The term ‘duty’ is viewed as something, which humans are obliged to do morally and legally. It is explained to be the responsibility of every human to carry out a task, a requirement, an action, which is a part of his/her life, an engagement set by social standards. Thus, there are synonyms of duty, such as ‘obligation,’ ‘responsibility,’ ‘commitment,’ ‘loyalty’ and others. According to the norms, prescribed by duty, people are allegiant to almost anything and anyone. For example, people are obliged to follow the rules set by the government, higher instances (workplace, college, school, community), moral and ethical standards, and, their own life rules. What is more, every human is a duty carrier and has duties towards one another. Therefore, it follows that duty is a constituent of law, which is meant to enforce and protect human moral and legal responsibilities. The law, in its turn, is the written example of civil duties. Its purpose is to set boundaries, limitations and rights to promote human equality and civil order. The duty of lawmakers is to be clear, strict, concise and substantial, while designing laws. The duty of the society, as a whole, is to obey laws introduced by the lawmakers, which are specific in every country. The duty of an individual is to be a part of the conscious society, which knows and understands the set norms, rules, and standards. Furthermore, no circumstances are more important than human obligations. Thus, people under no circumstances should break the laws. This concept is applicable to every kind of law.
Numerous authors have explored the concept of duty and law as human responsibilities and obligations. Therefore, what is duty and what is law, according to them?
In the “Apology” by Plato, one can find Socrates dwelling on the matters of law. To Socrates, as a noble and wise man, the law is essential and supreme. The orator states that he is always on the side of law and justice, he tries not to do unjust or impious, and judges having faith in common rules. According to Socrates, the law must be obeyed in order to defend oneself (Plato). Socrates speaks of law sophisticatedly. As he is accused of wrongdoing, he bases on laws to justify himself. Socrates believes that laws are designed to improve young men, and every instance that has knowledge of laws (the jury, the Council, the assembly) has the right to dictate what to do to others. Moreover, if the law is broken, it requires an answer, an instruction, and a punishment.
On the contrary, in the “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau, the author speaks of laws as something disrespectful. He claims, “law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice” (Thoreau). Such a bitter statement is based on the fact that contemporary laws were written to serve the purpose of legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, who rarely made moral or righteous decisions. To support his position, Thoreau refers to Paley, who also believes that if people want to live according to morals decisions and be equal in rights, they should not obey the government (Thoreau). The government, according to Thoreau, is an unjust machine with one-sided laws existing inside of it. The “truth” of the government and the lawyers puts to slavery, takes away what is yours and makes one suffer in order to defend his/her rights. He perceives that if men cannot live freely and honestly, they will die.
Notwithstanding the strong position concerning the government, Thoreau admits that he is likely to obey those, who can do better than he does, even the government authorities. However, such an obedience will be based mostly on justice, human rights, and respect for individuals. He imagines that the ultimate law is the government, which treats individuals with respect and equality. The duty of such government is to serve people, according to the law and not make laws enslave them.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, another opinion on laws is expressed. Here, Martin Luther King discusses the issue of just and unjust laws. The first he believes should be obeyed and the latter – broken. The difference between the just and unjust law is that the first is “a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God” (King). The second, in its turn, is “a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (King). Thus, any law, which helps a person develop, is righteous, and vice versa, the one, which makes him/her degrade, is unrighteous. What is more, some instances make laws fair only on the surface or on paper, while they become wrongful, applying them as social norms. Usually, the application of unjust laws is followed by public demonstrations. Human nature strikes towards human consciousness and makes them disobedient to certain types of contradicting laws, because, as Mr. King pinpoints, “society must protect the robbed and punish the robber” (King).
In “Antigone” by Sophocles, the law is presented as the supreme power of the king, who should be obeyed. For example, the king, says, “He who does his duty in his own household will be found righteous … But if any one transgresses, and does violence to the laws, or thinks to dictate to his rulers, such … can win no praise from me” (Sophocles). Therefore, the king is thought to be the law and his words are the law. Although his actions are not righteous, there is no place for disobedience. This type of law is legal: it does not consider the moral side. The king states, “… whomsoever the city may appoint, that man must be obeyed, in little things and great, in just things and unjust” (Sophocles). Another example in the text includes two sisters (Ismene and Antigone), who know the laws and should decide for themselves whether to obey or to fight injustice. Ismene is a sister, who is afraid of the punishment in case of breaking the rules. She obeys blindly because her duty is to obey the king, no matter whether it contradicts morality or not. She does not have her own will, her own beliefs, as she only supports the king, who dictates her all the rights and limitations. The other sister, Antigone, dishonors unrighteous laws and is not afraid to die if she intentionally breaks them. The ultimate law for her is the law of gods, the moral law, and she praises the world of the dead more than the world of the living. She claims, “… what law of heaven have I transgressed?” (Sophocles). Antigone is a wise woman, who values traditions and ethical, moral side of every action. Despite understanding the consequences of breaking the king’s law, the law still should be broken, as it offends the dead. Therefore, she becomes a villain to the king and is imprisoned.
To conclude, the law, which is synonymous with the “obligation” and “duty”, is viewed differently by different authors. For instance, Socrates believes the law to be the only legal system, which knows what is right and what is wrong. According to him, everybody should be law-abiding, as it is his or her duty. Henry David Thoreau, who believes that laws should be broken, expresses a different opinion. He presumes that authorities make laws for themselves and in this way oppress individuals. Therefore, people should fight for their rights and obey rights, not laws. Martin Luther King, in his turn, speaks of just and unjust laws from the side of religious beliefs and morality. Here, he has the identical point of view with Thoreau that unjust laws should be broken. However, Mr. King dwells upon morality that becomes the key-factor of disobedience. Sophocles also discusses the moral side of laws. Putting the words into Antigone, he reminds that there is a higher law that cannot be broken. This law belongs to the moral part of humankind and to gods. However, he opposes gods versus king, who is considered “god” on earth. The king’s law should not be broken under any circumstances, and it does not matter whether this law is righteous. Therefore, human responsibility and obligations are to support laws, which help them prosper both morally and economically, maintaining the civil order an equality. Laws that contradict common sense should not be set and obeyed, as they are socially destructive and refer to individual interests only.