A Farewell to Duty

Duty holds societies together; both are dying.

During my Boy Scout years, we recited the Boy Scout oath in unison at every meeting.  It begins, "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country..."  The oath identifies three duties which Scouts swear to fulfill:

  1. Duty to God and to country
  2. Duty to others
  3. Duty to self

The oath says nothing about self-gratification, pleasure, or self-esteem.  The oath speaks solely of duty which a Scout owes.  Duties to God, country, and to others are easy to understand albeit hard to do.  Duty to self meant keeping yourself healthy, developing your mind through study, and maintaining your character through honesty and cleanliness of speech.

Our Duty-Bound Past

American society - indeed, Western culture in general - used to be based on duty.  Students had a duty to learn whatever the school taught whether they were interested in the subject matter or not.  Teachers had a duty to impart knowledge to their students whether the students cared or not.

I have a friend who found some old records in a forgotten local archive.  When his town hired their first teacher well over a century ago, some of the first-grade students were 16 or 17 because there'd never been a school for them to attend.  The men who hired the teacher told her to let them know immediately if any student ever gave trouble.

Whenever one of those big, strapping first graders gave the teacher lip, the selectmen took him behind a barn and explained his duty to learn whatever the teacher wanted to teach.  They then beat the rebellion out of him because he'd wasted the town's money by making it harder for other students to learn.  Most of the first graders eventually recognized their duty to learn and graduated; teachers who proved unable or unwilling to impart knowledge were fired.

My high school had guidance counselors, but they said nothing about self-esteem.  Their job was to find out what each student wanted to do after graduation and help them choose courses and activities so that they'd be as well prepared as possible.  Students who were college-bound were encouraged to take advanced courses, students who didn't want to go to college took shop or vocational ed, and so on.

Everybody recognized that true self-esteem came from mastery of the material.  Any student whom the staff felt was not doing his or her best was made to feel inferior and encouraged to get with the program.

Everybody knew this song from 1907:

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick

It was well understood that learning was enhanced in many cases by applying the board of education vigorously to the seat of learning, repeat as needed.

Duty-Bound Families

The concept of students and teachers fulfilling their duties in school was grounded, of course, in the concept of duty in marriage and in families.  The idea of "duty of marriage" was written into Jewish law in about 1,200 BC.  Everybody knew that getting married implied taking up one's duty as an adult; any pleasure or self-gratification that came with marriage was incidental.

The responsibilities of duty-based marriage start long before the wedding.  Men and women had a duty to prepare themselves for marriage through study and through learning the skills that would be needed to support and maintain a home.  They also had a duty to keep themselves pure so that their future spouses could trust that the sexual fidelity called for in the marriage vow could be counted on.

The principle of duty-based marriage is illustrated dramatically in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," starring Zero Mostel, which was set in Tzarist Russia in 1905.  The musical opened in 1964 and ran for a record-setting 3,242 performances, returning $1,574 for every dollar invested in it.

The song "Do You Love Me?" shows that there was a time when couples didn't think beyond duty in marriage.  Tevye, the husband, asks his wife Golde, "Do you love me?" and she has trouble taking his question seriously.  After some back and forth, she declares,

Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

Golde hadn't even thought about love.  She was focused on her duties to her husband and to her family.  Love hadn't entered her mind; she wasn't ready to talk about love when she had so much work to do.  They talk about it a bit more, and she says:

Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?

After more conversation, they realize that they do love each other because true love means fulfilling your duty to serve your spouse, family, and society.  Although it's nice to be loved, duty is far more important:

It doesn't change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It's nice to know

The idea of marriage, family, education, and nation being based on duty is similar to Confucius' teaching that society is founded on virtue.  The Chinese word translated "virtue" is extremely broad; it includes Western concepts like honor, duty, obligation, politeness, and honesty all rolled up into one word.  Confucius gave four rules for ordering society:

  1. Children have a duty to serve and obey their parents
  2. Wives have a duty to serve and obey their husbands
  3. Husbands have a duty to serve and obey the government
  4. Government has a duty to serve the welfare of the people

He taught that if any of these rules broke down - that is, children stopped obeying parents, divorce became common, people defied government or didn't pay their taxes, or government officials sought power or wealth instead of taking care of the people - the society lost the "Mandate of Heaven" and collapsed.  By "Mandate of Heaven," Confucius meant that God Himself had directed how society should work.  Societies which operated according to God's rules retained the Mandate of Heaven and prospered; societies which deviated too far lost the Mandate of Heaven and fell apart.

Confucius had observed that whenever Chinese rulers set an example of virtue and enthusiastically chopped the heads off government employees who exploited the people instead of ruling virtuously, Chinese society worked well.  Whenever virtue broke down at any level, the rot spread and society collapsed.

There would be a period of warfare until the meanest, toughest warloard put the country back together and started the process all over again.  We refer to this process as the Confucian cycle.

Our tradition of devotion to duty is captured in the song America, which describes what used to be expected of all citizens, "who more than self their country loved, and duty more than life," people used to mean it when they sang that phrase.   The operational pattern of Western society up until the 1950's or 1960's was entirely Confucian in its emphasis on duty throughout society.

Our Farewell to Duty

How things have changed!  The song "School Days" is immortalized on a US Government web site maintained by the National Institute of Health.  Despite this implicit government endorsement of corporal punishment as a means of encouraging students to learn, the days when teachers could impose sanctions on students who don't want to learn are long gone.

Instead of promoting self-esteem through mastery of the material, schools have absorbed the edubabble fallacy that self-esteem can be imparted simply by telling students they're wonderful.  Recognizing students who do well on tests would harm the self-esteem of those who are failing, so good work is ignored and sometimes discouraged.  We've commented on the disastrous results that we can expect as our educational system falls further and further behind in teaching the skills that we need to maintain our present levels of food production.

The decline in our educational system was facilitated by the philosophies of John Dewey, a major proponent of "progressive education," who believed that teachers should concentrate on social engineering instead of on imparting knowledge.  Instead of directing the curriculum and calling on assistance when students were unwilling to learn what was required, teachers have to come to view themselves as "facilitators," who help their students achieve self-actualization.

One measure of self-actualization is that it helps you find and develop the "real you."  There are logical and practical problems with this perspective.  How can we help you find the "real you" if you don't know who you are?  Or what if we do help you find the "real you," but the "real you" is a lazy degenerate who only wants to gamble and drink?  Or, more charitably, could there have been a "better you" if you had been challenged and enabled to go beyond yourself to become someone that neither you nor your teachers could have quite imagined?  Self-actualization is good as a by-product, but not as a fundamental goal of education. [emphasis added]

Precisely.  Teyve and Golda found self-actualization in shared duty well done; students of the past found self-actualization and self esteem through fulfilling their duty to master the subject matter.  Confucius would approve.

Under the union-driven American educational philosophy, there's no way to make a student learn because the school has no credible punishments for students who refuse to learn and isn't permitted to honor those who do.  Instead of holding back the ignorant, which might harm their self-esteem, schools simply promote them until they graduate without knowing how to function in adult society.

Emphasis on self-esteem cheats students by violating the implied contract between the student and the school.  The agreement is that if the students come to school, put in their time, and do what they're told, they'll be taught how to become functioning members of adult society; we taxpayers fund schools so that teachers can fulfill their duty to teach children to become adult taxpayers.

Boosting self-esteem is a lot less work for teachers than imparting knowledge, but boosting unearned self-esteem not only defrauds students, it turns out to be bad for them.  Science Daily published "High Self-esteem Is Not Always What It's Cracked Up To Be" which reports:

It was once thought that more self-esteem necessarily is better self-esteem.  In recent years, however, high self-esteem per se has come under attack on several fronts, especially in areas such as aggressive behavior.  Also, individuals with high self-esteem sometimes become very unlikable when others or events threaten their egos. [emphasis added]

One of the ways in which high self-esteem can turn bad is when it is accompanied by verbal defensiveness--lashing out at others when a person's opinions, beliefs, statements or values are threatened.  So Kernis and his colleagues designed a study, reported in the current article, to see if respondents whose self-esteem is "fragile" were more verbally defensive than those whose self-esteem was "secure."

The distinction between "fragile" self-esteem and "secure" self-esteem is at least as obvious as the research we reported which showed that the sight of an attractive woman impairs a man's ability to make subtle financial judgments.  My high school teachers recognized that "secure" self-esteem came only from mastery of the material; they expended every effort to help, tutor, bully, persuade, cajole, pester, harass, and otherwise inspire each student to the point of mastery whether the students wanted to learn or not.  At graduation, the majority of my classmates had "secure" self-esteem which they'd earned through duty done to the best of their abilities; nobody wasted time trying to impart unearned self-esteem.

Today's educators, in contrast, impart "fragile" self-esteem by telling lies to make students feel good about themselves.  Fragile students lash out in attempts to protect their self-esteem when their ignorance shows and they end up unemployable because they aren't worth the minimum wage.

In ducking their duty to impart knowledge, today's educators are defrauding their students and defrauding the taxpayers who pay their salaries.  As children see that their parents' and teachers' promises aren't trustworthy, as they observe the adults around them shirking their duty, why should they concern themselves with submitting to the less-pleasant strictures of duty?

If we don't force kids to do their homework, for example, how can we expect them to fill out their tax returns?  Not all of us can be politicians like Rep. Charlie Rangel whose exalted status means that he need not worry about such trivia as paying income taxes.

Churches Turn Duty to Delight

As might be expected, the loss of any sense of duty in our schools followed the loss of duty in marriage and in family affairs.  When Confucius spoke of the "Mandate of Heaven," he invoked the authority of God to explain how things ought to be done.

Since the beginning of recorded history, religion has played a significant role in ordering human affairs.  People seem to act better when they think God is watching and cares about what they do.  The pronouncements of authoritative ecclesiastical spokespersonages are still given some degree of extra weight in our society, particularly in matters pertaining to marriage, family, and other areas of morality, because many people still believe that, in some sense, God stands behind the church.

Divorce was utterly forbidden for the first 1,600 years of the Christian era, but an allowance for divorce was written into the Westminster Confession of Faith almost 400 years ago.  The 1646 edition says: "Nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage."

Instead of no divorce ever, Protestants permitted divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery or desertion.  Giving married people any way to dissolve the duties of marriage was new.

In the 1930's, the Presbyterian Church began a discussion of divorce which lasted 20 years.  The church decided to permit divorce for the "moral equivalent of adultery;" they changed the Confession to permit remarriage after divorce "when sufficient penitence for sin and failure is evident, and a firm purpose of and endeavor after Christian marriage is manifested."  Four centuries after divorce was first permitted on very narrow grounds, remarriage after divorce became OK if you're sorry and promise to try harder next time.

By the 1950's, the Presbyterians had completely reversed their definition of marriage.  As Eric Mount Jr. and Johanna W. H. Bos wrote in "Scripture on Sexuality, Shifting Authority," Journal of Presbyterian History 59 no. 2, (Summer 1981): 224, "The primary purpose of marriage was no longer the benefit of society but the benefit of the people entering the marriage covenant."

The church changed from teaching duty and responsibility in marriage to teaching delight and the right to self-gratification.  Instead of a right to the pursuit of happiness and the responsibility to give happiness to your spouse, you now had a right to receive happiness from your spouse whether you fulfilled your duty or not.  Instead of acknowledging that you had a duty to meet your spouse's needs, you expected someone else to meet your needs.

This changed the whole basis of marriage.  The state of California passed the first no-fault divorce law in 1970, twenty years after the church redefined marriage from duty to delight.  As no-fault divorce swept the nation, it became easier to get out of the obligation to fulfill the duties of the marriage covenant than to get out of paying for a refrigerator.

Duty-free marriage couldn't have been fully implemented without birth control, of course.  Back in the days of duty, when a man and woman came together, there was a high probability that they'd be parents within a year.  People didn't marry until they were ready to assume the duties of parenthood; they knew that as surely as night follows day, "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby-carriage."

Most women were sensible enough not to want to assume the risks of a pregnancy which could subject them to the duties of motherhood without some sort of binding commitment from a man who was prepared to assume the duties of fatherhood.  Most women also want a man in their lives badly enough that they're willing to live with a man without marriage so long as they aren't likely to get pregnant, but this wasn't clear until childless cohabitation became possible thanks to the Pill.

Today's American legal climate places responsible men at a severe disadvantage.  Enough women are willing to live with men without marriage that a man can enjoy the delights of female companionship without having to make any commitments.  If she stops taking her pills, becomes pregnant, and decides not to exercise her right to choose an abortion, the worst that can happen is that he can get tagged for child support until the child is grown.

If he marries her, however, she can walk out at any time for any reason or for no reason at all under no-fault divorce laws.  In that case, he'll not only have to pay child support, he'll have to pay alimony, too, which unlike child support does not end when the child turns 18.  If she moves in with a new boyfriend instead of marrying again, he'll have to pay alimony 'til death do them finally part.

Having married her, the man has a duty to support her, but, having married him, she has a duty to fulfill the wife's responsibilities and duties.  Our legal system has made it possible for either party to avoid their responsibilities to each other and to society at a whim, but in a disproportionate way; men are far more frequently forced to support their ex-wives than the other way around.

Is it any surprise that men are not particularly eager to assume the responsibilities of marriage?  It's more surprising that anybody still gets married at all.

The Catholic church has never recognized no-fault divorce and continues to teach against sexual promiscuity.  This is not the first time in history that religious leaders have lamented the breakdown of marriages and of sexual morality.

Jewish history records that the nation of Israel was hauled off to captivity in Babylon around 606 BC.  After some of the exiles returned, they asked, "Why?"  The prophet Malachi explained that their society had been weakened because too many marriages had broken down.  His explanation is documented in Malachi 2:14-16, a Confucian-sounding analysis of the importance of virtuous families which was written circa 400 BC, 200 years before Confucius. 

Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.  And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.  For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.

Malachi blamed family breakdown for the collapse of the Nation of Israel; in his mind, failing do to your duty to your family constituted treachery!

No-Fault Divorce Makes Logical Sense

If marriage is for the purpose of fulfilling your duty, divorce is clearly not possible - your duties to your spouse do not and cannot end until one of you dies.  As Jack Benny put it, "My wife Mary and I have been married for forty-seven years and not once have we had an argument serious enough to consider divorce.  Murder, yes, but divorce, never."

If, in contrast, marriage is for the purpose of delight, you ought to be able to get a divorce any time you're no longer delighted.  It was perfectly reasonable for legislatures to pass no-fault divorce laws once churches made the mistake of changing the definition of marriage from duty to delight.

Changing the basis of satisfaction in marriage from responsibility to a right made a legal change seem reasonable for legislators who did not understand the long-term implications of weakening people's sense of responsibility toward their families.  Over time, the law was changed to eliminate any obligation to treat wedding vows as an enforceable contract.

The flaw in this reasoning is that delight cannot keep a couple together through the decades-long cycle needed to train children to fulfill their duties to society, to their future spouses, and to their aging parents.  Addicts discover that as a pleasurable substance is ingested repeatedly over time, it takes more and more to get the same level of good feeling.  This is also true of the delights of inter-gender interaction.

If a couple seeks delight in and of itself, no pleasure can ever be enough.  If they seek satisfaction through mutual duty well done, however, they can be content - but contentment through duty well done is no longer taught in our society.

Leaders Set Examples

Confucius was entirely correct about the influence of leaders as examples of virtue or the lack thereof.  It was big news when Henry Ford II, grandson of the founder of Ford Motor Company, was divorced in 1964.  Until then, any Ford employee who divorced was fired.

"If you can't keep your promises to your spouse," Henry Ford I who founded the company used to say, "you can't keep your promises to me."  Henry shared Confucius' observation that private conduct affects public actions and that leaders set standards for followers.

Duty-free marriages teach children that they're on their own and that they have to look out for #1.  Duty-free politicians set examples of stealing and of looking out for #1.  If everybody's looking out for #1, if everybody's more interested in taking out than in putting in, if married people are more concerned with having their own needs met than with meeting others' needs, our society can't last very long.

Confucius had never heard of democracy; it never occurred to him that people might have any influence on their rulers.  As he understood history, collapse came when leaders set bad examples.

People are always keenly aware of the behavior of their local leaders.  When local big-wigs acted without virtue and failed to do their duty to society, people lost virtue and stopped doing their duty.  Powerful people start cheating on their taxes and look out for themselves; lesser people feel they've no stake in the society.

In our system, in contrast, the people on the bottom of the pile elect their political leaders.  Our "leaders" of today, alas, don't like being subject to the will of the people and use tricks such as gerrymandering, manipulating the news, swapping earmarks for campaign contributions, and padding the voting lists to stay in office.  But the system of democracy is still in place, at least for now; voters can and occasionally do get rid of elected officials who betray their duty to us.

The problem is that as people, we've lost enough of our own sense of virtue that we no longer demand virtue from our leaders.  It used to be that the path to success was to go to work and earn what you wanted.  Now, our leaders have gotten in the habit of paying off their supporters so that it's often easier to get what you want by lobbying government to give it to you.

As we no longer require virtue in our leaders, crooked and selfish leaders set worse and worse examples which leads to further loss of virtue all up and down the line.

Confucius described the vital role that virtuous families play in the strength of a society; the whole of history proves him right.  When Sparta was a major power in ancient Greece, parents taught their sons that everyone had a duty to lay his life on the line to defend the nation when and as required.  When they left for the front, Spartan mothers admonished their sons, "Come back carrying your shield or on it." The only way a Spartan would return without his shield was if he'd thrown it away to run from the battle, in which case he might as well not come home at all; Spartans were duty-bound to stand their ground to the death.

The Roman republic and empire adopted this Greek tradition involving duty and used it to manage the largest empire the world had known up to that time.  Because they were ready and willing to defend their society, Roman citizens enjoyed a 200-year period of peace.

In the later years of the Roman empire, this duty-based custom declined.  So did Rome.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Here's another politico who didn't pay his taxes. Interesting that the NYT seems to dwell more on the fact that the governor will miss him than the fact that he's a lawbreaker. I guess being a liberal means never having to say you;'re sorry.....

Paterson Aide Quits in Furor Over His Taxes
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE and DANNY HAKIM
The resignation of Charles J. O'Byrne, who failed to pay taxes, strips Gov. David A. Paterson of his right-hand man just as he faces a fiscal crisis.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/25/nyregion/25obyrne.html?th&emc=th
October 25, 2008 10:55 AM
I. Generally a good article. When I went to school, we cleaned our own classrooms twice each day. Since it was "cleanup time", slackers stuck out like sore thumbs and were scolded, not by the teacher, but by us!
We had no midweek half-day. Our half-day was Saturday.
I KNOW my school spent much less per pupil than today's American suburban schools do, but they sure squeezed a lot more education out of the money they spent. I'm sick of school systems whining for more money.

II. It is not accurate, however, to blame the Westminster Confession for today's appalling divorce rate. If anyone would argue with Westminster's allowing divorce for adultery or wilful desertion, let him argue with the Bible (Mt. 5:31-32, 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15). And if anyone would argue with the Bible, let him join Senator Obama's campaign's word-twisting department.
The article alleges it was the 1930s when Presbyterians were looking for excuses for divorce. For decades, they had already been looking for excuses not to fulfill their vows to uphold the Westminster Confession. "Christianity and Liberalism", written in 1923, is still a classic, and explains why the liberalism of its day is a foreign religion.
So I would say it was Presbyterians' rebellion against, not their adherence to, their own confession that led to their divorce excusemongering of the 1930s.

III. For a far more plausible culprit for today's marital hedonism, I nominate the Pill - a far more recent arrival than the Westminster Confession of 400 years ago. It made us feel entitled to sex without the responsibility of childrearing and, when it (or any other contraception) failed, people felt entitled to abortion.
October 25, 2008 8:30 PM
Whoever you are as an "internationally published author by a different name", it's disingenuous to say "We refer to this process as the Confucian cycle" (there's more than one of you?) when, except for your own other posting, there's no other evidence in literature for such a term or concept. You lost all credibility with me by implying that you're teaching or repeating some well established historical truth, when it's just you talking through your hat.
January 10, 2009 8:35 AM
Huh? You're upset that the authors coined a term and that makes them non-credible?

Um, you do realize that ALL terms, everywhere in history, where coined by SOME person....
January 10, 2009 8:47 AM
Well, twibi, it looks like you weren't paying attention. Call it the Confucian Flip for all I care - YOU show me any evidence of any writing by anyone else that indicates that Confucius had observed a cyclical pattern from one virtuous era followed by "rot", collapse of the society, and then "a period of warfare until the meanest, toughest warloard put the country back together and started the process all over again". If you can find corroborating evidence by anyone else that I was unable to uncover, I will offer my heartfelt thanks, AND apologies both to you and to Mr. Offensicht.
January 10, 2009 9:17 AM
Ah, I see. You disagree that the evidence exists for the term. I inferred from your first comment that you didn't like Offensicht's using a term that wasn't established elsewhere.

I'll let the Scragged guys offer their own evidence. They talk about the concept quite a bit. I assume they have want you want.
January 10, 2009 9:27 AM
It's always difficult to decide how much familiarity to assume with earlier material. PG Wodehouse wrestled with that problem in man of his stories about Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

If ecman clicks the "Confucian Cycle" link at the bottom of this article, many articles about the concept appear sorted from newest to oldest. The oldest article which explains the concept is at the bottom of the list.

In Theory, that article should explain how Confucius pointed out that the reasons for the decline of a society are rooted deeply in human nature. The other articles show how the concept applies to specific areas of governance.
January 10, 2009 9:39 AM

The Wall Street Journal states that our expectations of marriage have changed:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203753704577255230471480276.html

Most sociologists argue that boomers entered marriage with expectations very different from those of previous generations. "In the 1970s, there was, for the first time, a focus on marriage needing to make individuals happy, rather than on how well each individual fulfilled their marital roles," says Prof. Brown, author of the gray marriage paper.

According to Prof. Brown, over the past century there have been three "phases" of American views of marriage. First, there was the "institutional" phase, in the decades before World War II, when marriage was seen largely as an economic union.

This was succeeded in the 1950s and '60s by the "companionate" phase, in which a successful marriage was defined by the degree to which each spouse could fulfill his or her role. Husbands were measured by their prowess as providers and wives by their skills in homemaking and motherhood.

In the 1970s, the boomers initiated what Prof. Brown calls the "individualized" phase, with an emphasis on the satisfaction of personal needs. "Individualized marriage is more egocentric... Before the 1970s, no one would have thought to separate out the self as being distinct from the roles of good wife and mother."

None of this is especially surprising for the "Me Generation,"

March 4, 2012 1:56 PM
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