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Title: Duty
Original Title: Devoir
Volume and Page: Vol. 4 (1754), pp. 915–917
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt (biography)
Translator: Jeremy Caradonna [University of Victoria,]
Subject terms:
Natural law
Natural religion
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Duty → ." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Jeremy Caradonna. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Devoir," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 4. Paris, 1754.
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Duty → ." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Jeremy Caradonna. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Devoir," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 4:915–917 (Paris, 1754).
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Duty → , in Latin officium . Duty → is a human action conforming exactly to the laws that impose it upon us as an obligation.

Man can be considered either as a creature of God or as endowed by his Creator with certain faculties, as much of the body as of the soul, of which the effects are quite different according to the usage made of them. Lastly, man can be considered as a being inclined, indeed obliged to live in society with his fellows, and is even required to do so by his natural condition.

The first of these relationships is the true ( propre ) source of all the duties of natural law, which are directed at God and are understood by the name of natural religion . It is not necessary to assume anything further; a man, finding himself alone in the world would be perfectly able to practice his duties , at least the principal ones, from whence all others follow.

The second of these relationships provides all the duties which concern ourselves, and which can be categorized as self-love ( amour-propre ), or to speak less equivocally, the love of oneself ( amour de soi-même ). The Creator, being infinitely wise and benevolent, irrefutably intended, in giving to man certain faculties, as much of the body as of the soul, an end both worthy of himself and in accordance with our own happiness. He wants therefore that we make use of these faculties and fulfill their natural capabilities. Hence was born the obligation to work towards our own conservation; otherwise, our faculties would be quite useless. In addition, we are obliged to cultivate and perfect those faculties and reach, to the greatest extent possible, the ends ( but ) for which such faculties were bequeathed to us. A man finding himself alone on a desert island without hope of escape and without companions, would be no more authorized under the circumstances to end his own life—nor to mutilate himself or deprive himself of the usage of reason—as he would be to cease loving and honoring God.

The third and final relationship is the principle of the duties of natural law in relationship to other men. When I observe that God has placed in the world similar beings to myself, and that he has made us all equals, and furthermore when I observe that he has given each of us a strong inclination to live in society, and that He has arranged things in such a manner that we could not preserve ourselves nor subsist without the aid of our peers, from that I infer that God, our Creator and common father, wants each of us to do whatever is necessary to maintain this society, and render it equally beneficial for all.

This principle of sociability is, I must admit, the most extensive and fecund of the three since the other two can be reduced to it, and both find in sociability an efficient means of application. But this is not to imply that the three principles should be mixed up, and that the latter two should depend on sociability, as if they lacked their own independent force. All that need be said is that here, as with elsewhere, the wisdom of God was in creating powerful bonds between everything which serves His own ends.

Human nature envisaged as such reveals to us the will of the Creator, which is the foundation of the obligation stating that we are to follow the rules contained in these three great principles of our duties. The obvious and immediate utility that one finds in practicing those duties acts as a powerful impetus to fulfill them.

In consideration of the hierarchy of the three great principles of natural law that I have just established, if it is determined, as occurs from time to time, that one cannot simultaneously fulfill all the duties emanating from each law, this is, it seems to me, the way one ought to chose amongst them in such cases. 1) The duties of man towards God take precedence over all the others. 2) When there is a conflict between two duties pertaining to the love of oneself, or of sociability, one must give preference to the duty → accompanied by the greatest degree of utility. In other words, one must gauge whether the good that one would procure for oneself and for others in practicing one of these duties , would be of greater quantity than the good that would occur, either to us or to others, from the neglect ( omission ) of this duty → , which one would not know how to fulfill without neglecting the second duty → . 3) If, all things being equal, there arises a conflict between a duty → of the love of oneself and a duty → of sociability, whether this conflict occurs by the doing of others or not, then the love of oneself must take precedence, unless it is a matter of inequality, in which case one must give preference to the duty → amongst the two which is accompanied by the greatest degree of utility. Let us now enter into the details of the three general classes in which I have grouped our duties . This allows us to present to the reader, in a single article, a sort of abridged moral course—an opportunity that would be wrong to refuse.

The duties of man towards God—to the degree that one can actually discover such duties by reason alone—in general boil down to the knowledge and worship ( culte ) of this sovereign being. See God. See also Religion (Culte).

The duties of man in relationship to himself follow directly and immediately from the love of oneself. The love of oneself obliges man to conserve his being as best as he can without harming the laws of religion and sociability, and also to situate himself in the best state possible to acquire the happiness of which he is capable. Being made of a soul and a body, man must take care of both.

The care of the soul in general boils down to cultivating ( se former ) the heart and the mind. That is, to determine ( se faire ) for oneself a proper idea of the fair price of things which ordinarily excite ideas in us. In addition we must properly regulate our ideas and form them to the proprieties of reason and religion, to which all men are indispensably linked. But there is another way to cultivate the soul, which, although it is not absolutely necessary to fulfill the duties common to all men, is very suitable for adorning and perfecting our faculties, and in rendering life more gentle and pleasant—namely, the study of the Arts and of the Sciences. Some types of knowledge are necessary for all people and must be acquired by all. Yet while some knowledge is useful for everyone, some is only necessary or useful for a small portion of men, who are those, in fact, that have embraced a particular art or science. It is clear that each individual must seek out and learn that which is necessary for all men, but also what is necessary for one's own trade or profession.

The duties of man, in regard to the care of the body, are to maintain and increase the natural strengths of the body through proper sustenance and suitable labors. One can see clearly the excess and the vices that are to be avoided in this regard. The care one takes in preserving one's own being involves the appropriate limits of the legitimate defense of oneself, of one's honor, and of one's possessions. See Defense of Oneself, Honor.

Next I will address the duties of man in relationship to others, which I will be forced to deduce at greater length. In general, they boil down to two classes: the first are based uniquely on the mutual obligations that extend to all men considered as such; the second assumes some human establishment, either formed by man, adopted by man, or existing as an accessory state. That is to say, a state where one is consequently placed by some human action or a human establishment created by man after birth. Such are, for example, those relationships between a father and his son, a husband and his wife, a master and his servant, a sovereign and his subject.

The first duties require that each person practice them towards all others, whereas the latter are obligatory only in relation to certain people and under certain conditions or certain situations. Thus, one can call the latter conditional duties , and the former absolute duties .

The first absolute duty → , of each man towards all others, is to harm no one. This is the most general duty → because each man can expect as much from his peers as men, and each man must practice it. It is also the easiest because it consists of simply preventing oneself from acting. This is hardly difficult unless one gives in to unrestrained and violent passions, which resist the most vivid lights of reason. Lastly, this duty → is the most necessary because without the practice of such duties there could not exist a society amongst men. From this duty → follows the necessity of rectifying wrongdoings ( mal ), prejudices, and the damage done unto others. See Damage.

The second general, absolute duty → of men is that each person must respect and treat others as naturally equal beings; that is, as beings who are as a good as oneself, because this is a matter of a natural or moral equality. See Equality.

The third general duty → respective of men considered as members of society, is that each must contribute, as much as one can possibly do, to the utility of others. One can procure the advantage of others in an infinity of different ways, of which several are indispensable. One even owes duties to others which, without being necessary for the conservation of the human race, serve, however, to render it more beautiful and happy. Such are the duties of compassion, of liberality, of beneficence, of recognition, of hospitality—in a word, everything ordinarily understood by the name of humanity or charity, in opposition to rigorous justice properly understood, of which the duties are quite often founded upon some convention. Yet it should be noted that in an extreme necessity, the imperfect right that gives laws compassion or charity, changes into a perfect right, so that one can be compelled by force to do that which, outside of such a case, should be left to the conscience and to the honor of each person. See Compassion, Liberality, Recognition, Hospitality, Humanity.

The conditional duties of man towards his peers are all those in which one enters into a voluntary, deliberate, or tacit agreement. The general duty → that natural law prescribes here is that each person holds inviolably to their word, or that each person fulfills the promises or conventions to which one has committed themselves. See Promise, Convention.

There are several human establishments upon which are based the conditional duties of man in relationship to others. The principal establishments are the usage of speech, the ownership of property, and the price of things.

In order that the admirable instrument of speech be returned ( rapporté ) to its legitimate usage, and to the intention of the Creator, one must hold as an inviolable maxim the duty → of not deceiving anyone through speech, nor by any other sign established to express one's thoughts. It is evident how much truth is of necessity, lies are lamentable ( blâmable ), and mental restrictions are criminal. See Truth, Lie, Mental Restriction.

The duties which result from the ownership of property, considered in itself, and that to which a sincere proprietor is held, are as follows. 1) Each person is required ( tenu ), except in the case of war, to let others enjoy their property peacefully, and to never damage ( faire périr ), degrade, take, or appropriate ( attirer à soi ) the property of others, neither through violence nor fraud, neither directly nor indirectly. Hence larceny, theft, plundering, extortion, and other similar crimes are forbidden, for they transgress the rights that each person has over their property. See Larceny, etc. If the property of others has fallen into the hands of someone else—assuming there is no bad faith or criminality, and assuming that the thing is still in nature—that person must make the greatest effort to see that it is returned to its rightful owner. See Property, Owner.

The duties which concern the price of things are easily deduced from nature and from the intentions of the free commitments that one enters into. It is therefore useless to consider them. See Commitment.

Let us now run through the duties of secondary states (é tats accessoires ). Let us begin with those of marriage, which is the archetypal model of society and the nursery of the human race. The intention of this tight union demands that each spouse share the same feelings of affection, the good and the bad that occurs to them, the education of their children, and the care of domestic affairs; they must console one another and relieve one another's pain; they must have a mutual condescension and deference towards one another. In a word, they must put into practice everything that can perpetuate fortuitous relationships, or soften the bitterness arising from a mismatched marriage. See Marriage [Marriage (Natural Law), Marriage (Jurisprudence)), Marriage (Theology)], Husband, Wife.

From marriage comes children; hence are born the reciprocal duties between fathers and mothers and their children. A father and a mother must nourish and maintain their children equally and with as much comfort as possible. They must form the body and the mind of each child, without preference, through good education, which renders them useful to their patrie , and makes them into good people with good morals. They must make their children embrace, from an early age, an honest and suitable profession, so that they can establish and increase their fortunes by their own means, etc. See Father, Mother.

The children, for their part, are obliged to cherish, honor, and respect their fathers and mothers, towards whom they have such great obligations—to obey them, to serve them with the utmost zeal, to assist them when they are in need or in old age, to listen to their opinions and take their advice concerning important matters, which they know through experience and wisdom. Lastly, children must patiently endure the bad moods of a parent or the deficiencies that they may have, etc.

The secondary reciprocal duties of those who serve and those who are served are, for the former, respect, loyalty, and obedience to commands which are neither wrong nor unjust; this is always implied when speaking of the obedience that inferiors owe to their superiors, etc. A master must nourish his inferiors, furnish them with necessities, in sickness as in health, and to take into consideration their strength and natural skillfulness so as to not demand of them any travails that they cannot handle, etc. See Master, Servant, for that which relates to slaves, See Slave.

It seems to me that there are no advantages nor pleasures that one cannot find in the practice of the duties which we have treated up until now, and in the three secondary duties of which we have just explained the nature and the reciprocal commitments. But since men have formed political bodies or civil societies which are the fourth of the secondary states, these societies are composed of a sovereign and subjects, each of whom have duties to fulfill.

The general rule which contains the duties of the sovereign is the good of the people. The actual duties are: 1) To form subjects with good morals; 2) To establish good laws; 3) To see to their execution; 4) To have a just temperament in the determination and exacting of punishment; 5) To entrust public employments to honest men who are capable of such management; 6) To raise taxes and subsidies in a suitable manner, and to employ them usefully; 7) To see to the maintenance and augmentation of goods for subjects; 8) To prevent factions and cabals; 9) To take precautions against the invasion of enemies. See Sovereign.

The duties of subjects are either general or particular. The former are born out of the common obligation of subjects as members of the same state and subjected to the same government; the latter result from the diverse employments of which each person is entrusted ( charg é) by the sovereign.

The general duties of subjects are directed at either the administrators ( conducteurs ) of the state or the entire body of the state, or at certain individuals amongst co-citizens.

In regard to the administrators of the state, all subjects owe to them the respect, loyalty, and obedience demanded by their character. As far as the whole body of the state is concerned, a good citizen must prefer the good of the public over all other things, and sacrifice his riches to it, and even his life if it is called for. The duty → of a subject towards his compatriots consists of living peacefully and forming a solid union, as much as that is possible. See Subject.

The individual duties of subjects are still attached to certain employments, of which the functions effect either the entire state or some small part of it. There is a general maxim concerning these two possibilities, and that is that one ought never to aspire to or accept any public position if one does not feel themselves capable of properly fulfilling its responsibilities. But these are the principal duties which are proper to the persons who have taken on ( rev é tues ) the most noteworthy public positions.

A minister of state must be committed to knowing the business and the interests of the government, and particularly in his own district. The intention of his council must always be the public good and not his individual interest. He must never conceal that which he must disclose, nor disclose that which he must conceal, etc. The ministers of religion must confine themselves to the functions of their position ( charge ), must never teach that which does not appear to be true, and must instruct the people in their duties . The ministers must not dishonor their character nor waste the fruits of their ministry through vicious morals, etc. Magistrates and other officers of justice must render justice equally to the little people and the poor as to the great men and the rich. They must protect the people against oppression. They must not let themselves be corrupted by presents nor by solicitations. They must judge by moderation and knowledge, without passion nor prejudice. They must avoid going to trial or at least to end them as quickly as possible, etc. Generals and other officers of war must maintain military discipline, conserve the troops under their command, inspire in them feelings that conform to the public good. They must never show prejudice to the state, upon whom they depend, etc. Soldiers must be content with their pay, must defend their posts, must, when the occasion presents itself, prefer an honorable death over a shameful flight. Ambassadors and ministers of foreign affairs must be prudent, circumspect ( circonspects ), loyal to their secrets and to the interests of their sovereign; they must make themselves inaccessible to all sorts of corruptions, etc.

All of these particular duties of subjects that I have just enumerated wind up as public responsibilities, which is their point of origin as well. But for general duties , they always subsist towards such or such state as long as one remains a member of it.

One can see by this detail that there are no actions in civil society void of obligations and duties, and one is considered an honorable man, according to Cicero, in proportion to their observation or neglect. But since these obligations appear too burdensome to our century, it has been judged necessary to decrease the load and alter the nature of such obligations. From this perspective, we have imperceptibly altered the meaning of the word duty → by applying it to morals ( moeurs ), manners, and frivolous usages, of which the easy practice has taken the place of morality ( morale ) for us. We have agreed to substitute oboles for the pieces of gold which should be circulating.

Thus, what has occurred is that duties , according to men of rank ( les grands ), and which are, according to them, the most important part of education, consist of hardly anything other than superficial concerns ( soins futiles ), the appearance of esteem, respect for one's superior, the rules of composure and politeness, oral and written compliments, vanity, puerile formalities, and other sorts of foolishness with which youths are so inculcated, to the point where they regard this foolishness as the only recommended action, the observation of which is their real concern. The duties of the fair sex in particular are as easy to fulfill as they are enjoyable:

All those which one imposes upon us (wrote not long ago the ingenious Zilia in her Lettres d’une Péruvienne ) boil down to entering in one day the greatest number of houses possible, in order to give and receive a tribute of mutual praise on the beauty of the face, of the hair, and the figure, on the practice of taste and the choice of adornments." [1]

It is not surprising that these duties have prospered because, beyond the fact that they stem from laziness and luxury, they require little effort and have become highly praised. But the true duties that proceed from natural law and from Christianity are more challenging to fulfill and constantly combat our passions and our vices; and to make it all the more repugnant ( dégoût ), their practice is not followed by great praise.


1. [The reference is to Françoise de Graffigny, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (Paris, 1747). Zilia is the main character and the author of the letters that make up this epistolary novel about an Inca princess who is kidnapped by Spaniards, captured by the French, and lands in Paris. An English translation is available: Letters from a Peruvian Woman , trans. David Kornacker (New York, 1993). The quotation is from letter XXXII.]

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