chapter  1
16 Pages

Duties

Besides the duties which each of us owes to every other person in the world, such as the duty not to harm them or the duty to come to their aid if they are in dire need, each of us also owes a variety of duties only to particular people or to particular classes of people. 1 We owe duties to family members; friends; neighbours; colleagues; members of our clubs, unions, parties and places of worship; and to our compatriots. These latter kinds of duties are ‘special duties’ in contrast to the universal duties which each person in the world owes everyone else. Special duties appear no less powerful or urgent than universal duties, and indeed often they appear more so, as shown by the rather tired example of a person faced with the choice between rescuing a family member or a stranger from a fire. While rescuing people from fires is a predicament few are ever faced with, special duties owed to people with whom we share a relationship are pervasive, tangible and concrete; and they form much of the substance of our social lives. Parents care for and nurture their children, and those children, when they grow up, provide special support for their parents. Friends look out for one another and try to help when times are hard. Colleagues assist each other as they work on common projects. Compatriots obey the laws of the states in which they are citizens, and they meet wider civic duties such as voting, saving for their pensions and practising environmental responsibility. Moral and political philosophers are fond of elaborating abstract principles of rights, obligations and justice to guide our social interaction and regulate our common world. At the same time, however, the fabric of that world is substantially comprised by the relationships between people who owe one another special duties.