A duty is an obligation to act in a certain way. When the obligation is based on moral and ethical considerations, it is a moral duty. Often we think about moral duties in terms of rules that restrain us, the “don’ts,” as in don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Such rules comprise the so-called negative dimension of moral duty because they tell us what not to do. Since ethics is concerned with the way we ought to be, however, it also includes an affirmative dimension consisting of things we should do — keep promises, judge others fairly, treat people with respect, kindness and compassion.
Front page headline in the Times last week:
Cutting taxes is a moral duty, says Cameron.
Cutting taxes is a moral duty. What an extraordinary headline. Surely he does not actually believe this? If one takes that line to its logical conclusion, does that mean that a government has exercised extreme moral duty if it gets rid of taxation altogether? What then happens to public services? How do we look after our population, the elderly, the infirm, the poor, our UK infrastructure? Surely paying taxes is a moral duty, not cutting them? Surely using our taxes wisely for the benefit of all of us is a moral duty and not simply reducing them?
Taxation is a tricky issue – and so is morality – and to be fair to Mr Cameron, this headline was taken out of context, as they often are (beware the newspapers, boys). What he meant was that the government should not take from its people more than it needs and then fritter it away; and it is hard to argue with that. The morality of taxation, broadly speaking, is that the wealthy should contribute more, the poor should be supported and government should waste nothing of its income. One has to balance everything carefully, of course; my grandfather was once paying 98% tax in the 1970s – that is, 98p in every pound goes away on taxation. You then have to question whether or not it is worth going to work, and if the answer is no then the whole country grinds to a halt. Clearly people need to be allowed to take home something.
Nowadays, I wonder if you know that your parents all pay well over half of their income in taxation (once you take into account all of the sorts of taxation we pay and not just normal income tax; we have Value Added Tax; road tax; tax on petrol; tax on cigarettes; National Insurance tax; etc etc). That’s worth thinking about. But the morality of this is that most people in this room are wealthy on a UK scale, and everyone on this room is extremely wealthy on a global scale, and there is a moral compunction to contribute to the wellbeing of ones compatriots. Even in the Ancient Greek world, where income tax did not exist, wealthy Greeks were morally obliged to fund a trireme or put on a series of plays out of their own pocket to support the state.
I don’t know how often you think about morality, or moral duty – probably much more often than you think. Everyone in here knows, broadly speaking, the difference between right and wrong; but the more you grow and the more positions of leadership you take up, the more you realise that there are many shades of grey. Most people can see pretty quickly that politicians fiddling expenses is immoral. Most people can see that Israel’s right to defend its own people from mortar attacks is a moral right; but are they following conventional morality by bombing Gaza; or would it be more moral to use ground forces instead of aerial forces, so that the Gazans have a fighting chance; or indeed, is the use of force ever morally acceptable?
What is certain is that immoral leaders do not last; and immoral people do not form lasting relationships of a positive nature. People simply do not trust them. So morality is important. Try yourselves to be guided by morality in what you do; try to influence in a good way; try to think about your actions; try to question whether your own moral compass is pointing in the right direction.