Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Duty

Duty, according to Mr. Collingwood, is the highest form of practical reason. We behave most responsibly, most authentically, when we say 'this is what I must do, this is my duty'. Duty, in other words, is the type of practical reason that recognizes that we are unique individuals acting in a unique situation, doing what we must because the situation compels it. It is not that we are not free. It is that when we really pay attention to ourselves and our situation, we can only act in one way. We have a duty to ourselves to choose a certain course of action.

This is how I think of my own behavior. I rarely feel like I am making a difficult decision between one option or another. I feel compelled to do what I do. I do what I must. I do what I feel it is my duty to do. 

To put it another way, duty is the form of consciousness that lets us see every individual as a rational agent, acting in a way that is always within the same world of thought that we exist. Although Collingwood did not fully develop his idea on duty until late in his life, he hinted at it in his early work. In Speculum Mentis he claims that there is something called 'absolute mind' that leads to a similar view: "The agent is now conscious of himself as absolute mind, and of every other agent, whether in agreement with himself or not, as coequal with himself. This means that he ceases to regard himself or his country or his party as in the right and everybody else in the wrong, but he regards all actions as manifestations of a will which is always and necessarily rational even when 'in the wrong', and therefore never wholly in the wrong. He thus sympathizes even with his opponents, and in proportion as he becomes truly rational he ceases to regard any one as an unmitigated opponent, but sees in every one a fellow-worker with himself in the cause of the good.... In absolute ethics the agent identifies himself with the entire world of fact, and in coming to understand this world prepares himself for the action appropriate to the unique situation" (304-5, my italics). 

Further, history, Collingwood claims, is duty's theoretical counterpart. That is, duty is knowledge of the self as an individual acting in a unique situation, and history, similarly, is knowledge of the other acting in their unique situation.

Something about forgiving everyone for everything, as I've often said. Absolute mind, absolute ethics, duty, history. 

These things deserve my attention.

Because utilitarianism is lame.

Further, because John Gray and Isaiah Berlin, and their ideas on 'agonistic pluralism' have quite a lot in common with this stuff. In this conversation John Gray explains how agonistic pluralism, too, humbly says, 'this is what I must do'. This is because, on their view, the world is made of incommensurabilities. That is, even when doing the right thing, we may have to do something wrong. There is no pure right or pure wrong. The world is made u on competing claims to right and wrong that can never be fully reconciled. We must humbly make decisions, do what we feel is right, even though we are breaking hearts and lives in the process. 

I wish to act dutifully. I wish to think historically. Only in this way can I continue to act while forgive myself and others.

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