Just How Very Much We Owe
During a formal debate with my friends about this question “What is the simple, coherent, and meaningful aim that we should commit our whole lives toward fulfilling?” I proposed the following theory as part of my answer:
The Noblesse Oblige
The Noblesse Oblige is a duty-centric worldview and ethic that aims at paying our dues to our selves, our families, our communities, our countries, the world, the past, and the future.¹ Our target is the sum of our duties, and to hit the bullseye requires condensing these duties into a single point or life (an analogy that, like the reality it represents, is impossible).
I do not believe that morality requires us to pay off all our debts, that we would be immoral if we fail to do so. Rather, good people are those who make an effort. And great, virtuous, noble people — people worth emulating — are those who do well — who fulfill many of their duties without sacrificing others and find replicable ways of being that achieve this end. I would like to become someone worth emulating. Perhaps this is how.
1. Dues to Our Selves
Reason is a tool that grants us freedom and the ability to discover The Good. The Good is the source of all objective value; thus, we have a duty to use reason to pursue it, which involves study, reflection, and action. Study because much work to discover The Good has been done before us. Reflection because we must judge everything with our own reason. And action because our freedom to act and our knowledge of what is right requires us to act right.
The Good consists of three transcendentals: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Pursuing Truth requires a spirit of discovery that brings us into contact with every corner of the universe and our minds. Pursuing Beauty requires a spirit of creativity that creates, expresses, and elevates uniquely. Pursuing Goodness requires a spirit of love that gives as much as one can. These spirits move us and give us meaning.
Some spirits move us more than others, and we are gifted with different capabilities than others. Because we are limited creatures, in body and mind, in time and space, free beings bound by the laws of nature, rational beings tempted by irrational desires, we cannot discover everything, create and express everything, or love everything. Our interaction with infinite and absolute value in this world is finite and conditional. But we can do our best, and we can make progress. As we have different gifts, we have a duty to hone them — to turn them into talents, careers, and virtues. Talents because we must focus and perfect our actions. Careers because we must provide value for our selves and others. And virtues because we must strive to be worth emulating.
Because we are spirit within flesh, we also have a duty to make our flesh a temple, to maintain a productive environment, which for our mind is our body. To achieve our full potential in thought and act, we must make our bodies as useful and capable as possible — to become strong, healthy, and skillful. Strong so that we can do what needs to be done. Healthy so that we can do it for as long as is needed. And skillful so that we can be efficient and innovative.
2. Dues to Our Families
We were not born rational, knowledgeable, and capable beings. We were born dumb and weak. Were it not for our family, we would have remained in this condition until we died; their love actualized our potential. Thus, we owe our families all that we become and have a duty to repay that debt.
Additionally, we have a duty to start families of our own in order to love them and actualize their potential, to commit to someone who will be an invaluable partner in pursuing The Good and with whom one can create new value in children. Fulfilling these duties involves being grateful and respectful toward those we owe; providing for their welfare; building a productive environment for them; helping them be rational and aim at the right goals; molding our children into rational, knowledgeable, and capable beings; and working through the suffering of the world and our irrational desires together.
Friends are others we also have such duties to, though, like spouses, they are chosen. Once chosen, however, like spouses, we are bound to them by our commitment to honesty and the value they provide us.
3. Dues to Our Communities
Our communities consist of those we often interact with and the environment we often interact with them in. Throughout time, people have organized themselves into localized groups with systems that bind them together, guide their interactions toward what is right, and provide mutual benefits to aid the fulfillment of their duties. Some examples are clubs, schools, churches, towns, states, etc.
If our family is part of a community, then they agreed to its rules and received its benefits, which means that they did not raise us independently.² If we enter into a community, then we agree to its rules and receive its benefits, which imposes duties on us to abide by its rules and provide benefits to other members.
We may change communities through the course of our lives and add to or subtract from our membership list, but we must rationally weigh our duties when making such decisions. We must know what sort of agreements we are a part of and what they require of us. We owe our childhood communities by fulfilling the potential they saw in us and making good on their investments in us, but we may leave them to pursue our duties to our families and selves as just communities are organized to aid that purpose. An unjust community is no true community, but if there is some value in it, then we may have a duty to try and fix it, to the best of our ability, if we can do so without sacrificing our other duties.
If we are struggling to be rational and pursue The Good ourselves, then we will have little success in providing for our families. If we are struggling to provide for our families, then we will have little success in fixing our communities. It is thus our duty to seek just communities that aid us and that we may aid.
4. Dues to Our Countries
Countries are a type of community, though they tend to organize more people than can interact with and know each other, and tend to outline the outermost boundaries of communities, beyond which is anarchy. Since no one can know all those they are citizens of countries with and can not interact with everyone to solve problems collectively, countries must delegate much rule-making and benefit-providing to smaller communities, focusing only on those broadest and most essential issues such as defense and justice.
In protecting the essential requirements of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, from without and within, countries are owed our allegiance, property, liberty, and lives when they are unable to protect these requirements without collecting our debts. Like smaller communities, an unjust country is no true country, but if our country is fundamentally unjust, then we will have little success in fulfilling our duties to our communities, families, and selves. We thus have a duty to ensure our country remains just, fix it if possible, and rebuild it if needed.
5. Dues to the World
We are not the only ones with duties to our selves, our families, our communities, and our countries. Everyone else has those same duties because they are like us. Because, like us, other people have the capacity to pursue The Good, they are equally valuable to us, and we have a duty to treat them as such. We have a duty to help everyone be rational; develop their gifts into talents, careers, and virtues; become strong, healthy, and skillful; provide for their families; form just communities; and defend just countries.
Because we are not all-knowing and all-powerful, our efforts to make the world better are best pursued from the individual on up. We can know and hold power over our selves best; therefore, we should try to perfect our selves first. Our families are those closest to us, so we should try to perfect them next. Our communities are ideally composed of those we can know and trust, so we should try to perfect them third. And countries, dikes holding back the tides of tyranny and anarchy, being necessary for fulfilling one’s other duties, require us to constantly maintain and defend them.
People in different countries tend to work on their duties alone out of practicality and efficiency, but, as equals, we have duties to overcome the boundaries between us and help each other. Just countries have a duty to work together toward common defense and the promotion of freedom and justice for all people. All people, being rational and unique, have a duty to consider each other’s cultures and ideas — their methods of pursuing The Good. We all have a duty to create as much prosperity as possible and share it globally to aid those who are suffering; to build the most productive environment for fulfilling our common duties; and to pursue a world of discovery, creativity, and love aimed at Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
6. Dues to the Past and Future
Because everything we currently have is due to those who came before, we have a debt to the past that must be repaid in gratitude, respect, and by never giving up their noble goals. One hundred billion people have lived over fifty thousand years.³ That’s a lot of experiments; a lot of failures and a lot of successes. More wisdom has been accrued than we can come to in our lifetime, and all we can hope is to add some small insight to it and not take the wrong path forward.
Finally, all these duties apply not only to the present but to the future as well. We must be rational at all times; provide for our family, our children, and their children, etc.; build and defend just communities and countries that will last and grow stronger; and advance the world and all in it closer toward The Good. Our duties to the future potential of humanity must not be forgotten in the busy present.
The Proper Order of Our Duties
1. Selves (our relation to the Good/God), 2. Families (those who gave us life and raised us), 3. Communities (the environment we interact with others in), 4. Countries (the swords and shields of justice, which are ordered first when threatened, for they are the environment in which prior duties are fulfilled), 5. World (our equal duties to all those who were created equal), 6. Past and Future (where we derive guidance from and direct ambition toward).
I put the self first because it is the entity that needs to commit to reason and pursuing the Good, but I now think I should clarify that it also goes last, because it is through pursuing the other duties that we commit to the Good.
- Originally referring to the great responsibility that came with great power, I repurposed the term to express my belief that everyone has a duty to pursue nobility.
- “It takes a village to raise a child.”
- Wesley Stephenson, “Do the Dead Outnumber the Living?” BBC, Feb. 4, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16870579.