Answer to English Grammar Question 12

Duty vs. Responsibility I have a problem with the distinction of the nouns duty and responsibility. My 12 year old son is being taught in 7th grade Civics that duty is something you MUST do and responsibility is something you SHOULD do. I have consulted several dictionaries and thesauri, none of which appear to support the above definitions. I am an English woman living in the U.S. and there are so many conflicts between the two countries usage of the English language that I am often confused. If you could clarify this matter I would be eternally in your debt.

From member: Suzanne Grumko in USA


Answer

Suzanne, I'm an Australian living in England so I'm not sure if we aren't going to just add a little more to the confusion! It seems that your son's school is trying to make a distinction between duty and responsibility that circumvents the fuzzy line between the two so that your son can at least get beyond the semantics! It is true that the word 'duty', which comes from the French 'duetee' meaning 'to owe' has strong overtones of a 'debt due' to someone, something or some entity (e.g. a nation, government, family etc.) - note, in terms of its common stem - how it is tied to the use of such things as 'customs duty' and 'import duty'. In this sense it has the meaning of something that we must do. But it can also appeal to a moral obligation - 'He felt it his duty to visit his mother every sunday'. 'Responsible' has less of the weight of an obligation or debt and far more of the sense of a personal or moral feeling of accountability for actions. 'He felt responsible for his family' suggest far more personal moral commitment than 'He felt a duty toward his family' which is more of an obligation rather than a freely given moral commitment. I would suggest that the difference is not between 'must' and 'should' but rather between 'obligation' and 'moral undertaking'. I can see why your son's school would want to define the words the way they do as it would be easier to grasp for a 12 year old than a discussion on obligation and moral udertaking!. 'His duty as President was compromised when he acted irresponsibly.' Is as good a sentence as I can create to show the difference. On the one hand an obligation to behave in a certain way that is inherent in the office and on the other a behaviour that is personal and rooted in personal moral choices. I hope this helps.



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