The Secrets Of Doing Your Stoic Duty

In this post I’ll explore why I think that you should have a duty. I’ll argue that humans are social animals. As such, we have an obligation towards members of our society. To work together in an attempt to make ourselves and the world a better place.

Should you have a duty to others, even if they are not virtuous? In Book II of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius he suggests:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.

On Duty

Cicero, an early philosopher who discusses duty in his work “On Duty”, suggests that duties can come from four different sources

  1. as result of being human
  2. as a result of one’s particular place in life (one’s family, one’s country, one’s job)
  3. as a result of one’s character
  4. as a result of one’s own moral expectations for oneself

Taking this a step further:

Kant thought that the only good reason for doing the right thing was because of duty – if you had some other reason (perhaps you didn’t commit murder because you were too scared, not because it was your duty not to) then that you would not have acted in a morally good way.

But having another reason as well as duty doesn’t stop an action from being right, so long as duty was the ‘operational reason’ for our action.

If we do something because we know it’s our duty, and if duty is the key element in our decision to act, then we have acted rightly, even if we wanted to do the act or were too scared not to do it, or whatever.


… the Stoic sage will never find herself in a situation where she acts contrary to what Kant calls inclination or desire. The only thing she unconditionally wants is to live virtuously. Anything that she conditionally prefers is always subordinate to her conception of the genuine good. Thus, there is no room for a conflict between duty and happiness where the latter is thought of solely in terms of the satisfaction of our desires.

When reading Meditations I got the impression that Marcus found many of his fellow humans tiresome. But he concludes that doing his social duty will give him a good chance at having a virtuous life. This, for Marcus, is the reward for doing one’s duty: a good life. Indeed he implies that people don’t choose to be the way they are. People can change and we have a social duty to help them make this change.

So if we acknowledge that duty may not be in conflict with happiness and people can change then what do you need to do to enact this?

Control Freak

The first important aspect when considering a duty to others is to think about control, or the lack of it. The external world governed by cause and effect. The root of our suffering is confusing the internal (some control) with the external (no control). When externals don’t meet our expectations, we experience grief, fear, anxiety and annoyance. People other than yourself fall into the external sphere of control. Epictetus rejects the idea that unhelpful emotions are imposed on us. We are responsible for our thoughts and later actions. From the opening paragraph of the Enchiridion:

Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

When we ponder the meaning of “in our control”, our emotions appear to be much less controllable than our own bodies. Yet, if we explore what is attributable to us, the above categories make more sense. The Stoic concept of “in our control” is not about how easy or difficult it is to influence someone or something. Epictetus and others were unambiguous that if a thing was “in our control” it was difficult to influence.

Apply this to the lives of others and you’ll realise they are completely outside of your control. Other people do what they think is best for them, or they protect the things they care about. If you believe they are wrong then realise that they do these things out of ignorance. How you choose to think and act is up to you.

And this duty extends to the self and conscience, and not just to mankind in general. If you want to live in a world where tolerance, kindness and understanding are expected you should act as though these matter.
Another aspect of duty is interaction with others, something which I’ll now investigate.


Every right implies a responsibility; Every opportunity, an obligation, Every possession, a duty – John D. Rockefeller

In Chapter 9 of Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life he argues that loving mankind is a moral duty. This is despite how unpleasant people can actually be. Irvine runs through a few examples people and occasions that affect our tranquillity. This ranges from being cut up in traffic to annoying colleagues or relatives. Irvine highlights that the Stoic quest for ataraxia did not force Stoics to hide themselves away to avoid interaction with others. Rather reason dictates that as we are creatures then we act as such.

We should try to help people, but not at the expense our own well-being, from which all our good wishes and desires come. Try something, see if it works, when the problems come up (since they always do) refine your solution or find a new one that works better. We have cosmopolitan duties which expand to beneficence, justice and respect. There should be community among all humans, regardless of country, religion, social or political affiliation. Only by living a virtuous life which includes serving the wider community by helping human beings, promoting human rights and justice.

We should also reflect that we have a common ancestry and thus a common destiny. If most people are as Marcus suggests then this also includes perhaps our own descendants and forefathers. If, in the Stoic view, all humanity cannot be Stoic, then we must recognise that, for Stoics such as ourselves to be here, the rest of humanity must be present as well.

All the above requires us to be aware of our thoughts and unconscious choices, an area which I go into below.

Be Conscious

As much as you can try to pierce the mist of unconscious choices. Instead of automatically judging, be mindful and conscious of these decisions and thoughts.

Don’t drift through life. Don’t drift through decisions. If you choose to live consciously, then you will have made an active decision to have a duty to mankind. This may be one of the single most important activities you choose to do.

Of course, this isn’t something you can alter overnight. Living with after making a conscious choice to have a duty to mankind is a lifestyle. It’s not a one off exercise. It has to become a habit that becomes part of your life. In some respects it’s deceptively simple. Make a conscious choice, that’s all. But it’s amazing how few people actually do this. And it’s amazing how easy it is to live life on autopilot, to not have a wider duty towards anyone. Just doing what we always do because that’s what we’re used to doing. And it’s easier that way, even if our lives are difficult.

It’s not easy to changes our lives, to break out of our routines, to begin to live the lives we want. It takes wilful effort, energy and constant vigilance to think about our choices … all them.

In conclusion…

In this post I argued that you should indeed have a duty to mankind. Duty refers actions which are considered virtuous: the correct action, performed for virtuous reasons. Accepting this duty should not conflict with your happiness. Especially if you accept that you have no control over the lives of other people. You have a choice of how to think and act. You can make a conscious choice to help people, but not at the expense our own well-being. It takes deliberate effort and practice to achieve this, but in the long run it’s worth the effort.

Do you enact a duty to humanity? If so, how? Please consider leaving a comment below:

Photo by Seth Capitulo on Foter.com / CC BY

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