“It is My Duty” and “I Will Help You Get There”

I noticed the same response of several hotel employees: “It is my duty.” In Kolkata’s Jameson Inn, I thanked the front desk clerk: “You all were very helpful in our checking in at 2AM.” His response: “It is my duty, sir.” When I thanked Vikram at the Ratan Villa for providing such a wonderful meal service, I heard his reply: “It is my duty, sir.” When we splurged, and stayed at Delhi’s Claridges’ hotel, I thanked Ambessar for inquiring with Indian rail about a train to Jodhpur. His response “It is my duty, sir.” These three men weren’t raised by the same parents; these three men did they attend the same schools. Instead they had internalized “doing my duty” as a way of approaching their daily work. These men accepted the principle of “duty.” They structured their interaction with hotel guests as a fulfilling that principle.

These hotel employees, who lived according to “duty” as they saw it, had classic Indian religious texts and artifacts reinforce their style of thinking.  In the Bhagavad-Gita (3:19), Krishna says to Arjuna: “Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.” Krishna counsels Arjuna to do what is right, to do his duty as a matter of caste obligations without considering the consequences of his actions. Krishna basically says to Arjuna: Do what is right.

Another reinforcement comes from the reign of Ashoka who lived from 269-232. After years of waging war, Ashoka wanted to create a more peaceful India. To improve the moral life of his subjects, he had chiseled into stone many rules and principles. Outside Delhi’s National Museum is a copy of Ashoka’s Edicts. One of the 33 edicts reads as follows: “Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice.”

There is an alternative form of reasoning besides an emphasis upon rules or principles. When I stayed at the Ramakrishna Mission, I mentioned to Swami Suparnananda that I hoped to travel to Darjeeling after leaving the Ramakrishna Mission; however, I had realized that I did not have a train ticket all the way to Darjeeling. Swami quickly said: “I will help you get there. Come back later today” When I returned later, I learned that he had contacted the railroad office only to discover that the train was completely booked for my travel date. I asked him: “Do you have any suggestions?” The Swami responded: “Rajib, the assistant secretary of our Jalpaiguri Ashram is here today. Let me ask him to come to the office.” Within a few minutes, Rajib is in the office. Quickly, the two of them work out my travel details. Not only will Rajib meet me at the train station after my overnight train from Kolkata, but he will also see that I am driven to Darjeeling after a light breakfast. Swami Suparnananda had said “I will help you get there.” He made the necessary arrangements so that I actually did get to Darjeeling. The Swami’s goal was to help me accomplish my goal! For the Swami, the most important set of considerations were simply how to make that happen.

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I’m struck by how this style of thinking is also reinforced. The reinforcement isn’t from ancient Indian texts; the reinforcement comes from India’s street life. Whether one is simply walking or driving a car, an Indian must be aware of her surroundings. If she is not aware, then she will die. In crossing a busy street, Indians will wait until there is many them before they begin to cross the street. With one arm outstretched and the palm of the hand pointed down, they slowly walk as a group across the busy street. Each member of that group knows what she must do to accomplish the goal of getting across the street. In driving on a street, an Indian driver treats the white lines separating lanes as mere road decorations. The driver ignores the lines. The driver asserts control over the whole road to make other, usually smaller vehicles, give the driver’s car more space. Again, the driver has a goal to get to a destination. What matters is getting to the destination, not following the usual “rules of the road.”

While academic ethicists debate the similarity and differences of these styles of thinking, most ordinary people are not purists. In the realm of practical ethics, most ordinary folks will combine both styles of thinking. Furthermore, these styles of thinking are reinforced and shaped by very ordinary and daily occurrences.  My examples of “It is my duty, Sir” and “I will help you get there” get repeated in different ways daily. While there is much more to our moral reasoning, our developing as moral agents doesn’t have to appear either as a rare, isolated activity nor an an exclusively intellectualized activity. Much of our style of moral reasoning builds upon our everyday actions and the thinking involved in those actions.

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