DUTY VS OBLIGATION — AN ARCHETYPAL DISTINCTION
1. To provide the requisite perspective and enable better appreciation of this blog, I would like to begin with reference to a quotation that I have frequently seen on posters in many houses and which I have found always extremely relevant:-
“A house is built by hands;
but a home is built by hearts”.
2. The above quote typifies the essential distinction between a “house” and a “home”. A house is basically a concrete, brick and mortar structure equipped with the creature and material comforts whose sole purpose is to provide a physical place to stay as a shelter, akin to a hotel and nothing else. It is only the emotions, sentiments, feelings, memories and a sense of bonding which converts it into a “home” — a place which serves as the nucleus of the family, the basis for all experiences of life — something much more deep and extensive with an inbuilt sense of belongingness and overflowing with deep-rooted, intense and innate feelings of love, compassion and tender loving care which its members feel and exhibit for each other. While the house refers to just a physical structure meant to serve your physical needs, the home is the pivot, the foundation of the family and basis for a meaningful, purposeful and balanced co-existence.
3. The reason why I ventured into a seemingly tangential area, which also perhaps might seem unrelated, is to highlight a similar archetypal distinction between a duty and an obligation — something which needs to be understood and appreciated and which also has parallels in many fields of daily human endeavour.
4. The literal meaning of “obligation” is the state of having to do something because it is law or arises out of a binding promise or contract or because it is demanded by custom. To put it simply, to my mind, an obligation carries with it a sense of compulsion whereby the underlying act has to be performed by virtue of a binding contract or an irrevocable agreement or a statutory mandate with invariably the power of an authority backing it and has an accompaniment of some kind of pecuniary liability or punishment for non-performance. It normally carries with it a well-defined framework laying out its parameters and scope and carries with it a sense of mandatory compliance.
5. A duty on the other hand is a commitment or willingness to perform certain tasks, functions or actions in general or in certain specific circumstances if a person feels that morally it is the right thing to do. A duty carries with it some sense of morality and ethics which goads the individual to perform certain tasks or activities or to behave in a specified manner. The need and even desire to perform and fulfil a duty arises not from any defined set of rules, statutes or any legal framework but has the force of moral suasion together with societal expectations to back it.
6. The basic distinction between them lies in the fact that while an obligation has roots in a contract or some kind of a legal/statutory framework, a duty is invariably voluntary governed by the need to fulfil your role as a responsible citizen and what you owe to your family, friends, peers, elders, juniors, neighbours and indeed the society which incubates, nurtures and accepts you.
7. To further amplify the distinction, while it is your obligation to comply with all rules and statutes that the Executive has put in place, e.g. complying with traffic rules, lane driving, sticking to speed limits etc, behaving in a civilized manner, being respectful to the members of the society, specially elders, being compassionate towards the needy (without appearing condescending ) tending to the sick et al, are acts not imbued with a sense of obligation but are duties — things which traditions, ethics and morality mandates and a civilized society expects from all of us, as its right thinking, rational and well-meaning constituents.
8. Of course, while there could be, an infact invariably there is an overlap between the two, there is to my mind, no competition or conflict between the two. The overlap could be seen in the context of the need and necessity to comply with the traffic regulations. While the basic need for adherence is by all means an obligation, the underlying purpose is also the performance of and fulfilment of a duty which is to provide a congenial and orderly atmosphere for traffic to flow thereby facilitating a safe environment, reducing the risk of accidents, protecting human lives specially children and senior citizens and collaterally doing your own bit to reduce noise (by eschewing the habit of unnecessarily honking) and vehicular pollution. To view it in another context, while compliance with a statutory obligation per se (might be and in fact is necessary) for societal balance, it is only when the same are complied with as a sense of fulfilling something of a duty that its benefits actually crystallize and become all the more exponential.
9. The distinction was brought home to me perhaps again in a seemingly circuitious context by a recent conversation with a family elder when he sought to bring out to me the distinction between parenthood and fatherhood, (no gender bias here but since the conversation was between two men, we thought of fatherhood and not motherhood) two seemingly identical expressions yet with dramatically different and diverse undertones. He sought to bring out to me the fact that while parenthood is simply the physical fact of being a parent and performing the duties and having the standing of a parent, fatherhood (or for that matter even motherhood) carries with it the additional responsibilities and concomitant of love and tender care, sans-recourse. Parenthood is the direct result of the need for humans to procreate and for their lineage to continue uninterrupted and is factually a physical state. Father/motherhood, although a natural extension of parenthood carries with it the umbilical cord, among other things, of emotional sentiments, compassion and a sense of unrequited love.
10. The subtle, yet to my perhaps uninitiated mind, the delicate yet clear distinction between “house” and “home” and “parenthood” and “fatherhood” also extrapolates itself into understanding the distinction between obligation and duty. The performance of an obligation carries with it some sense of compulsion to engage in a specific act or activity. This is no accompanying morality or self-generated impetus or motivation attached thereto, as in the case of a “duty”. Unlike while discharging an obligation, the performance of a duty is not externally imposed but owes its genesis to a sense of morality which guides an individual to perform a particular task or activity. The impetus to discharge a duty is the result of a social force which binds an individual to a course of action/conduct demanded by that force. An individual would ordinarily have no choice or discretion in complying with an obligation which could have the backing of a statute or state-mandated dictat whereas in the case of a duty it is the innermost self or the conscience which would be the motivating factor to perform a duty backed by societal demand and expectations. To illustrate it with an example, most people would consider paying taxes to be an obligation (primarily because it is statutorily mandated but also because of the general feeling that the resources mopped up by collecting taxes are not channelled into the desired end-use or are funnelled off) on the other hand taking care of family elders, destitutes and providing succour to the under-privileged is a duty.
11. The conclusion is that while obligations arise from some kind of an external force, duties invariably arise as a means to repay your moral yet discretionary debt to fellow human beings. Obligations arise from your existence as a responsible citizen while duties arise from the need to be a good human being. Of course, discharging of both is necessary to maintain equanimity and balance in an otherwise strife torn world. The performance of an obligation with the sense of a duty would only pave the way for optimal, compliance and efficiency in resultant outcome. However, performing a duty as an “obligation” would only undermine the underlying sensitivity and purity with possible deleterious effects and destabilizing consequences.
12. In a day and age when there is a constant clamour for rights and their denial a major issue, there is also a need to focus on our duties and obligations and understand the subtle and nuanced distinction between them.