When Duties Harm

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.  [1]

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.

[1] 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.


15 Responses to When Duties Harm

  1. This is an interesting post. I have to confess I don’t share your intuition about the Comtesse’s case; if anything, I’d’ve been inclined to say she’s actually better off, insofar as now she has reason to believe that she is giving away the painting out of benevolence and out of duty, and it’s good to do things that are even better than they would’ve been. I think I’d be happy to learn that what I was going to do from benevolence is also in line with duty, and it’s especially nice to learn things in that order: I have no reason here to doubt my benevolence!

    • Paul Boswell says:

      Thanks, Daniel! I’m sure that many people in the Comtesse’s circumstances would have the same reaction you would: they would see their duty as an extra (good) reason to hand over the art. But I was trying to imagine someone who, although they see the duty as a reason, does not view it as a welcome one. The Comtesse in my example wants to make a pure donation.

    • Hmm but I guess I don’t think that’d be a reasonable reaction on her part. Or does it not matter to you whether the person’s preferences are reasonable? But then it’s just far easier to stipulate the right sort of examples into being, but that doesn’t show a lot I don’t think.

    • Paul Boswell says:

      I do agree that the example is better the more we can make sense of the Comtesse’s response. I just happen to think that her response is perfectly sensible, even if it is not our own. Why, after all, would it be unreasonable for her to react to the news of her duty as she does? Because it’s good for her to be able to give the piece for this other reason, and she fails to appreciate that fact? That begs the question of this thread, since the reason in question is the duty; that response simply asserts that the duty is a good.

      I think there’s a strong default presumption that people’s informed desires are guides to their well-being, and I can’t think of any good reason why that presumption would be overturned in this case. The Comtesse simply wants to be able to give the Monet in one way and not another. How is that any more irrational than preferring ogee arches to round ones for the way they look?

      What’s more, I think I would be conceding too much to paint the Comtesse’s reaction as uncommon. To me it seems obvious that people not only want to do certain things, they want to do them for certain reasons. Duties sometimes enable us to do things for reasons we would like, and other times they make it more difficult for us to do the things we want for the reasons we like. I think the Comtesse’s case falls in the latter category.

  2. It seems to me that you’ve set up a case like one Frankfurt describes in “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”, where X threatens Y to do Z even though Y already wanted to do Y. The “coercion” (Frankfurt is rightly unsure whether to apply the term to this case) doesn’t mean that Y wouldn’t do what they wanted to do _because they wanted to do it_ when they did Z; as proof of this we don’t think Y is less blameworthy when they Z. So, similarly, the Comtesse would still do Z (subbing in the right things here) _because it was the benevolent thing_; she can also be happy that in doing so she happens to fulfill her duty, while being sure (because of her prior willingness) that she still nevertheless does Z _because it was the benevolent thing_. Hence, her preferences would be irrational as you described them. Anyway, that’s the best sense I can make of her, but I could totally be missing something. It’s an interesting case.

    • Paul Boswell says:

      I agree that the presence of the duty does not imply that the Comtesse can no longer give the painting on her own account, or because she wants to, or whatever. If she does give it in this case it’ll be trivially true to say that she does it because she wanted to – it’ll be of her own volition as much as anything is. But I don’t see how that’s relevant. I guess I take it as obvious that if she gives the painting back purely out of benevolence, she’ll be acting a little bit less well from a moral perspective – much like a judge in a skating competition who gives the best skater the highest score, but only because she was bribed to give that particular skater the highest score before the competition began. Acting in such a way is usually bad for those who are not rational knaves, and I am supposing the Comtesse is not a rational knave. (There are of course some subtleties involving just when a person can choose the reasons for which they act, but I’m not sure the example turns on them. I could be wrong, though.)

      I don’t think of the Comtesse as irrationally uncertain about whether or not she’s truly benevolent because, as I understand her, she’s not uncertain about that. She simply would prefer to give the gift just because it was the nice thing to do, and neither in neglect of her duty (in the sense of the skating judge above) nor out of duty (perhaps because she thinks it cheapens the act, since it would be a common thing to give up a Monet in part because one is morally required to do so, and she wants to do an uncommon thing). As I understand her she no longer has the option of giving the painting purely out of benevolence, in the way that she would prefer.

    • Paul Boswell says:

      I wonder if this is part of the problem: you are pointing out that the Comtesse can still give the painting out of benevolence, and I am trying to say that, although that is true, the circumstances force her to acknowledge her duty: she either has to give the painting out of duty as well, or do it in spite of her duty. (That oversimplifies her choices, but it’s good enough for the dispute at hand I think.) Many people would regard this as unproblematic, but my Comtesse – rationally, as much as preferences can be rational – does not, because she wanted to give the painting neither out of duty nor in spite of it.

  3. And I want to say that she can comply with duty—she can do her duty (do what’s asked of her)—by giving the painting purely out of benevolence. This isn’t in spite of the duty, since she is genuinely complying with the duty. Her giving the painting purely out of benevolence simply happens to be in line with duty; if it weren’t, she would have to do her duty rather than give the painting, but this is a happy situation for her. In other words, the following are compatible:

    (1) She gives the painting purely out of benevolence.
    (2) She has a duty to give the painting to the Rosenguilds.
    (3) She fulfills her duty.

    Thus, she should be getting everything she can reasonably want here.

    • Paul Boswell says:


      (1) The skating judge gives Skater A the highest score just because she was bribed to give A the best score.
      (2) The judge has a duty to give Skater A the best score (because A is in fact the best skater).
      (3) The judge fulfills her duty.

      I don’t think the judge is getting “everything she could reasonably want here.” Again, rational knavery aside, she would be better off giving the highest score to A for a different reason.

    • Compare three “levels” of S’s fulfilling a duty to φ:

      (1) S φs but perhaps for a positively bad reason.
      (2) S φs but for reasons other than S’s having a duty to φ, but still for good (or at least neutral, if you want to separate out those cases).
      (3) S φs and S’s reason for φing are that it’s S’s duty to φ.

      You don’t have to think (1) is acceptable to think that (2) is acceptable. For my response to the Comtesse case not to work for the reasons you suggest, only (3) can be an acceptable way of fulfilling one’s duties. But (3) is way too strong; it’s got way more “moral fetishism” in it than the standard cases in the literature, and it’d make it so most of us rarely fulfill our duties. (2) seems quite reasonable (and sometimes I even think (1) is right, but I don’t need to argue for that here).

    • Paul Boswell says:

      I do think that doing only (2) is worse than doing (3) when also doing (3) is an option. It’s not required, obviously, since the only thing that’s required is fulfilling the duty.

      This gets at something I’m failing to understand about your comment – I’m not seeing these as obvious levels _of fulfilling a duty_, if that’s to mean that someone who does (2) is thought to have incompletely done their duty. I think they have completely done their duty (provided they know enough about what they’re doing). They simply have done it less well from a moral perspective.

      And again, that’s why I think the Comtesse is worse off. She can’t get everything she wants: she wants to act in accordance with all the duties that apply to her, and in the best way, but she also wants to give the painting exclusively out of benevolence. The discovery of the duty moves her from a situation in which (she believed) she could satisfy both her desires to one in which she cannot.

  4. Perhaps we just disagree on that moral question; I don’t think (3) is a better way of fulfilling a duty than is (2), so I would think a preference to that effect would be unreasonable. (I don’t have that much of an argument about that though besides vague gestures to moral fetishism.)

    • Paul Boswell says:

      Perhaps so! I do think (3) is morally better than (2), and I think that can be justified. But I’m not entirely sure my argument depended on that in particular. I think its success depends more directly on making sense of the Comtesse’s preference for performing an action for a particular reason, and how, for some people, the mere recognition of a duty can interfere with one’s ability to do that. I probably need to think of a more compelling example!

      And even if the moral claim is false, I’d be skeptical of convincing the Comtesse of unreasonability or fetishism; people can be reasonably hold false moral views, and I think the case isn’t really similar to moral fetishism. (I think of fetishism as a kind of case in which a person fails to appreciate some of the reasons which support an action, or to appreciate them in the right way. It seems that you want to say not that she’s missing out on the reasons to return the painting, but that she’s wrong to think she’s worse off for having the duty.)

      In any case, this has been a super useful discussion! It’s helped me greatly to think about what in particular was essential to the example.

  5. nilshennes says:

    Since Paul has given a subjective account of well-being, couldn’t he just change the Comtesse case by stipulating that the Comtesse is an unwavering Kantian? That way, the discovery of a duty requiring her to give-the-painting-to-the-Rosenguilds (GIVE) will mean that she can’t approach GIVE with the kind of indifference to motives (or, perhaps, indifference to the privileged-description-under-which she GIVES) that a non-Kantian (like Daniel) can.

    The difference Paul needs to secure seems to be one between the (perceived) moral worth – and thus, respective prospects for the Comtesse’s well-being – of (2) and (3). If the Comtesse cares about the reasons why she GIVES, not just that she GIVES, as a Kantian, this distinction is secured.

    I’m thinking of the Kant of the Groundwork:

    “To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g., the inclination to honour, which, if it is happily directed to that which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honourable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that, while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. Further still; if nature has put little sympathy in the heart of this or that man; if he, supposed to be an upright man, is by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because in respect of his own he is provided with the special gift of patience and fortitude and supposes, or even requires, that others should have the same- and such a man would certainly not be the meanest product of nature- but if nature had not specially framed him for a philanthropist, would he not still find in himself a source from whence to give himself a far higher worth than that of a good-natured temperament could be? Unquestionably. It is just in this that the moral worth of the character is brought out which is incomparably the highest of all, namely, that he is beneficent, not from inclination, but from duty.”

    To be sure, the Comtesse need be a Kantian all the way down; she might think onanizing and telling white lies is fine, for instance (though, OBVIOUSLY not at the same time: that’s SICK!!). Rather, she should be a Kantian with respect to her views of moral axiology, as per Kant’s claims above, and her desire to act in accordance with them.

  6. nilshennes says:

    *need not be a Kantian all the way down

%d bloggers like this: