Deep Thoughts

Duty to Others in an Age of Individuals

June 08, 2018

In a certain sense, no-fault divorce seems perfectly sensible. For, why should one person have to prove another’s wrongdoing in order to annul a marriage bond that, “at the whim of either partner,” is no longer wanted? Aren’t we free to choose our own way in life? Of course, having been deeply conditioned by personal autonomy, today most Americans probably find the legal option of no-fault divorce to be an unquestionable good. We are so used to deciding how we live that anything that runs counter to it strikes us as an undeniable evil.

Our confusion about marriage reflects our new idea of it, which is a rather strange one from a historical point of view. For ages a matter of practical necessity and survival for ourselves and our offspring, marriage is now determined by modern vain expectations: “happiness,” “personal fulfillment,” “what you deserve.” There is tremendous irony in the fact that, although in the past people were much less free than us, nevertheless their more limited circumstances were more conducive to healthy and satisfying relationships. As I put it a little while back in this magazine,

Where in the past, relationships were determined by need and certain customs that had grown up around it, this is no longer so, or anyway, not nearly to the degree that it used to be. Now the individual and his choices are sovereign. But given the egotism and inconstancy of human nature, this approach does not work. A great many people end up alone.

In the past, people were born into a culture from whose moral customs they’d deviate at their peril. A couple who had a child out of wedlock, for example, would be shamed by their fellows. Quite an unpleasant experience that certainly was, and yet not necessarily unjust, because negative emotions like shame and disgust serve to uphold moral and therefore social order. To eschew these in the name of “self-esteem,” “tolerance,” “inclusion,” and the like progressive therapeutic concepts is destructive.

Similarly, it is when spouses remain together (even if only for the children’s sake) despite having daunting obstacles to overcome that the unique value of marital duty is most evident. The problem today is that our laws are antipathetic to this. As West says, “Marriage loses its significance when the mother knows she will probably receive custody and child support if she expels the father from the house.”

The trouble with the individualistic approach to marriage and the family is that it produces an illusion of self-sufficiency, which functions to obscure how essential a sense of duty to others is to human life. Far from being agents who always are capable of choosing their own fate, we all just appear in the world without having asked to be born. Then, until adulthood, we are ruled by our parents or guardians. From beginning to end we depend on others as we strive to meet our needs and desires. And since events are uncertain, we never know when our natural vulnerability painfully will emerge, though that it will at some time or other there is no doubt. In old age, we return to something like our initial state of profound dependence. And of course, for many of us that state comes much sooner. Indeed, there are persons for whom it marks the whole of life.

In the past, a sense of duty to one another was built into the culture, in a reflection of shared religious mores. But when those shared religious mores are replaced by “rights” and an individualist perspective generally, such a sense of duty becomes more and more elusive. As a concept, the new perspective is contrary to the requisite check on individual volition that is central to the old virtue. Yet the greatest difficulty by far has to do with human psychology. Acting on a sense of duty to other people involves a certain affective motivation. The person who does so regularly has made it a habit, a vital part of himself. We are dealing here with a kind of cultural practice, and it’s not necessarily something that mere reason will prompt us to do. For good conduct is only minimally a result of reading and writing and argumentation. It’s all in the doing, from which it derives, in the main.


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