A Brief Thought on "American Duty"

On Monday, President Obama delivered his second inauguration speech, describing his vision for the future of the United States. He ended with: "Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom."

What caught my attention in his closing is the use of the term "duty." It is not a word that is often mentioned in political discourse, at least not recently, with a preference instead to speak about rights, freedoms and values.

In his victory speech in November 2012, Obama again spoke of duty:

"The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That's what makes America great."

Whether the president intended love, charity, duty, and patriotism as responsibilities or rights or both, the term duty seems to me the most vague, and while I find it easy to name my specific rights as an American, pointing to the Bill of Rights and other legislation, I find it very difficult to define and understand the extent of my duties as a citizen.

Historically, the concept of "duty" has been framed as the highest moral calling. It has also been understood as a tool of manipulation or the name given to excuse actions originating from more nefarious motivations. It is the manifestation of a commitment that can arise from different sources; we have duties as human beings, as members of a family and community, as individuals with access to certain resources, and of course as citizens of a nation. A duty can require or forbid certain action, but it derives from a sense of debt -- of owing something. Finally, duties are entwined with rights: It is my right to exercise free speech and it is the government's duty to uphold that right.

So, what are my minimum duties as an American to my government, my nation, and my fellow citizens, and how do I know those are my duties? In a quest for answers, I emailed friends, family members, colleagues, and skimmed through message boards. Some responded that our American duties were nothing more than paying taxes and voting, others suggested serving in the military if drafted, obeying the law, serving on a jury, combating tyranny, defending the Constitution, pursuing personal prosperity, participating in the local community, being informed, protecting free speech, having faith in the founding principles of our nation. One person argued that the whole idea of America was that an individual had a duty to no one other than himself. Another suggested that it was our duty to give all that we are able for our country. People pointed to the Constitution, the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States, reason, personal morals, and even their mother as a reference for understanding their American duties.

I think resistance to define and speak in terms of duty arises from a fundamental tension we are facing in the U.S. Self-interest and individualism are driving forces in our economy and our culture; duty is antithetical to this. Associated with humility, it demands action that is not out of self-interest. The word "dutiful" has become pejorative.

Many Americans make significant sacrifices for their country, yet our patriotic rhetoric is vague and undefined, and the whole notion of American exceptionalism points to a sense of further entitlement; it does not spur us to reflect on what is demanded in exchange for such freedom.

If our rights are inalienable, then so are our duties. If we have an unclear idea of what we owe our country, then we are failing to engage as full citizens. We need to start talking about what is expected, not just of our leaders, but of ourselves in exchange for the privilege of being an American. We need to clearly define our duties and obligations and understand what they mean in practice.