Revisiting Duty

I was brought to philosophy by means of Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy which I first encountered as an undergraduate many years ago.  I was drawn to Kant’s ethical position, I think, because he saw clearly that the heart and soul of ethics is the struggle between duty and desire, the obligations we have to ourself and others as opposed to the pleasure that we naturally prefer. I have had this struggle myself many times over the years.

Later on I found myself drawn to the novels of George Eliot and the reason, I think, is because she, too, saw the importance to human life of the struggle between the urge to find pleasure and the duties we all have as human beings. Kant was convinced that this duty stems from the fact that we are all persons and as such are “ends in ourselves” and never a “means to an  end.” That is, we ought to recognize the obligations we have to ourselves and others as persons and not use others for our own purposes. This thought is the basis for any meaningful discussion of human rights — another area of keen interest for Kant and also for George Eliot.

But in all of Eliot’s major novels we find the central characters wrestling between the sense of duty and the powerful urges of pleasure that motivate us so much of the time — some would say always, that even when we do what we ought to do (that is, do our duty) we do so because it gives us pleasure. I respectfully disagree.

Be that as it may, Kant and Eliot both saw the struggle between duty and pleasure as the major battle that determines what sort of person we are to become and what sort of life we will lead. Both thinkers come down in the end on the side of duty. Nowhere is this more evident than in Eliot’s seldom read but brilliant historical novel Romola — set in fifteenth century Florence and involving many of the major players we connect with that city at that time in Western history. It is a time following immediately upon the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the struggle within the city to maintain the stability he had brought to a volatile city at the height of the Renaissance.

In any event, the novel centers around the lives of Romola, a beautiful young woman, and Tito Melelma, a chancer (as the Brits would say) who wins her heart only to break it in the end. Tito, you see, is a man who discovers gradually that his only motivation is pleasure. Initially he struggles with his conscience that demands that he use the jewels his adopted father has given him in trust in order to ransom him from captivity at the hands of the Turks. But in the end he realizes that he doesn’t really want to give up the jewels and the respect and favor they have brought him in Florence; he engages in the most remarkable rationalization I have ever encountered  in order to persuade himself that he really has no duty whatsoever to his adopted father — who saved him from poverty and despair and carefully raised and nurtured him into a scholarly and disarming young man whose brilliance and charming smile easily won over those around him. And this included Romola, as it happens.

Eliot spends en entire chapter describing the remarkable process of rationalization during which Tito persuades himself that he has no duty whatever to his father. In the process he persuades himself that the jewels his father has entrusted to him are really his and there is no reason whatever to think that he must give them up in order to save the life of an elderly man who is nearing the end of his life while Tito its just beginning his own. Indeed, Tito reasons, his father may not even be alive. Why spend the best years of his young in what may well be a pointless endeavor?

In the process of rationalization — during which he (like the rest of us) persuades himself of the strength of reasons that support his desires rather than those reasons that might lead him to do his duty in opposition to those desires — Tito’s conscience dies and he becomes desensitized to the pain and suffering of others while immersed in the river of pleasure he is convinced gives his life meaning.

“. . .but could any philosophy prove to him that he was bound to care for another’s suffering more than for his own?”

A novel such as this will not appeal to many of us today because so few of us would see any reason not to side with Tito who fears only those things that might rob him of pleasure. Can we even begin to understand why there might be a struggle going on within his soul? We tend to think little about the duties we all have to ourselves and to others out of a preoccupation with the here and now and the satisfaction of those desires that tend to motivate us most strongly while the nagging voice of conscience is silenced in the process.

I speak in generalities, of course. And there are those who prove the rule, exceptional people who would side with Kant and with Eliot in insisting that we are persons with obligations that define us. But we might do well to ask ourselves how many of us would agree with Tito that “the end of life is to extract the utmost sum of pleasure”? I do wonder.