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The continuing interest in rights, and the commonplace that duties were superseded by them, misses something dramatic in our intellectual history.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 that struggle, and on our support of it. Recovering the fraught but indispensable attempt to reclaim duties for a liberal or liberatory program is of far more than historical interest.
“Every legal culture has its fundamental words,” Robert Cover, the legendary Yale Law School professor, a guru in some quarters, remarked in 1988 in a classic essay on duties, “Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Order,” that has defined his intellectual legacy. “The basic word of Judaism is ‘obligation’ or mitzvah,” he continued, expressing the fallacy that if duties pertained to premodern ethics, then modernity — including liberal modernity — must be based on a successor and supplanting concept of human rights which has ousted duties, or subordinated them to a servile role in the culture of rights, with a kind of residual form of responsibility to acknowledge or vindicate rights. As Cover expressed it starkly, “the myth of Sinai is essentially a myth of heteronomy,” whereas “the myth of social contract is essentially a myth of autonomy.” Cover perfectly epitomized the conventional wisdom, according to which the philosophical and political situation is an either/or: duties or rights.
Though Cover’s account is the best-known version of this canonical view in recent American legal discussion, the myth is omnipresent. The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, defined premodern ethics in terms of role-performance. The scripts that our ancestors followed and bequeathed to their descendants “are part of my substance, defining partially at least and sometimes wholly my obligations and my duties.” Moderns, by contrast, are contentless, unobligated, anonymous: “lacking that space, they are nobody, or at best a stranger or an outcast.” Rights, MacIntyre held, are not just corrosive, relativistic, and solipsistic; they are also incoherent, having pried men (and possibly women) out of the realm of their performance of excellence.
Such voices are correct that in modern times the substance of ethics shifted in the direction of autonomy and self-making — thankfully so. But it is not true that duties were simply overthrown by rights. The change was incomplete. An ethics of duties, far from being simply usurped by one of rights, endured the great modern rupture. Indeed, consecrating a new culture of duties, a modern culture of duties, became a high intellectual and political goal. Recalling how this critical but neglected movement was accomplished, so as to complicate the familiar canard about human rights as a kind of usurper ideology through which moderns abjured duties (except those supporting rights), is my purpose in what follows.
Certainly it is true that, for millennia, duties — or obligations, or responsibilities — were the essential substance of religious ethics and thus the centerpiece of the history of ethical culture. This was true outside and inside what we used to call “Western civilization.” Whatever else world ethical traditions disagree about, they concur on placing duties at the center of their imaginaries, for the sake of God’s law or God’s will or human conformity with the natural order. Insofar as the whole history of humanity living under political rather than religious oppression saw their subaltern condition as morally justified, it was by an ethic of service — in the West, one cast by the long shadow of Rome in young men’s education, when they escaped or supplemented the religious call to serve the Lord. For the future of the city or the state, the worldly imperatives — the duties — of political security and political greatness mattered, too.
Looking back at the age of duties, moderns see oppression, and by and large they are correct to do so. None of the societies in which the ethos of duty was nurtured were open or free or (by modern liberal standards) just. But that is not all that we need to know about them. They were not just prisons. Moderns can be grateful to the old form of ethical discourse for sometimes insisting, as the great scholar of Judaism Isaac Heinemann established long ago, that the precise nature of our duties can be open to discussion, and that the discussion of duties, including religious ones, requires some effort at reason-giving. With the exception of a few Biblical laws that were known as huqqim, or laws for which no reason can be given or known (and there were only a handful of such impenetrable statutes), rabbinical Judaism, and later philosophical Judaism, developed a long and rich tradition of looking for reasons for duties. That centuries-long effort was condemned by obscurantist and fideist factions, which insisted that the whole point of duties is that they come to us without our asking why. The Roman thinker Seneca condemned Plato for giving abstract principles rather than just the letter of the law, thereby emboldening people to debate the foundations, and some rabbis, in their understanding of Jewish law, were similarly emboldened.
Yet in spite of such dogmatisms, for two millennia Jews have pondered why they have to do what they have to do. Again, not all of our duties were explicable, but most of them were; and pondering them and their intelligibility was central. This was why the introduction of medieval and early modern codes of law was intensely debated: they seemed to imply that intellectual inquiry into the grounds of duties was not necessary. Of course, traditional Judaism never claimed that Jews invented the substance of their mitzvot; the task was rather to give reasons for the ones that they had received, that God had imposed. The legal innovations of the rabbis, known as the oral Torah, were deemed to be the result of the “holy spirit,” which was continuous with, if weaker than, the revelation of Moses at Sinai, where according to tradition the oral Torah was given along with the written one. It was exceedingly rare, as the renowned case of Maimonides on the atavistic practice of sacrifice suggests, to regard the ordained duties as historically determined, and thereby risk the suggestion that these divine commandments, in spite of their original applicability, might sometime be obsolete. The same was true of Christianity, except that it was less bound to any scriptural list of obligations and even more affected by Greco-Roman philosophy. But it also developed a philosophical tradition elaborating the moral duties of human beings, most commonly within a framework of supposedly rational natural law. The rational and the natural, too, are given, and not invented. They must be discovered, not devised.
Moderns did not only assert rights against the dictation of duties. They also theorized, as I will suggest, that rights entail “correlative” duties. In this way they kept duties philosophically alive. Yet to insist on the obverse — that the age of duties was by the law of correlativity also an age of rights — is to distract from how significantly the rhetoric and the content of morality changed. As the great scholar of international law (and a great rabbi’s son) Louis Henkin explained, Judaism “knows not rights but duties, and at bottom all duties are to God. (If every duty has a correlative right, the right must be said to be in God!)” It would be amusing to represent premodern history not solely as an age of duties, but as an age of God’s rights — or the state’s rights to demand fealty from subjects or citizens. The fact is that no one thought to put it this way. It was far more important to leave duties explicit, and to reflect on their content and their rationale, than to experiment with assigning rights to their proper provenance, divine or civic.
It is equally familiar how central duty was to Roman self-understanding, not least to the fact that its most memorable hero, Aeneas, is constantly held up by Virgil as “dutiful,” or “pious.” But it is Cicero who, with his famous De Officiis (regularly translated as On Duties), easily wins the prize for the longest running teaching manual of moral philosophy in the West. It was used for centuries, with titanic influence in the early modern period. Voltaire remarked in 1771 that “no one will ever write anything more wise, more true, or more useful.” (Has anyone written the history of the over-the-top blurb?) “From henceforth those whose ambition it is to give men instruction, to provide them with precepts, will be charlatans if they want to rise above you,” Voltaire continued, communing with Cicero seventeen centuries later, “or will all be your imitators.” Frederick the Great carried De Officiiis on his campaigns.
For Cicero, laying down the moral duties that nature and society imposed upon us was the substance of moral philosophy. “Who would dare call himself a philosopher if he had not handed down rules of duty?” he asked. Written in the last months of his life, De Officiis attempted to trace all the duties that we should recognize to two grounds: either they are honorable or they are useful. Mostly a Stoic, Cicero argued that our duties come from nature, and apply universally, everywhere and always. As in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Cicero and others went very far in justifying a kind of ethic of service as the substance of political morals, in the Roman case most especially the centrality of military service as a sacred duty of all male citizens, which remained as one of our American duties until not long ago.
If premodern history is commonly (and correctly) understood as the age of duties, it is equally common to believe that modernity became “the age of rights,” as Henkin labeled it. It is the long shadow of the reign of duties that has always given rights their understandable appeal.
I have no quarrel with the liberal belief that such premodern regimes of duties were in many ways oppressive and needed to be modified and even overthrown. In the early modern period, the word “officious,” from Cicero’s word officium, emerged as a derogatory term, as we still use it — referring not to someone who does his duty but who obnoxiously imposes his duty on us. Probably no one has better captured this revolution than the poet Ogden Nash, who roasted Wordsworth’s famous “Ode to Duty” in his own poem “Kind of an Ode to Duty.” Duty was “so ubiquitous, and I so iniquitous” — it policed us excessively, adversely to our freedom, and taught people to demean themselves in the name of upstanding virtue. No wonder we shucked it off.
It would seem, from the conventional history of moral thought, that the modernization of ethics has principally been about leaving duties behind — in private and especially in public form, whether they were religious or secular in basis. For many moderns, most duties imposed by religion were irrational, and many of those imposed by states were unjustifiable, and so it was intellectually simple — though politically very difficult — to reject them and abandon them.
But if this story of modernity as the exit from the reign of duties is incomplete as a matter of history, there is also a continuing moral and political risk in simply celebrating our liberation, even when it is to bolster our self-confidence in a never-ending struggle against the resumption of power by the more heteronomous forces of religion and politics. Ever on the lookout for unjustifiable oppression, libertarians specialize in keeping their eyes peeled for officious duties imposed on us against our will by oppressive communities and states, and they are not wrong to do so. But they cover only a small part of the waterfront. The question is whether the modernization of duties really does require rejecting them tout court or leaving them in the rubble of the old orders — or whether the modern abandonment of duties was excessive and mistaken and risky, making modernity less a liberatory time than a libertarian one, and forgetting that rights themselves, not to mention other values, depend precisely on the persistence of duties.
Too many philosophers and historians have missed this significant possibility. They see nothing but a glamorous modern pivot from obligation to liberation, from duties to rights. But this is not just historically specious, it is also morally and politically noxious. Consider again Robert Cover’s picture of the replacement of heteronomy by autonomy. America in the 1980s, when Cover wrote, was a hardly a representative time in modern moral culture. It was the moment of a libertarian revolution in which emancipations of the 1960s were being succeeded by a mantra of economic freedom that overthrew the liberalism that Americans had struggled to establish since the New Deal and the Progressive era before it. Cover’s error of perspective, if I am right, led him to believe that modernization meant the abandonment of duties. But the opposite was the case. It was duties that were themselves modernized.
I do not mean to suggest only that duties survived in modernity. This is obvious: we still teach our children ethics, or try to, including their moral duties. Not just duties, but also organized religion, survived modernization — and one temptation that follows for this very reason is to adopt a public/private distinction whereby we separate public rights and private duties, if we adopt a comprehensive moral view in private that imposes moral duties. In this solution, moderns have not wholly abandoned duties, they have merely expelled them from “the public square.”
Liberalism has revered this distinction between public and private, but it is misleading, for two reasons. For one, our private lives and our private faiths have been deeply affected by modernization, as when Cover remarks that “even those among us who have been raised with a deep and abiding religious background can hardly have escaped the evocations that the terminology of ‘rights’ carries.” Living in a voluntarist culture changes the meaning of obedience. Choosing to be obedient puts a dent in the ideal of obedience. Second, it is also the case that there are still manifold public duties: obeying the law, paying taxes (no matter how low these monetary duties have gone), serving on juries, and so on. Was the erosion and the restriction of these moral duties an inevitable consequence of our liberation from the more oppressive duties of religion and state?
One traditional story, which is not entirely wrong, is that a voluntarist tradition arose in moral philosophy in the early modern period which made rights against collectives and states central. This tradition conquered political life starting with the Atlantic revolutions. Cover’s citation of the social contract as the characteristic “myth” of modern moral philosophy is an example of this belief. And it is certainly what is often taught, especially in the “Western Civilization” courses that emerged after the Great War, stabilized around an anticommunist and later antifascist set of tropes. The story goes that first came Hobbes, who perfected or perverted natural law doctrines from the Stoics to the Christians so as to isolate the natural right of self-preservation as the basis of the artifice of government, and then came Locke, who added the pre-political right of property and consent to government. And thus the liberalism of rights, which was the only liberalism that anyone bothered to imagine, was launched.
There is only one problem with this familiar narrative. It is misleading to the point of obscuring the actual career of liberalism, which in actuality preserved duties at its core, before that libertarian revolution that Cover generalized as if it characterized modernity as a whole. The libertarian narrative of the descent of liberalism functions to conceal the endurance of duties within it, as much as libertarianism exists to undermine duties themselves. In order to understand the history of liberalism, Edmund Fawcett not long ago remarked, “liberty is the wrong place to begin.” The reader may be forgiven for doing a double take. And as Helena Rosenblatt suggests in her recent book, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, modern liberalism emerged out of Cicero’s moral duty of liberalitas, while liberals in modern times have (in her words) “fought not just for their rights, but for the means to better fulfill their moral duties.” What this means is that liberalism was from the beginning more than an affair of casting off yokes. Far from focusing so intently on coexistence or toleration within community, or on freedom from political authority as such, liberalism for a long time placed education for social interdependence, as well as the political constitution of social freedom, at the very heart of its historic agenda.
The preeminent philosophical site of this focus was sempiternal natural law doctrine. And the most proper interpretation of its trajectory between the Renaissance and the Atlantic revolutions preserves the centrality of duties as what moral philosophy generally, and natural law in particular, requires. Once we take the trouble to read Locke’s full corpus, he himself emerges — like his fellow Protestant thinker Samuel Pufendorf, author of On the Duty of Man and Citizen — primarily as a theorist of obligations inculcated in the young and imposed by government, even if we commonly produce the reverse impression as an artifact of our teaching. As the great historian Knud Haakonsen observed, only erroneously and retrospectively does early modern thought appear to lead our way, philosophically or practically. No matter the temptation to promote libertarian and voluntarist rights thinking as the ascendant theme, with duties as “the casualty that defines its victor,” Haakonsen bracingly insisted that a rationale of duties and a schedule for duties remained dominant in theories of natural law.
And we can push this argument farther, with the late historian of American ideas Morton White, by arguing that even the American revolutionaries, who conferred upon natural rights an unprecedented pride of place at the foundations of an actually existing government, were by no means ethical libertarians — they were readers of such forgotten figures as Jean-Joseph Burlamaqui, the Swiss natural lawyer who laid great stress on duties in works such as Principes du droit naturel in 1747 and Principes du droit politique in 1751. The American founders by no means intended to privatize morality, or to eliminate the educational focus on duties or the imposition of them on citizens by states, even while conditioning government on consent when rights were violated. The Virginians made this explicit in the summer of 1776 by including duties in their pioneering rights-based constitution.
What is true is that the coincidence of the Atlantic revolutions and new forms of ethical privatization — including the rise in significance of commercial freedom — left a serious mark on modern moral life. We can detect the individualizing effects of early capitalism in the French Revolution: not in a backwater settler colony but in the center of “civilization,” political modernity became indelibly associated with rights. Yet the celebration of rights cannot explain that great convulsion. A closer look at the revolutionary era forces us to acknowledge the sometimes consequential presence of duties even in what we remember as an unprecedented moment of basing politics on individual entitlements.
In 1789, the French revolutionaries famously decided to promulgate their “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” Where were the duties? One reason for the apparent demotion of duties relative to rights was rhetorical and cultural: public and private duties went without saying. Nobody would have argued otherwise. Rights were stressed to limit government and in documents designed to delineate what government cannot make us do — while still leaving a lot of room for collective self-governance and imposed duties. And a proposal to mimic Virginia, announcing rights and appending duties, lost out by a relatively close vote of 570-433 in the National Assembly and after heated debate. Finally, even the most classic Anglophone defense of the immortal French declaration, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, insisted that the objective was to free us from oppressive duties of state and tradition, the better to allow our return to our justifiable duties as well as our natural ones. “All the religions known in the world are founded … on the unity of man,” Paine wrote. “By considering man in this light, and by instructing him to consider himself in this light, it places him in a close connection with all his duties, whether to his Creator or to the creation, of which he is a part; and it is only when he forgets his origin … that he becomes dissolute.” Prodded by Edmund Burke, Paine actually understood himself to be returning to the cosmopolitan or universalist natural law that history and tradition had obstructed, and which allowed humans to recognize not merely their entitlements but also their duties, which were universal across space and time.
There were four intellectual legacies of that formative period that must be faced, because they clearly shaped some ways that duties came to be conceptualized in modern politics. All of them are unsatisfactory.
One legacy of this revolutionary era is the view that duties are the residual legacies of the moralities of the past, that they are obeyed only in private, and that they do not affect public governance. The main worry in this regard, the Virginian declaration says, is that public authority will keep people from embracing the duties that religion imposes; but even the Virginian language still makes it perfectly clear that it is not simply up to individuals whether to embrace duties. “It is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.” (The text left it unclear what would happen if people gave up their duties.)
A second legacy has been, if anything, more fateful: the idea that duties for citizens, whatever their private commitments, correlate with and do not exceed their rights. In the French revolutionary debates, the Abbé Siéyès, the most influential thinker of the time, voiced this opinion. “I have duties toward others to the extent that I recognize their having the same rights as myself,” he declared. “Hence there are in fact only rights, of which duties are simply a special case in the interpersonal sphere.” Paine, who was frequently a mouthpiece for Siéyès, recalled that argument in reviewing the near-miss in the French Revolution for a declaration of rights and duties: “A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a Declaration of Duties also. Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Both authors implied that there were no modern duties beyond those to safeguard correlative rights. The Abbé Grégoire, famed for his role in emancipating the Jews in the following years, pushed back. (After all, both he and Siéyes were, technically, priests.) It is not the case that duties are deduced from rights, Grégoire insisted, or that all the moral rules and political obligations that we recognize will simply correlate with or follow from some antecedent set of rights. But he lost the debate, and as a result, in the words of the historian Marcel Gauchet, “rights would permanently be saddled with the ghost of duties.”
Third, it has to be seen that these consecrations of rights on both sides of the Atlantic all afforded property special treatment, which — though no one could foresee how modern commerce and industry would transform our lives — ended up laying a practical foundation for a modern libertarianism of rights without duties. Contrary to communitarian publicists in our day, neither the French Declaration nor the broader revolution of which it was a part were atomistic and individualistic in spirit. But neither were they free of blame for modern anomie. With this triple demotion of duties, they did leave a big burden for the future.
A fourth and final legacy, contingent but important, is that, even as declarations of rights created some of the conditions for later libertarian heresies, a space was opened for the conservative enemies of the new freedoms to take custodianship of duties. The most remarkable example of this occurs in 1795, after the Eighteenth Brumaire, when Robespierre and his fellow stewards of the Revolution were toppled from power, and their successors under the Directory propounded the era’s third French declaration of rights — a Declaration of Rights and Duties. Its first article follows the Virginians: rights are about limiting government in public, where duties are about private social cohesion. Its second article does the same: it protects residual Christianity and emphasizes a duty of golden rules. The rest of the duties announced in the Year III —the revolutionary calendar was still in use — imposes public duties, the central goal of which is safeguarding order (which meant property). “It is upon the maintenance of property that the cultivation of the land, all the productions, all means of labor, and the whole social order rest,” the declaration read. “Every citizen owes his services to the fatherland and to the maintenance of liberty, equality, and property.”
Thus duties were now separately announced — but as a post-revolutionary attempt to contain the wildfire and to impose some limits. The cause of duties became a conservative, even a reactionary, cause. The modern stereotype about rights and duties, about liberals and conservatives, was born. It was the first time, but hardly the last, that the championing of duties would take this rearguard form, in part because the advocates of emancipation had rhetorically, and foolishly, ceded duties to their enemies.
But these stereotypes, I think, represent a colossal error. This separation — this separationism — was not representative of all forms of liberalism. It was, in fact, the minority view for a long time. For a century or more, from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, liberals understood the need to reappropriate duties, and to install them at the center of their moral and political program. The central issue was what liberalism was going to be about, given the experience of the revolution. In an account that has become widespread since John Rawls, the liberal goal is said to have been not only to overthrow the oppression of the past, and to limit tyrannical government, but also to privatize “comprehensive” or “perfectionist” understandings of the good life. There might be some shared set of civic duties, but moral duties were not the state’s problem, and what remained alongside rights against community and state oppression were some public duties so that the state could function for “political” ends, avoiding at all costs a state that would endorse a particular view of the good life, a particular vision of our highest ends and obligations.
As a historical matter, this account cannot be correct. Contemporary scholarship about our understanding of nineteenth-century liberalism is showing almost the reverse. Most liberals and socialists understood themselves to be theorists of collective and individual improvement, and they saw politics both within and beyond states as a vehicle for that mission. As much as political and economic liberalism got entangled and identified in the era, many thinkers propounded profoundly non-libertarian understandings of freedom and interdependence. They propounded versions of “positive freedom,” with the modernization of duties as perhaps their most daunting and important task.
The most stirring exemplar of this liberal mission in our intellectual history is Giuseppe Mazzini. He did not require the abandonment of either duties or modernity; he believed that they needed to coexist, precisely in the form of a modernization of duties. If you have heard of Mazzini, he is probably known to you as an Italian nationalist. As dubious as it may sound given current political debates, in which liberal nationalism is treated like an oxymoron, it was precisely liberals such as Mazzini who helped to invent nationalism (and nationalists such as Mazzini who helped to invent cosmopolitanism) — and shouldered the burden of modernizing duties in the process.
Born in 1805, Mazzini was described by Mill as “one of the men I most respect” and by Nietzsche as “the man I venerate most.” Americans also loved him, especially his good friend William Lloyd Garrison. The American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller called him “the most beauteous person I have ever seen.” Since he challenged imperial and monarchical authority, Mazzini was said by Bakunin to be “the man who had given the most sleepless nights to the crowned heads of Europe.” David Lloyd George once said that he “doubted whether any man exercised so profound an influence on the destiny on Europe.” Actually, that understates things considerably: Mazzini is probably, after Marx, the most influential philosopher in world history, because his doctrines traveled to the ends of the earth, due to the extraordinary influence that he exercised on nationalist upstarts from India to Israel, who frequently adopted his refusal to distinguish between individual protection and collective identification.
Mazzini organized his thinking around duties. I know of no evidence that he knew of Paine, but Mazzini’s The Duties of Man, which appeared in 1860, was in many ways a response to him. Published only twelve years before his death, this collection of his essays has been translated into twenty languages (including Esperanto and Yiddish) and has gone through hundreds of editions, exercising its greatest impact through the middle of the twentieth century. For Mazzini, duties are not just a residual legacy from Christianity or any other premodern tradition. They are the substance of a new ethic for a new age. He even went so far as to think that humanity would need a new religion — a religion of humanity, as several nineteenth-century thinkers called it.
Mazzini grasped that without such notions the path lay open not only to protecting old religions or safeguarding individuals from tyranny, but also to libertarian perversions that sacrificed any common notion of the good life, including a productive understanding of individual freedom itself. The French Revolution’s rights left the state with no role in relation to the morality of freedom: “The sacred idea of Liberty has recently been perverted by some deeply flawed doctrines, declaring that all government and all authority is a necessary evil [or] that government has no other mission than that of preventing one individual from harming another. Reject these false doctrines, my brothers! … If you were to understand liberty according to these flawed doctrines, you would deserve to lose it. … Your liberty will be sacred so long as it is guided by an idea of duty, of faith in common perfectibility.”
In taking up the liberal cause of duties, Mazzini did not mean to make any excuses or apologies for the community or the state. He knew that limits on community and state were important, and he never entirely denied the distinction between public and private. He was a liberal for whom the purpose of social interdependence was freedom and perfectibility, not constraint or oppression for their own sake. Yet an overriding emphasis on the risk of tyranny, he believed, would obscure the reality that some doctrine or other of individual perfection will rule in any society, and liberals needed to have a responsible one. More than this, at the center of his thinking, as of that of nineteenth-century liberals such as Mill and Tocqueville, there stood not so much a libertarian freedom from as an individual and social freedom for — a free agency to enact new things not only for oneself but also for society. He was a perfectionist liberal with duties as his cornerstone, notwithstanding the importance of freedoms or rights, which animated his political activities but were put in their place in the scheme of a wider liberal doctrine.
Along these lines, just as he rejected the idea that duties were a thing of the premodern and religious past, Mazzini repudiated the idea that all our duties merely correlate with our rights and follow from them. If anything, it was the other way around. “When I say that the consciousness of your rights will never suffice to produce an important and lasting progress,” he explained, “I do not ask you to renounce those rights… I merely say that such rights can only exist as a consequence of duties fulfilled, and that we must begin with the latter in order to achieve the former.”
Like all other liberals in this period, he held that freedom is not a natural condition; it is a collective and social achievement premised on continuing and intensified interdependence. The goal of the shift toward rights in modernity was an escape from the confinements of duty, and this was to some extent a good thing: the liberal insistence on freedom from God’s enforcers, from tradition’s tyranny, and from the state’s prerogatives was a significant advance in history and culture. But it by no means settled the question, after individual freedoms had been championed and won, as to what would happen to the earlier public emphasis on duties. If it disappeared, so would freedom itself. Proclaim liberty, indeed; but liberty is not the only valid end.
In the twentieth century, it became fashionable to regard Anglo-American thought as constitutionally libertarian, poles apart from Continental statism, in which an abasing prostration to government prevailed, and no freedom. It is certainly true that both communist and fascist governments emphasized duties far more than they did rights — that is putting it mildly — as part of their respective re-enthronements of the ancestral, the mass, the communal, and the familial. Yet throughout the same period, and until a recent date, the story of liberalism, and of liberal forms of socialism, commands the retention of duties for the sake of credible liberation. Many Anglo-American liberals and socialists agreed with their Continental European colleagues about the need to emphasize a theory and practice of duties. And the reason they did so is that they were the earliest to make the move, which in this country we associate with the turn of the twentieth century, to welfare as the condition of freedom. “Of what use was the recognition of rights to those who lacked the means of exercising them?” Mazzini asked.
T. H. Green, the Oxford moralist who fused Evangelical religion, liberal politics, and Hegelian metaphysics, gave the answer: duties to provide one another the condition to exercise free agency matter more than formal rights. Green, who lived from 1836 to 1882, is nearly forgotten now; in the twentieth century, when philosophers of many kinds united in the campaign to destroy philosophical idealism, his reputation crashed. For our purposes, what matters is that Green was trying to transmute a fraying Evangelical moralism into secular terms, and that the defense of a rehabilitated version of duties was central to his attempt to do so. As his biographer Melvin Richter explained, it was because he felt that he could count on secure English and Western European traditions of liberty that Green risked justifying a more interventionist state, especially in response to the identification of or mix-up between political liberalism and economic liberalism for which England was rapidly becoming known worldwide.
Accordingly, Green named a major work Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, in which he argued, in his idiosyncratic and sometimes incomprehensible idealist language, that personal entitlements should receive far less rhetorical attention than state and collective ones — precisely so as to support policies that would augment inherited rights with needed redistribution. Like so many others in the nineteenth century — and not only those further left, such as Marx — Green’s point of departure was an attack on the myth of the socially antecedent individual, as economic freedom was defended more effectively than political freedom, so much so that across the global north parties of all stripes associated rights with the limitation of the state for the sake of property protection and transactional freedom. Green’s project was to save the possibility of moral community from this development, which did not require any radical critique of rights but did require keeping them in their place to offer an account of what we might call duties as trumps.
“The popular effect of the notion that the individual brings with him into society certain rights,” Green complained, “is seen in the inveterate irreverence of the individual towards the state [and] in the assumption that he has rights against society irrespectively of his fulfillment of any duties to society.” Green did not reject rights, but he reframed them, reaching for a theory of rights that would acknowledge individual capacities while prioritizing social cohesion and progress. This meant, above all, an insistence that duties must have the same standing and importance as rights: “There cannot be innate rights in any other sense than that in which there are innate duties.” Of these, he added, “much less has been heard.”
Green, as historians have shown, remained the godfather of the coming of the British welfare state for decades after his death in 1880s. (A recent essay by Ben Jackson on the evolution of British political ideology is entitled “From Idealism to Neoliberalism” as if with those two vaporous categories one could describe and explain a century’s worth of intellectual and political transformation.) Like his masters in German philosophy, Green was trying to reinvent the moral teleology of premodern thinking for a modern age of emancipation, and his view of duties and rights were that they tracked whatever led humans, individually and collectively, to their flourishing. Under modern circumstances this meant that society has a deep claim on individuals, who are never to be seen as antecedent to it. Green was willing to allow for inherent human rights but only in connection to human duties with equivalent status, on the theory that if there were some eternal or long-run interests that humans as such have, they are inevitably lived out together, in society.
Most of all, Green, his British New Liberal followers, and their influential American analogues were arguing against a libertarian presumption that made state intrusion into the allegedly free domain of market activity a violation of rights. They directed their fire toward the idea of rights as metaphysical entities; instead, rights were social goods whose justification ultimately lay in collective purposes. Later, in the twentieth century, so-called legal realists such as Robert Hale and Karl Llewellyn pursued a similar deconstruction of rights. In theory the anti-metaphysical critique applied equally to duties, but neither Green nor his successors targeted duties for their criticism, perhaps because they wanted in the first place to make duties plausible in an age in which liberty is used to justify market hierarchy and depredation.
For such figures, the argument was twofold. First, if people have rights based on their innate features, then they have innate duties too. Second, the collective setting of individual freedom makes the harmony of social and individual purposes a policy challenge rather than the occasion for asserting the supremacy of individual freedom over the collective good. They refused to play the trump card of rights to minimize the state. “Rights, indeed, are precious and sacred,” remarked Edinburgh socialist theoretician Robert Flint in 1894. “In the course of the struggle for ‘rights’ great and indubitable services have been rendered to mankind. Nevertheless, the alone properly supreme and guiding idea of life, whether personal or social, is not that of rights but of duty.” (For good measure, Flint added: “This truth has found its worthiest prophet and apostle in Joseph Mazzini.”)
In the course of the twentieth century duties fell out of fashion, and certainly out of liberal discourse. “The fact is that today, it seems to me very difficult, whether in high schools or universities, to talk seriously of the duties of citizens,” remarked Raymond Aron, the leading twentieth-century French liberal. “I think that whoever risked doing so would seem like he belonged to a lost world.” At some point — it is hard to date precisely, and even harder to explain — the struggle to modernize duties ended, and it was replaced by more libertarian schemes. We are the poorer for this. We are living in the void it left behind, in which it is daunting to imagine the construction of new foundations for perfectibility and progress.
The situation is dire. Perhaps the foremost French moralist with any claim to be Aron’s successor, the reactionary novelist Michel Houellebecq, whom Aron would have despised, once noted on the radio: “I am not a citizen, nor do I want to become one. No one has duties towards his country; they do not exist. We are individuals, neither citizens nor subjects. We have lots of rights, but no duties. … France is a hotel, nothing more.” Those sentiments can be easily translated into an American idiom. We are an impossibly divided country, increasingly cold and increasingly libertarian, devoid of a common national feeling; a hotel for the rich with many hovels for the poor and no immediate prospects of becoming a common home for all. And for cosmopolitans who insist on duties to our fellow humans — for Mazzini was also a pioneering globalist, who imagined duties of world citizenship — the challenge is even starker. After the fall of the house of duties, it may not be much of an act of social reconstruction to rewrite their history, and to refute the either/or that relegates them to premodernity, in order to remind ourselves of just how recently the modernization of duties remained the central liberatory project; but it might help. Reflection, too, is one of our duties.