Can duties harm us? Can being obligated to do something of itself make a person worse off, at least sometimes?
Duties and obligations – or the conditions which trigger preexisting duties and obligations – are often greeted with resignation by those who have them just as if they were bad news, at any rate. Even if Yann quite likes his job teaching philosophy and understands that he may be assigned administrative duties as a condition of employment, he might also be quite disappointed when he remembers all the graduate student applications he must read tomorrow, just when he was hoping to spend a day on research. He just found out that things are a little bit worse for him than he thought. Shante might hate the very idea of a monster truck rally but go to one for the sake of a friend who wants her to have a “cultural experience.” What motivates her is a sense of duty to the friend, not any desire to see cars smashed; she would have preferred never to have been invited, because then she wouldn’t have to go.
Of course a good friendship is usually not a burden, and having obligations and filling them can indeed be part of what is good about a friendship. Such duties do not even seem pro tanto bad for those who have them. Joseph Raz puts it best:
Some activities and relationships which cannot be specified except by reference to duties are intrinsically good. Friendship is such a case in which the two properties coincide. Friendships ought to be cultivated for their own sake. They are intrinsically valuable. At the same time the relations between friends, the relationship which constitutes friendship, cannot be specified except by reference to the duties of friendship. When this is the case the justifying good is internally related to the duty. The duty is (an element of) the good itself. 
Let’s suppose it’s the duties themselves which can be said to affect our well-being in the cases above. If that’s so, then what makes their effect positive or negative? When do duties enhance our well-being, and when do they detract from it? Here’s one answer:
Obvious Account (OA): New duties benefit us to the extent that they increase our expected future well-being and harm us to the extent that they decrease it.
In this post, I want to suggest that OA cannot account for a way in which a duty can itself be a harm.
First, a few clarifications and notes. One key aspect of OA is that it claims the impact of new duties with respect to well-being is indirect. No duties are intrinsically good or bad for a person; they are good or bad only insofar as they affect his or her future well-being. It is also subjective: it is pro tanto bad (that is, apart from its honor, say) to be obligated to carry the flag in battle because it means a much greater chance of death, even if in this particular case one survives. The increased prospect of death in the near future is what makes it bad now.
The perspective to which this is relativized may not be that of the person who has the duty. That is, our would-be flag-bearer may for the moment be unaware that the previous bearer has fallen and thus be ignorant about their new duty, but we as observers can still reassess their prospects as soon as we know that it is their turn. However I am most interested in what to say about the case in which someone learns that they have a new duty.
“New” is also a bit of a term of art. One always has a duty to rescue innocent bystanders from runaway trolleys when one can safely and easily do so, but it is rare that one can safely and easily do it. And when one can, there’s an obvious sense in which one now has a duty which one didn’t before – or for those who prefer wide-scope readings, one now can only fulfill the duty by means other than the usual. That is what is new about the duty.
Now we’re in a position to see what’s attractive about OA, namely, that it accounts for the data thus far. Shante expects that attending a monster truck rally will be worse for her everything else equal, so she’s stuck with two unattractive options: either damage her friendship or attend the rally. Similarly, a large part of what it is to become someone’s friend is to gain some reciprocal duties, but this relationship is also characterized by the future goods it is likely to provide. That is why the duties of friendship are usually good, and perhaps that’s the sense in which they are “(element[s] of) the good itself”. (Many of these future goods may be things like the fulfillment of duties, of course, but it’s a virtue of the account that it can tell us how such goods will determine the duty’s impact on well-being: if it is likely that I will meet my duties without great cost, so much the better for me, and if I am unlikely to meet them without great cost, then so much the worse.)
But now consider the following case. The Comtesse du Roquefort is finalizing the papers for the donation of her Monet to the Rosenguild family, who have always been such dear friends, when she discovers a small slip of paper wedged into the corner of the frame. She dislodges it and discovers it bears a swastika and a description in German of how the Monet was looted from the Rosenguild estate during the war. The Comtesse could easily hide the note or destroy it, and she has no reason to think that anyone else knows of the unseemly provenance of the Monet. She can keep the matter a secret. But what does seem to be the case is that she now has a (new) duty to return the painting to the Rosenguilds.
In the usual course of things she may also have a duty to tell them exactly why she must now return it, but in order to make the case a little cleaner let’s say that on balance she does not – perhaps the Rosenguilds’ hardship during the war is always a sensitive subject, and it is best not to risk a wonderful bond between the families by bringing up old wounds. We should also assume that she greets the news itself that she has been in possession of looted art with mere curiosity. Perhaps it was her late husband who bought it, and as a result she does not feel personally stained by the discovery; she merely recognizes its implication for what she must now do.
My intuition is that the Comtesse is a little worse off for having this new duty, for it is now no longer optional from a moral perspective that she give the painting. Her reason for giving the painting must now include the fact that she owes it to them. She may no longer give it out of pure benevolence, at least insofar as she cares about acting well and for the right reasons. And that, I think, makes her options less appealing. (In fact I think it does so because now her best option is to give the painting because she wants to and because she owes it, and that is less appealing than the situation in which her best option is to give the painting out of pure, untroubled benevolence.) It seems to me that the Comtesse could sensibly bemoan having found the note for this reason.
But note that if that is so, the duty does not make her worse off in this case because it diminishes her expected future well-being. She was going to give the painting anyway, and (by stipulation) she can expect that her future relationship with the Rosenguilds will remain unchanged. It seems that it is (the recognition of) the duty itself which causes the problem, for directly as a result of that she cannot now act out of pure benevolence and with a clear conscience. So perhaps we have found a case in which a duty is, if not intrinsically bad for someone (seeing as the case depends a great deal on the particular circumstances, and under different ones it may not have been bad for the Comtesse to discover that duty), a good deal closer to being bad of itself than OA allows for. For in the Comtesse’s case, the duty itself seems to account for the worsening of her situation.
One may object that the discussion rests upon a false assumption, namely that duties can affect well-being themselves, either directly or indirectly. Perhaps what is bad for the Comtesse is the ground of the duty, the possession of looted artwork, not necessarily the duty itself. But the reply is either unconvincing or dependent on a particularly moralized view of well-being. The Comtesse is rather indifferent to the fact that she, for the moment, possesses looted artwork; if there were no scions of the Rosenguild family left, and thus no one to whom the art was owed, she would hardly be the worse off for having discovered the piece’s history. Or at the least, to say that she is worse off in spite of her indifference would be to advance a controversial view of well-being on which people who appear to be flourishing and fully aware of their situation may suffer from harms to which they are indifferent.
Of course, the case of the Comtesse leaves open the possibility that OA captures one way in which a duty can affect our well-being. We might even speculate that it accounts for the lion’s share, since it clearly is a social function of duties to constrain our actions by altering their future payoffs. But perhaps there are other ways duties and obligations can affect our well-being than OA countenances.
 Raz, Joseph. (1995) “Liberating Duties,” in Ethics in the Public Domain, revised ed. New York: OUP, p. 41. Thanks to Ahson Azmat for the pointer.