My views on the royal family are very straight forward. As an institution they should be abolished, and the United Kingdom should become a republic. But other than to argue, when asked, that I am totally opposed to any form of inherited power or privilege, however symbolic, I tend to keep quiet about them for the simple reason that I have better things to think, write and talk about. However, my guilty pleasure whilst lying in bed of a morning with a cup of tea is to check-out the front pages of the main newspapers, often to be amused by the reactions of the right-wing press. This morning this particular section of the press were all focussing on ‘duty’ – and I just can’t resist some comment.
In response to the fall out between ‘the family’ and Harry and Meghan, and especially to the latter’s televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, several newspapers focussed their attention on the Queen’s comments contained in an address to the Commonwealth (and please don’t get me started on this post-colonial institution). The Daily Mail’s headline, for example, was “Queen tells Commonwealth what real service is. Duty means everything”. The Daily Express led with “Duty and family unite us”, whilst the front page of The Times included the headline “Queen highlights duty as Meghan speaks out.” This word ‘duty’ may only be a small word, but it’s word crammed full of meaning. It’s a word whose meaning needs unpicking a bit.
The origin of the word can be traced back to Latin and Old French where it referred to a debt, to something which was owed and which we had an obligation to repay. Cicero, the early Roman philosopher, writing ‘On Duty’, claimed that there are four sources of this debt. The first, he argued, arose as a result of our being human. Now whilst this may make some sense to someone of a religious nature (to someone who believes that we have been given the gift of life and therefore forever have a debt, a duty to the supernatural being who gave us life) it makes no sense to me. In an evolutionary sense, all life, and particularly human life, came about by chance. Whilst I can see a case for arguing that once we understand our evolutionary place in the web of life we have an obligation to future generations to behave in ways that will preserve, or even enhance their chances of survival, this cannot be a debt. A debt has to get its meaning from the past, not the future.
The second source of debt for Cicero comes as a result of one’s particular place in life – for example from one’s family, country or job. I suspect that this is where the Queen’s comments come from, and it’s a source that has some merit, but probably not in the sense meant by the Queen. We are who we are, we develop our view and understanding of the world, and secure our survival within the world through our relations and interactions with others. In this sense we have a constant debt to others. To take just one example, many jobs, and not just those in the care sector, involve a ‘duty of care’, a moral or legal obligation to ensure the safety or well-being of others. If you enter into a contract with a bus company to drive a bus in return for an amount of money, not only do you have a duty to keep to your side of the contract and your employer to theirs, you have a duty of care to keep your passengers safe.
The above debt is to our fellow members of society, to all those people we depend upon to maintain our wellbeing. If you have been born into a privileged family, a family like the royal family, you most certainly have a debt to repay – but the debt is largely to those countless previous generations from whom your family has extracted wealth and land, including previous generations from foreign countries that were robbed of their resources, labour and lives in the process of creating an empire. This debt cannot be repaid by maintaining some concept of duty if by duty you mean visiting those countries on formal visits, becoming patrons of charities, having an honorary rank in the armed forces, or attending state occasions – however ‘hard’ you consider this work to be. No, the only way to repay this debt, and therefore do your duty, would be to return the vast majority of your wealth to the citizens of this country and the countries of the Commonwealth and earn a living like the rest of us have had to do. At the very least doing your duty would entail rejecting the privileges of that family.
The third and fourth sources of duty for Cicero come about as a result of one’s character and as a result of one’s expectations for oneself. For the sake of completeness, I will briefly mention both of these together. Whilst one’s character is primarily the result of the complex interaction of genetics and childhood experiences, it can be consciously developed by the individual to varying degrees through (as Aristotle argued) the formation of ‘right’ habits. So whilst it makes little sense to have a debt to your genetic makeup (in the sense of a debt that can be repaid), and it makes some sense to have a debt to your parents or to those adults who raised you (though this could be a debt in a positive or negative sense), for me it makes most sense to have a duty to oneself (and to wider society) to develop your character in the service of others and future generations. If one were a member of the royal family this would entail the rejection of privilege, the development of those skills needed by society, and a commitment to earn a living through hard work.