One of the most destructive anti-concepts in the history of moral philosophy is the term “duty.”

An anti-concept is 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 . . . .

The meaning of the term “duty” is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest.

It is obvious that that anti-concept is a product of mysticism, not an abstraction derived from reality. In a mystic theory of ethics, “duty” stands for the notion that man must obey the dictates of a supernatural authority. Even though the anti-concept has been secularized, and the authority of God’s will has been ascribed to earthly entities, such as parents, country, State, mankind, etc., their alleged supremacy still rests on nothing but a mystic edict. Who in hell can have the right to claim that sort of submission or obedience? This is the only proper form—and locality—for the question, because nothing and no one can have such a right or claim here on earth.

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 were to accept it, the anti-concept “duty” destroys the concept of reality: an unaccountable, supernatural power takes precedence over facts and dictates one’s actions regardless of context or consequences.

“Duty” destroys reason: it supersedes one’s knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions.

“Duty” destroys values: it demands that one betray or sacrifice one’s highest values for the sake of an inexplicable command—and it transforms values into a threat to one’s moral worth, since the experience of pleasure or desire casts doubt on the moral purity of one’s motives.

“Duty” destroys love: who could want to be loved not from “inclination,” but from “duty”?

“Duty” destroys self-esteem: it leaves no self to be esteemed.

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.

This is the sort of theory that gives morality a bad name.

In reality and in the Objectivist ethics, there is no such thing as “duty.” There is only choice and the full, clear recognition of a principle obscured by the notion of “duty”: the law of causality . . . .

In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awareness of the principle which the anti-concept “duty” has all but obliterated in his mind: the principle of causality—specifically, of Aristotelian final causation (which, in fact, applies only to a conscious being), i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.

In a rational ethics, it is causality—not “duty”—that serves as the guiding principle in considering, evaluating and choosing one’s actions, particularly those necessary to achieve a long-range goal. Following this principle, a man does not act without knowing the purpose of his action. In choosing a goal, he considers the means required to achieve it, he weighs the value of the goal against the difficulties of the means and against the full, hierarchical context of all his other values and goals. He does not demand the impossible of himself, and he does not decide too easily which things are impossible. He never drops the context of the knowledge available to him, and never evades reality, realizing fully that his goal will not be granted to him by any power other than his own action, and, should he evade, it is not some Kantian authority that he would be cheating, but himself.

A Kantian or even a semi-Kantian cannot permit himself to value anything profoundly, since an inexplicable “duty” may demand the sacrifice of his values at any moment, wiping out any long-range plan or struggle he might have undertaken to achieve them . . . .

The notion of “duty” is intrinsically anti-causal. In its origin, a “duty” defies the principle of efficient causation—since it is causeless (or supernatural); in its effects, it defies the principle of final causation—since it must be performed regardless of consequences.

The acceptance of full responsibility for one’s own choices and actions (and their consequences) is such a demanding moral discipline that many men seek to escape it by surrendering to what they believe is the easy, automatic, unthinking safety of a morality of “duty.” They learn better, often when it is too late.

The disciple of causation faces life without inexplicable chains, unchosen burdens, impossible demands or supernatural threats. His metaphysical attitude and guiding moral principle can best be summed up by an old Spanish proverb: “God said: ‘Take what you want and pay for it.’” But to know one’s own desires, their meaning and their costs requires the highest human virtue: rationality.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.