Liberty Matters

Douglass on Duty: Must We Care about the Rights of Others?

Both George Smith and Peter Myers suggest there might be more to say about what Myers calls "the question" at the heart of our dispute over duty: "if self-ownership is the basis of natural rights, how can we derive a principle of positive natural duty?" Myers concedes that my interpretation of Douglass is correct on this point – that he did indeed believe we had a duty to defend the natural rights of others – and Smith quibbles less with my interpretive position than my normative one: that I regard Douglass's position as morally superior to one that has no room for a general duty to vindicate the rights of others. Myers pushes me to go further in my explanation of "the grounds" of Douglass's view, and such a challenge is implied in Smith's impressive defense of a view at odds with Douglass, that we have "no duty" to "help those in need" and no "obligation to protect others from harm."
Before I elaborate on what I take to be Douglass's justification for his position on duty and why I think he was basically right, please allow me to say a brief word on how he did not ground this view. At the conclusion of his comment, Smith suggests that the foundation of the "crusade against slavery" for "most abolitionists" was their "religious beliefs." This may be true of "most abolitionists," and there is little doubt that Douglass was, in a sense, deeply religious, but I do not think this explanation is satisfactory in his case. Indeed, Douglass rejected this conception of duty time and again. Late in life, as he reflected on his nearly six decades of activism, he said: "In the essential dignity of man as man, I find all necessary incentives and aspirations to a useful and noble life."[59] This was a rather cryptic comment made in the context of a speech on education, but a few years earlier Douglass attempted a rather detailed defense of his basic idea in another speech called, "It Moves, or The Philosophy of Reform." In the space available here, I cannot do this long and complex speech justice. I do think a brief explanation of some of its central ideas, though, may provide us with the key to unlocking the mystery of the grounding of Douglass's robust sense of duty.
The year was 1883, and Douglass was invited to deliver a lecture at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C. His topic was "The Philosophy of Reform."[60] The topic was not merely of philosophical interest to Douglass. It was, rather, an opportunity for him to offer a detailed defense of his view that we have an affirmative obligation to promote justice. Let's limit ourselves, for the purposes of this discussion, to the idea that justice entails acting in such a way that will move us closer to a state of affairs in which the natural rights of more people are respected and protected. Douglass's thesis in the speech is that we have a duty to do what we can to bring man "more and more into harmony with the laws of his own being."[61] Again, these words may at first seem a bit mysterious and even mystical, but Douglass was appealing directly to the moral vocabulary of the natural-rights tradition: human beings, he argued elsewhere, are "free by the laws of nature" in the sense that they possess desires and capacities that make them fit to be free.[62] To bring man more into harmony with the "laws of his own being" meant, for Douglass, to bring about a state of affairs in which human beings could exercise their freedom.[63] For Douglass, this justification for rights was the grounding for what Smith calls "the 'negative' duty (or moral obligation) to abstain from violating" the rights of others. That is where Smith's conception of duty stops and Douglass's keeps on going: this idea also provides the grounding for the affirmative obligation to vindicate the rights of others. Man, Douglass declared in the "Philosophy of Reform" speech, "has a dignity which belongs to himself alone," and that dignity should prevent him from allowing any "rest to his soul while any portion of his species suffers from a recognized evil. The deepest wish of a true man's heart is that good may augmented and evil, moral and physical, be diminished, and that each generation shall be an improvement on its predecessor."[64] The appeal to truth here is, I think, significant. Douglass thought our affirmative obligation to promote justice was rooted in the same essential truths about humanity – most importantly, the capacity to know and act upon morality – that serve as the foundation for our rights.
Let's bring this rather abstract conversation down to the ground Douglass occupied before the Civil War. He was looking at a country in which the natural rights of millions of people were being systematically violated by nonstate actors with the active and passive support of several levels of government. In the face of this injustice, Douglass argued, we have not done the sum of our duty if we have merely abstained from violating the rights of other people.[65] Instead, Douglass believed we had an affirmative obligation (or imperfect duty or whatever else we may want to call it) to use our "political as well as moral power" to attempt to bring about a state of affairs in which those natural rights were respected.[66] As Myers points out, this seems to "amount to a natural claim upon the labor or actions of others," and this view is a clear departure from Smith's idea that "positive duties" are "purely a matter of individual choice." In other words, Myers and Smith are correct that Douglass's robust conception of duty is in philosophical tension with his idea of self-ownership. I am still convinced, though, that Douglass has the morally superior position. In the face of philosophical heavyweights like Myers and Smith, I feel ill-equipped to offer the defense of Douglass's position it deserves. I only wish Douglass could come back and give a great speech entitled, "What to the Slave Is a Theory of Natural Rights that Doesn't Include a Positive Duty to Protect Natural Rights?"[67]
[59.] Frederick Douglass, "The Blessings of Liberty and Education," in The Essential Douglass, 357.
[60.] Frederick Douglass, "It Moves, or the Philosophy of Reform," in The Essential Douglass, 286.
[61.] Ibid., 288.
[62.] As quoted in Nicholas Buccola, The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, 49.
[63.] The desire and capacity to be free was not, according to Douglass, the only "law of our being," but it was of the utmost importance in his moral and political thought and, given the nature of our discussion, I will limit my discussion to this "law" here.
[64.] Frederick Douglass, "It Moves, or The Philosophy of Reform,"
[65.] I will set aside, for the moment, the question of indirect responsibility for the institution of slavery that extended throughout the country as a result of consumption practices that helped perpetuate the institution.
[66.] Frederick Douglass, "Change of Opinion Announced," in The Essential Douglass, 43.
[67.] I am sure Douglass would come up with a better title.