The Modernization of Duties

The conventional belief about the well-known dichotomy of duties and rights is that the former are premodern and the latter are modern. Some have celebrated “the age of rights” while others express concern that modernity takes “rights talk” too far. There is a human rights movement, as if duties require none. The last American secretary of state ostentatiously called together a “Commission on Inalienable Rights,” but no one would ever say that the president he served took personal or political duties seriously. And while some philosophers have been subtle in recognizing that any right implicates a duty, our recent thinkers have mostly battled about how to justify the various rights that moderns claim. Conservative oracles instruct that rights come from God or nature (the Roman Catholics among them having overcome their modern anxiety that rights were liberal and relativistic), while liberals have bickered about whether to establish their foundations in contract, reason, or practices. At the height of postmodernism, academics mused about how rights could persist — as they clearly have — in “the age of interpretation.” The canonization of human rights at the end of the Cold War, as the international public morality of the end of history, called forth an entire library of writings on where they came from. But there is no interest in whether the duties of citizens or humans remain alive — or what their intellectual tradition looks like. The continuing interest in rights, and the commonplace that duties were superseded by them, misses something dramatic in our intellectual history. It obscures, or entirely overlooks, a great struggle to modernize duties. That struggle, one might even suppose, may determine nothing less than the future of our ethics and our politics. Certainly the character of liberalism, and even its political future, depends on a recognition of

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