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Duty

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 13 November 2003

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the concept of duty. George Bernard Shaw wrote in his play Caesar and Cleopatra, “When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty”. But for Horatio Nelson and so many others, duty has provided a purpose for life, and a reason to die – “Thank God I have done my duty” were his final words.

The idea that others have a claim over our actions has been at the heart of the history of civilised society, but duty is an unfashionable or difficult notion now - perhaps because it seems to impose an outside authority over self interest.

The idea of duty has duped people into doing terrible things and inspired them to wonderful achievements, and it is an idea that has excited philosophers from the time people first came together to live in large groups. But has duty always meant doing what’s best for others rather than oneself? And how did it become such a powerful idea that people readily gave their lives for it?

With Angie Hobbs, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Warwick; Annabel Brett, Fellow of Gonville and Caius and Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge; Anthony Grayling, Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.

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