On a vacation swing through western Maryland, my wife and I stopped at the Antietam battlefield near Sharpsburg. From the enclosed observation deck at the visitors’ center, you can look out on miles of rolling countryside that was the site of one of the most consequential battles in the Civil War. A young park ranger named Dan Vermilya stood before big bay windows pointing out landmarks as he described how the daylong engagement unfolded. Antietam, which took place on September 17, 1862, was the single bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war in American history. Nearly twenty-three thousand men were reported killed, wounded or missing in action on both sides – more losses in a single day than all the casualties in all the nation’s previous wars.
To try to portray the carnage in human terms, Vermilya held up a photograph of a bearded man who had fought on the Union side that day. His name was Ellwood Rodebaugh, a 31-year-old cobbler who had joined the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteers the year before. He was killed in the morning while fighting in a section of the battlefield known as West Wood. I later learned his unit was attacked from three sides and lost a third of its men in ten minutes of fighting. Rodebaugh was initially reported missing in action because he had shaved off his beard several days earlier, and the burial detail hadn’t recognized him. "Every casualty was someone like Ellwood Rodebaugh," Vermilya said. "There were thousands of ordinary people who made extraordinary sacrifices, not for themselves, but for their country." Of the thousands whose lives ended that day, how did he happen to choose this one? Vermilya explained, "He was my great-great-great-grandfather.”
Rodebaugh left a wife and two small children behind in Bradford County, Pennsylvania when he went off to war. He believed it was his duty to fight. And yet, did he not also have a duty to his family? His wife Josephine was 26 years old and illiterate. Apart from fifty dollars her husband left with her, she had few resources to sustain the family after he was gone. Like the vast majority of soldiers who fought on either side of the conflict, Rodebaugh was a volunteer. You would think it would be hard to muster a fighting force for a cause as nebulous as preserving the Union. The abolition of slavery was not yet an explicit war aim. As it turned out, Rodebaugh died for a cause he did not know he had signed up for. Abraham Lincoln had been waiting for a solid Union victory to issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in territory controlled by the Confederacy. Antietam was hardly a resounding success, but it was enough of one for Lincoln to act. The Confederates had held their own against a much larger Union force at Antietam but suffered such grievous losses that they were forced to withdraw, ending their invasion of the North. Five days after the battle, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The last political leader to speak memorably about doing one’s duty was John Kennedy, who proclaimed in his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." We should perhaps be thankful that politicians have been largely silent on the subject ever since. Kennedy had appealed to American idealism in founding the Peace Corps, but he also began the buildup of American troops in Vietnam – the first of several wars in my lifetime fought for reasons that were dubious at best. A young naval officer named John Kerry, who would later become a U.S. senator and Secretary of State, testified before Congress near the end of that war: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Unlike the Civil War, the war in Vietnam was fought largely by draftees who quickly grew disillusioned with having to fight and die to prop up a corrupt puppet regime. One legacy of Vietnam is that the draft was effectively abolished, and our wars are now fought by professional soldiers who may act out of a personal sense of duty but are basically there because it is their job.
The word “duty” comes from the Latin debere, meaning “to owe,” and refers to actions undertaken out of a sense of moral obligation rather than of self interest. Duty is thought of in terms of obligations owed to God, to oneself and to others. “We are not born for ourselves alone,” wrote the great Roman orator Cicero. “We do not live for ourselves alone. Our country, our family, our friends, have a share in us.” According to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, duty is done for its own sake, without regard either for self-interest or for the consequences of one’s actions. An action done for the wrong reasons is always wrong, even if the outcome is right. For Kant, reason is the sole determinant of what constitutes right moral action.
As a guide to the morally perplexed, Kant’s system is anything but immune to the messiness of actual circumstance. How, for example, would it have helped Ellwood Rodebaugh sort through the competing obligations of family and country before he went off to war? It was his duty to fight and his duty to stay home and take care of his family. What is the practical difference between abandoning your family to go off to war and simply abandoning your family? Perhaps Rodebaugh told himself that when compared with the fate of his nation, the problems of one little family didn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But that would require him to consider the consequences of his actions, which was not part of Kant’s schema. For that matter, how would you distinguish between Rodebaugh’s duty to defend his country and the same obligation felt by those who fought for the Confederacy? Did it matter that one side was defending a way of life that depended on the enslavement of four million human beings?
As a product of Enlightenment rationalism, Kant was predisposed to think that reason alone could sort things out. A later German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, saw nothing reasonable about slavish obedience to abstract duty divorced from personal inclination, and he denounced Kant as an “idiot.” He wrote, “What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure - as a mere automaton of duty?” Ayn Rand, the conservative guru whose novels celebrated Nietzschean übermenchen, was similarly disdainful of Kant’s notion of duty, arguing that it “destroys reason: it supersedes one’s knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions.” One can only guess what Cicero – or for that matter, Ellwood Rodebaugh and his fellow soldiers in the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteers -- would have made of this pronouncement from Ms. Rand: “Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”
Those who believe, as Cicero did, that we do not exist for ourselves alone must acknowledge that this approach does not always comport with rational self-interest, to say nothing of any instinct for self-preservation. As Rhodebaugh and so many of his comrades demonstrated at Antietam, you can easily get yourself killed answering the call of duty. So why do it? Cicero may have provided the essential clue when he wrote, “We are not born for ourselves alone.” In fact, we did not give birth to ourselves. We owe our lives to others – not just to our parents but to that vast web of humanity that makes life worth living. And if you believe, as I do, that the entire universe has conspired to make a fit habitation for fragile creatures like ourselves, you are bound to ask what is behind it all and what we owe in return for the gift of life. Surely the basis for duty is not reason, as Kant would have it, but gratitude.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis
Emmanuel Kant, Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ
Ayn Rand, The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z