Duty! Thou Sublime and Mighty Name
In responding to duty, we testify to our worth and our dignity as free human beings.
By William Schweiker|June 28, 2022
The Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey reportedly said that social ethics in America is the "wasteland of utility." I take Ramsey to have meant that Americans are driven to maximize utility, that is, the satisfaction or use someone gets from services or goods. This puts every form of evaluation in terms of price and cost to the consumer. As President Calvin Coolidge said in 1925, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Morally, this outlook means that we ought to always seek the greatest good for the greatest number of relevant beings, as classical utilitarians might put it. The problems with utilitarian ethics are legion, but the point is that often Americans decide courses of action solely in terms of their consequences, their utility, and people’s interests. But this eclipses, as Ramsey knew, any other reason for action, say, doing one's duty.
Certainly, the appeals, pressures, provocations, threats, and intimidations visited upon the various witnesses before the "Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capital" expressed the land of utility. The assumption was that, of course, people would forego their duties and oaths out of self-interest or for the sake of some mass of people, general utility. Yet time and again witnesses claimed that they had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution and that they were therefore duty bound to do so even in the face of intimidation and threats. What are we to make of this fact?
Witnesses abiding by duties is a surprising turn of events, one that might well save the democracy from the corruption that has seeped into the nation. The appeal to duty is even more surprising in our jaded times when many are ready to find self-interest and pandering behind every human action, especially in politics. Admittedly, public congressional hearings are not the usual haunts of Sightings columnists, at least not this one. Yet the hearings have revealed how the claims of duty have stiffened the wills of many public servants to resist the seductions of power, intimidation, and even threats to life and limb. Important for Sightings, those claims were often rooted in appeals to the US Constitution, the Bible, and the divine.
To unpack the hymns to duty at the Select Committee hearings, some background is needed, both within the academy and the wider American society. Throughout these reflections, keep in mind what is at stake. As an election worker in Fulton County Georgia, Wandrea ArShaye "Shaye" Moss said after being named and targeted by the Trump campaign, "I’ve lost my name, I’ve lost my reputation, I’ve lost my sense of security." Even her mother Ruby Freedman was targeted and rues that she will no longer be able to go by "Lady Ruby." At stake are the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, but also, for these women, a kind of joy that, surprisingly, comes with duty.
Within the academy, particularly among those interested in the study of ethics, politics, and religion, it seems the idea of "duty" has been under siege. This is part of a broader attack on the European Enlightenment and especially the dreaded German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Practical Reason furnished the title to this column. Behind the criticism of duty in those modern terms one can find, sometimes explicitly and more often implicitly, a denunciation of Christian and Jewish ethics. After all, commandments are stock in trade in the biblical texts.
The attack on duty goes, much too briefly, something like the following. Moral duties, the critics claim, center on our obligations to others in ways that can be self-mutilating insofar as self-regard is judged to be immorally selfish. I should pour out my life in service to others under the strident demand of other regard. (This ignores the fact that Kant insisted on duties to self, and scripture is clear that one is commanded to love oneself.) Finally, morality restricted to duty misses much of what we usually think important for the human good, like love, joy, sympathy, and so on.
I do not mean to imply that presently there are no defenders of duty; there certainly are. Likewise, I am not suggesting that some of these criticisms of morality solely in terms of duty are off the mark; they are not. Nevertheless, the ability to make commitments, abide by our loyalties, and fulfill one's duties, surprisingly, manifests a kind of freedom not bound by self-interest or the whims of desire. That testimony to freedom is why the appeal to doing one's duty among witnesses at the congressional hearings is surprising. This kind of freedom is utterly different from the self-interested notion of freedom that is typical of American culture.
What is often missed in the dismissals of duty language in ethics is that duty presupposes freedom in a way that utility does not. That is so because in order to act on or to act against a duty presupposes that one is free. This freedom is not mere license, that is, the possibility of doing whatever one happens to want to do. True freedom is keyed to our dignity as moral agents, accountable for free action. So, in acting on a valid duty—say one's uncoerced oath of office—that dignity shines through. That is what Shaye Moss and Lady Ruby knew and hence the joy they experienced.
The pressures, provocations, and threats visited upon the various witnesses before the Select Committee focused on desires and self-interest rather than genuine freedom. President Trump said to Vice-Present Pence, "wouldn't it be cool" to have the power to decide the election? He told others that they would be great if they helped overturn the election results. Brad Raffensperger, Georgia Secretary of State, was hounded by Trump to find votes. He did not, claiming "Georgia’s election results were accurate." In the next days he received death threats and there was a break-in at his daughter-in-law’s home. Witnesses' phone numbers were put online while others received repeated calls from Trump's team. Shaye Moss and her mother have lost their names.
Supposedly, the Trump team believed that millions of Americans would benefit from such actions. The ends justified the means. Might makes right. Not only was Trump denying his own oath of office, but on the grounds of self-interest and utility he pleaded with others to forsake their oaths as well.
No doubt the witnesses had many reasons for their actions ranging from Shaye Moss's dedication to those she served, appeals to the Bible and to God, and a commitment to the Constitution. But the core of these testimonies, while different on the object of ultimate loyalty, cohere in Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers's simple statement: “I took an oath.” And he directly told Trump, “For me to do what you want me to do would be counter to my oath.” In a word, the Rule of Law, the protection of inalienable rights, the freedom of conscience, and so a politics in which the people are sovereign places a demand and a possibility on people. For whatever reason, people ought to and can rise above their fear, the lust for power, the pandering of self-interest, and the wishes of the powerful in order to abide by their duty. In doing so, they testify to their worth, their dignity, as free human beings.
See, "How Trump and his team pressured election officials and workers, according to the Jan. 6 committee" https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/january-6-hearings-june-23/index.html. All citations are from this newsfeed.