The term duty is used interchangeably with the term obligation.  The concept identifies something (an action) that we are required, or bound, to do.  An individual may have a variety of duties, including professional, familial, civic, and/or religious duties.

In ethics, discussions of duty center on moral duties, or obligations.  Many people feel that morality is fundamentally a matter of duties (a Christian, for example, may feel that living a moral life amounts to dutiful adherence to the ten commandments, or dutifully living according to God’s will).

Duty-based, or deontological (derived from the Greek word for duty, deon), accounts of ethics also place moral duties at the center of ethical life.

In deontological theories, duties describe the rules by which we must live, if we are to live a life that is morally good.  They include actions that we must do and actions that we must refrain from doing.  Thus, we may be morally required (that is, we may have a duty) to provide assistance to a person who has been injured or who is in harm’s way (provided that it does not put oneself in harm’s way in the process), or we may have a duty to refrain from harming others.

Duties also have an important relationship with rightsRights imply and impose certain duties to others.  Thus, a person’s right to free speech imposes on others a duty to not violate that right by censuring or otherwise interfering with that person’s ability to speak freely.  Likewise, one’s right to life implies a duty to others – namely, a duty to not kill.

Some duty-based accounts of ethics also identify duty as the appropriate motivation for moral action.  According to this view, an act is moral only if the performance of that act is motivated by a sense of duty.  Thus, if an act is motivated by a person’s self interest, it does not count as a moral act.  This stipulation, however, is not a feature of all duty-based accounts.

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