Why is there no discussion of fundamental duties, as there is of fundamental human rights in both political and academic circles? The only duties(enacted as laws) seem to be about protecting others' freedom. The problem with duties described merely as rights is that, the ones which can't be represented as the rights of others - duty to the society, to the nation, to ancestral heritage - are not covered in such discussions.

What would be the consequential ethical basis for framing such duties? Also, will the be state be responsible to enforce such duties, by framing and executing suitable laws?

  • It's an interesting question, but I wonder if you've given us enough to give the question a correct answer (correct as in those well informed in political philosophy would broadly agree that the answer matches the question). As written, I feel like it does not sufficiently explain the purpose of government we should assume to get to the answer. e.g. duties to ancestors play an important role in Confucianism and in many animistic religions.
    – virmaior
    Mar 22, 2017 at 4:34
  • @virmaior The purpose of the government would be to enforce such duties, by framing and executing suitable laws. Just as the religious laws enforce the religious duties(like ancestral duties) in many religions as mentioned by you.
    – SMJoe
    Mar 26, 2017 at 11:14
  • I'm not trying to discuss things here in the topic. I'm suggesting the question needs editing, so if you want to stipulate a purpose for government do it there -- it's not at all obvious without you putting it into the question.
    – virmaior
    Mar 26, 2017 at 11:28

2 Answers 2


From one obvious angle, the argument against the Libertarian position that all true rights are 'negative rights', this is fully redundant. There are fundamental duties whenever there are fundamental rights, and handling one or the other thoroughly enough automatically covers both.

A 'positive right' creates duties for others to fulfill it. And a 'negative right' creates the positive right that it be enforced, which creates duties for others to fulfill it... (Unless you are a hard-core Libertarian, in which case a negative right creates no other rights. But that means basic human expectations like safety and fairness are luxuries.)

From that POV, all discussions of rights are really discussions of duties. When we discuss the rights of a child, we are discussing the obligations of parents, or the obligation of the state to presume loco parentis and find other adults who will fulfill those breached duties. When we discuss the right to healthcare, we are discussing the obligations of those with medical training...

We would be wiser to speak more openly about the unfulfilled mandates that our thinking about rights automatically conjures up. For instance, as H. Ross Perot harped on endlessly, the U.S. government is a risk of being obligated to spend two or three times its GDP instantly, if everything our laws are obligated to prevent went wrong at once. This is a side effect of our speaking mainly of rights, but enforcing primarily the duty to act according to stated rules. The two don't logically fall before the same sets of decision-makers, with goals and resource limits set in legislation and execution left to policy bodies. So ends up being difficult and confusing to do the math.

But only from a very narrow political philosophy is anything actually missing here.

As for the basis for framing such duties, the ethical and political thinker that has most significantly considered duty as an organizing principle has been Kant, and his work has most recently been productively extended by Rawls.

From Kant and Rawls ethics, oversimplifying slightly, we are all obligated to meet the requirements we could always all expect from one another to the degree we can universally hold the expectations and find them functional and fair. Other than the degree of complexity and the obvious dangers that tradition introduces into the legislating of morality, there is no good reason why the political basis of duty should differ significantly from the ethical one.

  • Though you are theoretically correct, "all discussions of rights are really discussions of duties", there are some practical subtleties which arise -
    – SMJoe
    Feb 19, 2017 at 7:34
  • Like an act of suicide is basically seen as an exercise of one's right to life over the rights of others(children), and thus is considered legal(and ethical) in most modern societies, which wouldn't be the case had it been viewed as the abandonment of one's duty to provide for them. Also, the duties which can't be represented as the rights of others - duty to the society, to the nation, to ancestral heritage - are not covered in such discussions.
    – SMJoe
    Feb 19, 2017 at 7:48
  • As to the framework for duties, can you point to someone with a consequential perspective?
    – SMJoe
    Feb 19, 2017 at 7:49
  • I happen to live in a modern society where suicide is illegal, and is viewed as an abrogation of responsibility. I am not sure there are a lot of societies the would support the suicide of a newborn's mother. They may allow it, but it is not sanctioned. Likewise the duties to nation, etc. are requirements that they be maintained so that others may enjoy them. So they are really about someone else's rights. If no one cared whether your nation/culture/bloodline utterly failed, you would have no duty to it. But that would rob the next generation of helpful structure.
    – user9166
    Feb 20, 2017 at 18:53
  • As for consequential notions of basic duty. Is there a real consequentialist structure for rights? I don't think so. The notion of right itself is essentialist and not realpolitik. Nations that have goals, and will do whatever they need to to fulfill them, have no truck with rights. So I think any consequentialist notion of rights is malformed, and a consequentialist notion of duties would be outright bizarre.
    – user9166
    Feb 20, 2017 at 18:57

Why is there no discussion of fundamental duties, as there is of fundamental human rights in both political and academic circles?

The two discussions are the same. If there is a person who has a fundamental right, there is someone else with a fundamental duty to not interfere with that right. A freedom not protected by such a duty is no freedom at all. So the discussion of who enjoys a freedom to act and the content of that freedom, necessarily is a discussion of who is subject to the duty of non-interference and the boundaries of that duty.

  • OK, I agree that each duty can be represented as a right of others. But when I say it is one's duty - rather than the right of other - one feels morally more responsible for performing it. Take the case of animal rights. Stating it as your individual duty to protect animals is more effective than just saying that animals have rights. Thus there is no immediate moral responsibility on the individual, if we just state it as others' rights. What do you think about this?
    – SMJoe
    Mar 26, 2017 at 11:08

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