Something to think about: duty, the ethics and reciprocal of it

`Thinker on a Rock` Barry Flanagan at U.S. National Sculpture Garden

As I discuss these, I will move freely among military, voting, and medical contexts to illustrate these overarching themes.

Duty to vote

A  recent discussion on the website DemocracyXchange  (, revealed research results about what motivates people to vote.  One researcher noted that among older voters, “duty” was commonly mentioned.  Not so among the younger voters.  He commented that he thinks duty to vote is not a concept to which we will return.

What is duty?  Is it something from the past, its essence lost?  Or does its meaning persist, but not labelled as such?

I’m not going to seek a dictionary or Wikepedia for a definition.  I have not come across recent books on duty, except Robert Gates’ book Duty, which is really about his career in the CIA and Defense Department.  I will not refer to modern computer games with duty in the title.  I am old enough to know what duty is.

Duty is what you do in response to understood, but not explicit, expectations by society and/or tradition (e.g. the motto of Canada’s Royal Military College “truth, duty, valour” and the U.S. Military College “duty, honor, country”).  Sometimes it is passed down to younger generations, as in the American Boy Scout Promise “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…” and the Canadian version which cites the queen rather than country. But not always.

People today are likelier to speak of specific duties, rather than a grand concept of duty.  The Canadian Royal College of Medicine has a list of physicians’ and patients’ duties (see The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada: Medical Ethics: Past, Present and Future).  Likewise, the e military have a duty roster, which lists who has particular responsibility for a specific function during a particular time or shift.  But these are simple subsets of a grander concept.

An example:  duty in the military

Being the son of two Marine officers who served during WWII, and often in the company of their friends from the Corps and the Navy, I was immersed in the concept of duty.  It was obvious that one had a duty to defend the country, and perhaps continue the family history of service.  But the war in Southeast Asia made them second-guess.  My parents were not convinced that the Vietnam War was a good war, and still had major criticisms of the futility of the Korean War.  They were unenthusiastic about my potentially being drafted, and urged that I get officer training and select my service, not insisting that I be a Marine.   As they watched the death toll rise among Marine junior officers in Vietnam, they did not resist my choosing the Air Force.

Things were changing.  Everyone in my generation was aware of that war, and many were opposed even within the services (after all, a draftee was not consulted about political views).  Conscientious objectors were defined as those opposed to all war, not just to a particular war, so many could not do their duty without actual military service.  On active duty I learned that, while saluting was the proper form of greeting outdoors, indoors my generation were likely to greet each other with the peace sign, even while “on duty,” i.e., in uniform, in the office.

We had often heard the old saying, “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die.”  But in 1968 at Strategic Air Command (long ago morphed into the Strategic Command) headquarters, all officers were required to report to a massive hangar to hear an address by the new CINC.  He told us that there may be people who were so elevated that they could not explain their decisions to subordinates, “but that doesn’t describe any of you here.”  Boy, did that say a lot, and it had its effect on our concept of duty.  Duty did not mean woodenly obeying orders without question.  In officer training I learned much about the trials at Appomattox, and Nuremberg, and was well taught about the Geneva conventions.  Duty apparently required informed consent which, of course, is the deep subject of this blog.

Our oaths as officers pledged us to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  That certainly required careful thought when receiving orders.  Everything I read these days by and about those who serve in the U.S. government suggests that individuals must satisfy themselves as to the lawfulness of orders and directives.  They must  interpret the oath’s requirements, and discern whether they have the duty and the moral courage to defy an unlawful order, as well as the power to do so effectively (see anything written lately by Sally Yates or Jack Goldsmith; also To Start a War:  How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, by Robert Draper; Deep State:  Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law, James B. Stewart; In Deep:  the FBI, the CIA, and the Truth About America’s “Deep State”, David W. Rohde; Rage, by Bob Woodward; Unmaking the Presidency, by Susan Hennessey; A Warning, Anonymous; and Compromised:  Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump, by Peter Strzok).  At least since the Obama administration there has been ambivalence about this (see Risa Brooks’ “Paradoxes of Professionalism:  Rethinking Civil-Military Relations in the United  States”; and Confront and Conceal, by David E. Sanger.)

Reciprocal duty – the ethical requisite

Too, there is the question whether these peoples’ public duty is more important than their duty to family.  A Pennsylvania official recently said that she could either vote to question the election results, or her home would be firebombed.  She is put in a position which should not occur.  Hers is not the only duty here:   the State has a duty to protect her and her family so that she can do her duty to the public.  There is always a reciprocal to any duty.  Ethically, I think, the obligations of her duty to the public do not exceed those of the State to her.

This need for, and heavy responsibility of, duty are found now in the examples of election officials across the U.S. whose lives, and those of their families, are threatened quite literally by violence and intimidation, to the point where they hire their own personal protection.  That people should threaten them and the rightness of their doing their duty to ensure fair and proper voting in that democracy, is abhorrent.  These officials should be honoured, and protected.

There has long been reason to question whether duty should be more important than individual decisions.  After the Pentagon Papers was published in the New York Times, the Stars and Stripes, the newspaper distributed/available to every U.S. service person in the world, published it also.  Imagine being on Guam with the 8th Air Force, bombing southeast Asia, while reading that we had been brought into the war on false pretenses.  Imagine knowing that your subordinates were reading this, too.  I was proud to see the Stars and Stripes publish,  because it showed how much confidence there was in our sense of duty – that those of us serving would continue to try to win the war and somehow justify the sacrifices of our comrades, even though our official reasons were lies.  It showed what freedom really meant – that we could be shown the treachery of the Administration, yet continue to serve and do the things which actually protected the country (the Cold War was still very real.  So were the nuclear weapons).  Stars and Stripes had a duty to the freedom of the press.  Our duties to our dead comrades, and our duties to each other, were obvious.  But we did not have blind duty.

While at SAC headquarters, I participated in the local Toastmasters group.  The only junior officer, I was among senior officers from the several services.  I remember vividly some of their presentations about what was going on in Vietnam.  One Marine lieutenant colonel talked about the battles at Hamburger Hill, and listed the deficiencies in supplies, planning, and support which caused him and others to lose men unnecessarily.  He felt he had failed his duty to them, and that the upper echelons had failed their duty to him and to them.  I listened carefully to the discussions later over lunch, and saw these officers’ rage at the conditions there.  I hadn’t yet had an overseas tour, but when I did get posted to lead a group of B-52 conventional weaponeers, remembered those speeches and discussions.  They heightened my own sense of my duty to my subordinates, and to those whose fighting abilities would be affected by our work.

Our duty to the greater cause is moderated by the cause’s duty to us (see above also).  A government, and the society that votes it in, has a duty to the military to set only missions for which it is willing to equip the military, and for which there is time to prepare.  There is a duty to listen to the military advice about likely future events so that the military will have time to prepare and train.  And when all is said and done, the government/society/country have a duty to the dead, wounded, PTSD-suffering, and retired vets, to do all possible to make them healthy or keep them healthy.  Also to support their families with appropriate financial provision and counselling.

Duty in medicine

I recently had an argument with non-medical people who insisted that health care providers have a duty to go into whatever crises they may be sent, without thought for their own health, or their families.  They insisted that even retired physicians and nurses have duties to return to practice to staff hospitals, nursing homes, and other health centres.  I argued that (at the time) it was already known that there was insufficient personal protective equipment and that preventive measures in the general population had only just begun.  It was also known that organizations charged with warning about such things, had been ignored by our federal government.  Therefore the medical peoples could and should evaluate their duty in the context of needless risk, risk caused by long-term negligence of hospital maintenance, improper procedures in nursing homes, and chronic underfunding of public health organizations.  I believe that the medical personnel do not have a duty greater than the duties of the others, that they have an ethical right to use discernment, and a duty to preserve their families’ health and their own.  Likewise, those who maintain equipment, who fund and maintain hospitals, and who oversee funding for public health, have a duty to the medical people and to the citizenry in general.  Duty is not a single dimensional ethical quality.

The public also have a duty to the health professionals. In these days, in Canada and the U.S., it is possible that the health systems could be overwhelmed, unable to meet not only the needs of the usual non-COVID patients but perhaps not the total number of just COVID patients either. This is a matter of not simply numbers of patients compared with facilities and numbers of staff, but the fact of exhaustion since March among staff.  They are wearing out; their numbers are decreasing because some are contracting the disease.  I have friends who live across the street from physicians and nurses.  They see them staying by themselves in trailers in their driveways, to keep their families safe as they serve their patients.  This is horribly unfair to them and their families.

Those in the general public whose primary concern is their right to mingle as they wish, shop and party and worship when, where, and as they wish, without precautions, should ask themselves whether they have the right to cause such overwhelming problems.  Surely they have a reciprocal duty to the health workers, even if it means curtailing their own “rights” for the others’ sakes.

Voting as a duty

Let’s return to the beginning of this post, the subject of voting as a duty.  The more I experience the nature of politics, the more I question whether merely voting on the slate of candidates put forth at election time, is really the fulfillment of duty.  I know from many years as a volunteer in politics in different parties in different countries, that it would be foolish to assume that we are being presented with a list of only highly respectable contenders who would well fill the duties of elected office.  Our duty in a democracy goes ‘way beyond voting. It includes carefully examining the candidates, the issues, the record of parties, governments and candidates, and participating in the process that brings forward the candidates.  Duty to vote really includes vetting the candidates and parties, exercising informed consent or dissent to how we are given the very choices on which to vote.  We must exercise informed consent or dissent all along the process; just voting at the end of the process, is not a fulfillment of duty to vote.

The word duty may not call to younger people to vote as did earlier citizens.  And, if it has meant blind duty regarding the political processes, it is well thrown away.  But if it can mean active and informed participation in the political processes including voting, well, perhaps those phrases, rather than the word, define the good things we need today. If the word duty does not serve well, no real loss.

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