Each entry in the Ayn Rand Lexicon contains information on one discrete topic, but reading two entries together can generate dividends too. Taken together, the entries for “ ‘Duty’ ” and “Responsibility/Obligation” show different sides of the same issue and help to distinguish a widespread view in ethics from the Objectivist approach.

Rand notes that people often equate morality with a set of duties, be they divine commandments or social demands. “The meaning of the term ‘duty,’ ” she observes, “is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest.”

A deontological (duty-centered) theory of ethics confines moral principles to a list of prescribed “duties” and leaves the rest of man’s life without any moral guidance, cutting morality off from any application to the actual problems and concerns of man’s existence. Such matters as work, career, ambition, love, friendship, pleasure, happiness, values (insofar as they are not pursued as duties) are regarded by these theories as amoral, i.e., outside the province of morality. If so, then by what standard is a man to make his daily choices, or direct the course of his life?

In the “Responsibility/Obligation” entry, she explains that it is causality — not “duty” — that generates the necessity of acting in a particular way.

Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if — ” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “ — if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think — if you want to know what to do — if you want to know what goals to choose — if you want to know how to achieve them. . . .

In a rational ethics, it is causality — not “duty” — that serves as the guiding principle in considering, evaluating and choosing one’s actions, particularly those necessary to achieve a long-range goal. . . .

A “disciple of causation,” as Rand puts it, is “profoundly dedicated to his values . . . . He is incapable of desiring contradictions, of relying on a ‘somehow,’ of rebelling against reality.”

Accepting no mystic “duties” or unchosen obligations, he is the man who honors scrupulously the obligations which he chooses.

Therefore, unlike the adherent of “duty,”

The disciple of causation faces life without inexplicable chains, unchosen burdens, impossible demands or supernatural threats. His metaphysical attitude and guiding moral principle can best be summed up by an old Spanish proverb: “God said: ‘Take what you want and pay for it.’ ” But to know one’s own desires, their meaning and their costs requires the highest human virtue: rationality.

If these issues intrigue you, here are some other resources on ARI Campus for further exploration:

  • Ayn Rand’s 1970 article “Causality Versus Duty” (which is the source of many quotations in these two Lexicon entries) explains how the anti-concept “duty,” central to Kant’s ethics, destroys morality — and why the principle of causality is morality’s indispensable foundation.
  • Philosopher Leonard Peikoff discusses Immanuel Kant’s highly influential moral theory, showing how Kant severed the connection between virtue and value and upheld adherence to one’s duty for its own sake, regardless of the consequences. The lecture is called “Immanuel Kant and the Ethics of Duty.”
  • In “The Foundations of the Objectivist Ethics: Egoism and the Nature of Value” Peikoff explores Rand’s alternative to Kantian duty ethics.