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Duty

An article about performing-Arts and music-related topic

By Ralph Schatzki

for La CoffeeMelodie Suite



  • Duty



  • Imagine a person suddenly collapsing in a public place. A doctor, perfectly capable of helping, simply walks by. Or, a man, out hiking pinned under a small boulder, and a championship weightlifter in his group does nothing to assist.


    At first glance, most people would be outraged by such non-action, even though nothing may have been done wrong under the law. Of course, most people know that law and ethics are not always synonymous.


    Still, you say, "these are matters of life and death- surely something should have been done!" Perhaps, though, the doctor was on his way to a more pressing emergency, or was preoccupied with the thoughts of his son's cancer. Maybe the weightlifter was recovering from an injury that prevented him from trying to help, or it would permanently cripple him if he tried to undertake such a strain before he had recovered sufficiently from it.


    Life is seldom so black and white, as much as we enjoy debating black and white scenarios: "What if the doctor was completely focused on this person, or the weightlifter was perfectly healthy?" These are interesting ethical questions to be sure, although the law still puts no duty on one to save another, unless he is in a special circumstance, caused the situation in some way, or begins to undertake a rescue.


    Hey: we've got to have some rule, and it must not only take into account the victim's needs, but also the needs and rights of his potential savior: and we resist requiring people to do anything, even if they "should."


    In many cases, it ends up as a very personal choice on their parts, and for all we know they agonize over it.


    I was thinking about this in the similar context of someone who has decided essentially to "retire" his skill - to remove it from the public. Should - not can - he be able to do this? What if he is an expert, or uniquely accomplished?


    In the case of the weightlifter we hardly bat an eye: younger, stronger people are constantly coming up through the ranks and his career is short. When an eighty-year old doctor retires we are similarly favorably disposed to his decision: he served society well and has earned his rest.


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    What about a forty-year old doctor, though? He would save countless lives if he chose to continue in medicine, and then if he retires to the Bahamas...? What about a great pianist, or violinist, who decides to shelve her musical aspirations forever at the age of twenty-eight and becomes a businessperson instead? I appreciate their decisions, but what about the greater good?


    Of course, in the first case the doctor probably retires because he has earned enough money practicing medicine, and in the second case the violinist quits because she hasn't made enough, but the end result is that society loses a treasure. I don't really begrudge either of these people's decisions, but I do bemoan the loss and am left to wonder why things are allowed to come to such a pass: How can we permit such an environment in which an individual's talents and gifts are thrown away? It really is a tremendous loss for us all. I don't think it's right that someone is paid so much money to perform a vital service that he can remove himself from it before his time, nor not enough that she must remove herself just to survive.


    I realize this is simply a (very high) cost of living in a free market, capitalistic society: the market, by and large, determines the value of things. Unfortunately, this results in economic concerns trumping all others, including our concern for ourselves, our fellow beings and society at-large.


    As a musician, I constantly ask myself what duty I owe: first to myself, but to others, as well, in ever-widening circles of diminishing acquaintance. Do I sing for myself? Yes. Solely? No, although how much my performance is for others is an interesting concern.


    I guess I'm interested in what duty we musicians owe to society, even if it doesn't seem to value highly what it is that we offer. I don't have the answers, but the question should, I think, be considered.

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