes overboard in her critique of duty.

The works of Kant are exceedingly difficult to read. But I think a careful reading of him shows that he did not so much argue that one cannot be virtuous if one wants to do or enjoys doing one's duty. Rather, he pointed out, quite rightly, that under such circumstances the very notion of "duty," of doing something because it is right, is meaningless. For if someone does their duty because they want to, what happens if they should decide that they don't want to? If, for example, a brain surgeon loves to do brain surgery but, right in the middle of a very difficult and challenging case, she suddenly remembers that her child needs to be picked up from daycare, it would be a violation of her duty to walk out in the middle of the operation. Would it be praiseworthy if she stayed and made other arrangements only because she feared the possibility of adverse consequences, such as a lawsuit or damage to her reputation and livelihood? What if she were retiring the next day and had already moved all of her assets to a foreign country? Why should she have any devotion to duty when once there is no longer any personal material benefit to her in desiring to be honest, much less in earning some "moral credit" from Ms. Rand or, for that matter, "from Kant and his ilk?"

What Kant and others have realized, and what seems to have evaded Ms. Rand, is that a duty-based (deontological) theory of ethics cannot amount to "a list of prescribed 'duties." Because, inevitably, one thing on the list will conflict with another. This is why Kant took such pains to develop his theory of what he called "the categorical imperative." This is the idea that one should "never act except in such a way that one cannot, at the same time, will that the maxim according to which one is acting should become a universal law."

Now as we have heard before, this amounts essentially to the "do unto others" formula, except that Kant went to the trouble to arrive at in a painstaking way. And it is difficult to see what there is that could be considered objectionable in it. For Kant isn't saying that it's wrong to do what you like or what you enjoy, such as spending time with friends, playing with your children, or even working overtime to advance your career or whatever. But what he is saying is that when these desires conflict, the consideration that takes priority is whether you could approve of others resolving a conflict in the same way that you choose to do. That is, would our hypothetical brain surgeon want it to be generally accepted that it was fine for doctors to abandon their patients?

The idea of duty is also completely compatible with the sort of far-reaching conception of morality of the sort that Ayn Rand advocated, one that balances short term satisfaction with longer-term effects and that considers facts and reason (including the principle of causality) to be the governing determinants in the analysis. Ms. Rand, of course, was primarily interested in discrediting the idea that just because someone has something that they have a responsibility to give it away to someone "less fortunate." But this is not precluded by Kant's notion of duty, you see, especially when it is assumed that everyone ought to care as much (or even more) about the long-term consequences of human behavior as much as about the short-term.

What would Ayn Rand have to say, for example, about the people who willingly allowed others to board the lifeboats while they themselves went down with Titanic? What would she have to say about a child that worked hard in school to eventually make a modest living while his playmates became entrepreneurs in the crack cocaine business and enjoyed much greater material success? Or how about John Glenn today, as Space Shuttle tourist, versus John Glenn in 1962, who essentially was the first to take the place of a monkey in the fledgling American space program?

I want to suggest that perhaps honor and duty have even more to do with each other than is usually assumed. For people commonly suppose that if you do your duty you will get honors, even though it is no real honor to do your duty. That's the way the John Glenn Shuttle flight is being promoted, after all. Mr. Glenn is now honored because, in 1962, he did his duty. This is certainly how President Clinton sees it. He was quoted as saying that,

Goodness knows, for a lifetime of service to us in the air and on the ground [voting "the right way" in Congress]. He's earned this chance.

But this is to become bogged down with honor and duty as perks and prizes for doing what you're told. That's the biblical way, of course. Follow those Ten Commandments and you're home free. Or, since even ten simple rules frequently get all tripped up over each other, get "saved" with a magical incantation and then you won't have to worry about not following the rules because it'll just be between you and God. Once the legal requirements are met, God has to do his duty and keep His promise, even if you don't.

Freethinkers, I cannot help but believe, know better than this. For we of all people ought to know about real honor and duty. Real honor is being permitted to do that which you very much want to do. It's living, breathing, and being in the company of our family and friends. It's experiencing something of this astonishing world and growing in our knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of it. It's reveling in our accomplishments, and celebrating our lives and the lives of others, not when we're dead, but while we're alive, which is to say,while we are. Most especially, it's doing these things in the company of others who also recognize these incomparable and literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for what they are.

And duty is suffering through life, tolerating its worst afflictions and adversities with courage. It's being robbed of the company of our family and friends, whether temporary or permanent, and struggling on regardless. It's having our noses rubbed in the terrible truth of the fragility of life and health, the transience of everything that matters to us, and the immeasurable extent to which what we can know is exceeded by our ignorance and relapsing stupidity. It's enduring the inevitable setbacks, large and small, the failures and defeats and the grief we feel for ourselves and others who never reaped the rewards that we had expected, planned for, and thought we had been entitled to. And, most especially, it's braving all of these things and determining to get through them not because we find any pleasure in doing so, or because we expect any reward for it, but simply because we have an inner sense that we must.

From this we can see that if we do our duty, we will earn the honor. But this is not because there is some eternal and immutable list of rules, the compliance with which is rewarded and the disregarding of which is punished by some cosmic policeman. Rather, it is because of simple cause and effect, the result of facts and reason which are, as I have said, both supported by the single axiom that it is possible to make sort of sense out of experience.

In closing, I think this is a good opportunity to say that it's been my distinct and continuing honor to be here every month and at other times with you, and my duty to confess that I often wish that I could do more and to do it better than I have.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1998 by Tim Gorski