- Comments on Duty Bound:Responsibility and American Political Life
It is rare that one can praise a book as being capable of teaching matters of importance to students of political philosophy, observers of American life, and citizens as such. So it is a pleasure to call attention to a book that is easily among the most thoughtful books in recent years, Mark Blitz's Duty Bound; that pleasure is somewhat mitigated, however, by the fact that it is also perhaps the most unjustly neglected book in recent years.
Quality, to set forth a novel insight that dates back at least to Tocqueville, is not always recognized in American intellectual life, be it in the academy or the wider society. If not many, there are quite a few more books in league with Blitz's than there are with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Harvey Mansfield's Manliness. And Duty Bound, make no mistake, is on the same intellectual plane as those justly celebrated books. Moreover, it is far more accessible than his famous Harvard teacher's near bestseller.
In the same breath, one must note that Blitz is not altogether free of responsibility for his book's hitherto unjust reception. For he is all but wholly indifferent to the limelight, and he refuses to write in a manner designed to charm as opposed to instruct. It is a testimony to his intellect that—with such a debilitating academic vice—he has achieved such professional success.
At a theoretical level, Duty Bound is devoted to articulating the whole phenomenon of the remarkably ambiguous concept of responsibility—a word that can, if not quite at the same time, mean both "virtue" and "burden." One can begin to get a sense of the complexity of the idea of responsibility by considering why no one seeking to do justice to Duty Bound's merits would call it a responsible book on responsibility: for good thing that doubtless such a book would be, who would want to read it? Responsibility first comes to sight as something flat and prosaic, a virtue for the incurably earnest. Yet responsibility, albeit in less common circumstances, can rise to a loftier status; politicians speak unselfconsciously of their respective offices' "highest responsibility," and few even raise eyebrows at the pairing of "sacred" with "responsibility." In other words, on those infrequent occasions when Americans strive for a language of moral obligation, they turn to responsibility.
Duty Bound is a work with a twofold character. It is a political work that examines responsibility with a view to promoting a healthy politics here and now, for "responsibility is the defining element of liberal character, and liberal democracy works best when responsibility flourishes." Even more, it is a theoretical work that takes as its starting point the examination of "our" virtue—responsibility—and seeks to ascend from it to an understanding of what virtue is simply. These twin intentions reinforce one another: for throughout the work Blitz shows the manner in which a sound theoretical understanding of the problems of politics can help promote sensible political practice as well as how reflection on the everyday phenomena of political life provides an entryway into understanding philosophic problems simply. Duty Bound is doubtless the only book ever written that opens a discussion of bureaucracy with an account of the understanding of nature that informs liberalism.
Responsibility is American liberal democracy's modest substitute for "duty." According to Blitz's illuminating exposition, by re-forming duty as responsibility the American Framers carved out a place for an analogue of duty (or virtue) that was compatible with liberal constitutionalism and its dedication to the effective securing of men's natural rights. To understand why such reformation was necessary, one need only reflect for a moment on the suspect place that duty as such occupies in liberal democracy. Duty tends to relegate rights and consent to goods of a second order; appeals to duty are not infrequently hijacked by the forces of illiberal moralism; and duty characteristically issues in authoritative demands of the sort that go against the grain of a spirited liberal democrat. Responsibility is subject to none of...