Duties, Rights, and Responsibilities

In the States, we are framing our national debate around our freedom to (leave the house, shop, get haircuts, go to work) versus our freedom from (COVID19, the unmasked, germs, non-essential risks). But what if this isn’t about our right to get a haircut, or our right to be safe? What if this isn’t about our rights at all? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

I’ve been thinking a lot about duty lately. It isn’t something we talk about much in the States anymore. It isn’t something we have talked about much for a long time. Maybe this is the time to re-emphasize that democratic citizenship and patriotism don’t just bestow rights, they also incur responsibilities.

Hands wearing blue medical gloves sew a calico cloth face mask on a white sewing machine.  Three other masks are on the table.  There is a stack of fabric on the table.  Many saw sewing masks as a duty.
Many undertook mask making as a voluntary duty at the beginning of the pandemic. Is it our duty to wear them? Image via Adobe Stock.

What are our duties in a democracy during a pandemic? What obligations do we have to our fellow citizens? To our government? To the economy? To essential workers? What duty do we owe to our most vulnerable populations, to our neighbors, to our friends and families? What should we be doing for our states, towns, and cities? For our healthcare workers?

We are in the midst of an existential debate about the role of government while in the midst of a pandemic. Should our federal and state authorities prioritize our freedoms from or our freedoms to? What is our government actually for? This debate has always existed in, and to an extent defined, the United States. But in the last 30 or so years the debate has increasingly come to define us as individuals. It has become particularly loud, aggressive, and destructive, and it has become about poles rather than a spectrum of ideas and opinions.

We’ve become so caught up in this debate about what government ought to do, we’ve forgotten about what we ought to do.

Wikipedia defines duty as follows:

A duty (from “due” meaning “that which is owing”; Old French: deu, did, past participle of devoir; Latin: debere, debitum, whence “debt“) is a commitment or expectation to perform some action in general or if certain circumstances arise. A duty may arise from a system of ethics or morality, especially in an honor culture. Many duties are created by law, sometimes including a codified punishment or liability for non-performance.

I posit that duties also arise from systems of government and social expectations. The duty to vote and be informed arises from democracy. Our duty to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes is entirely a social norm. (Now, of course, we all have a duty to try desperately hard not to sneeze in public at all.)

A Louisiana National Guard soldier on duty puts a box of food into the back of a white SUV at a food bank.
Louisiana Army Guard Soldiers with the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team help package and distribute food to the local community at the Food Bank of Central Louisiana in Alexandria, La, March 24, 2020. Soldiers are assisting the food bank to ensure the supply of food for the needy is maintained and distributed during the increased demand from COVID-19. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Thea James)

Our challenge now should be to sort out, as individuals and as a society, the tangled priorities of our own personal responsibilities. Does our duty to stimulate the economy and support local businesses outweigh our personal responsibility to save for all the rainy days we are in for? Does our onus to maximize self-sufficiency surpass our obligation to leave some toilet paper for the next customer (hint, no!)? How do we balance our economic needs with our responsibility to protect our neighbors, coworkers, and families? Is it our duty to utilize our essential services to keep people employed, or to minimize our use to try to protect workers? What can we do? What should we do?

The people who sat at their sewing machines making mask after mask have been asking the right questions. The people putting bags of groceries into trunks at the local food banks are doing or exceeding their duty. The essential workers who keep us all fed and tend to our health are what a retired Royal Navy man of my acquaintance once referred to as ABCD. Above and beyond the call of duty.

Now, more than ever in most of our lifetimes, it is about what we can do for our country. It isn’t about us and our freedoms and rights, it’s about we. We the families and neighborhoods, the towns and cities, the states and the United States, the world. We the people, not we the persons.

4 thoughts on “Duties, Rights, and Responsibilities

  1. Gary

    I am reminded of the duty that so many Americans performed for their country in our many wars. My parents served in WWII. Dad served as a B-17 ground crew chief in England, North Africa, and Italy before being shipped home in late 1944 after three years of quite difficult living conditions and being shot at by German aircraft. Mom was a “Rosey-the-Riveter” worker at the Ford aircraft plant in Chicago. Both worked long hours in the war effort to make sure the world was eventually going to be free of the scourge of Nazism. Many others died or were horribly injured in battles, or lost loved ones that never came home. Mom and Dad married two weeks after his return, years after they had hoped because of Hitler’s war.

    So the sacrifices we make today in the call of duty to our country and to our fellow citizens often pale in comparison to what those who have served in times of any of our wars. I get to stay home and avoid a deadly virus that would almost certainly kill me at my age and with my health conditions. Missed haircuts, no travel, restaurant dining, shopping trips, these are not sacrifices when compared to the duty that our essential workers and especially healthcare workers are performing. My duty right now is to stay healthy so I don’t become a burden on others. My duty is to avoid unknowingly infecting anyone with a virus that is often asymptomatic. I realize that my children must work and they are contributing and doing their duty while being extra careful. I realize that the economy is hurting because the warnings and actions to slow down the spread of the virus came too late. I realize that some have no choice but to work in close spaces like meat plants and grocery stores. I don’t understand, though, how anyone insists on resuming the grand opening of nonessential services so that they can exercise their freedoms to dine-in, congregate closely at venues, party with others, and not wear masks. I don’t understand why the health and safety of our citizenry should matter less than someone’s desire to enjoy his or herself with worldly pleasures that are not necessary to basic life.

    It’s been only about three months of quarantine and masks. Yet we are almost 20% of the way toward the total U.S. dead in 4 years of WWII, have nearly doubled the number of U.S. Viet Nam War dead, and almost equaled the U.S. dead in the “Great War”, WWI. This pandemic is still in the early innings of a long ball game. Can we all work together to do our respective duties to end it? Or will some exercise their freedoms to live life to the fullest to the detriment or death of the lives of others?

    1. clmcdermid Post author

      You’re right. It’s especially important to remember now, on Memorial Day weekend, that previous generations have sacrificed much more in response to other existential threats, World War II standing out as particularly existential.

      I did just run across an interesting opinion piece from the NY Times editorial board about the fact that we are not doing so bad, overall. It’s easy to focus on the toilet paper hoarders and the frighteningly angry, but remarkably, given our divided country, most people have complied with public health advice and government orders that are, really, unenforceable. It’s worth keeping in mind, what we have accomplished together.

  2. Julie shaw

    Great post but what obligations do we, as a people owe our government?

    Quarantine is when we restrict the movement of the sick.
    Tyranny is when we restrict the movement of the healthy.

    I’m not a friend of our government or their decision making re our livelihood, our economy or our own personal decidion making.

    1. clmcdermid Post author

      I think our duty to our government is to be reasonably informed, and to vote and encourage everyone to vote. Democracy doesn’t work as a spectator sport. It is an interesting question, though. We don’t do much by way of teaching civics any longer. More answers may lie in old curricula.

      As for staying home and wearing a mask, I’m a lot more worried about my duty to my fellow citizens and my elderly mother than I am my duty to the government. This thing is so insidious with all the asymptomatic spread, and the time gap between being infectious and showing symptoms! I’d be horrified if I found out I was asymptomatic and accidentally infected people!


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