From the notebooks of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love:
Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.
I love this quote because it explains precisely the belief that I’ve always (or at least seem to have always) possessed that actions without meaning are not merely void, but even detrimental and possibly immoral. It’s the more efficacious, humanist corollary to the Jamesian assertion that “works without faith are dead.” Doing something “for” another person is in itself not worthy of note – if it means nothing to you, then no goodness may be gleaned from the act, in a moral sensef.
This is often the opposite of what children are taught. They are taught to sacrifice themselves, to give up their possessions and time in pursuit of what makes other people happy, and frequently they are taught that the more it pains them – i.e., the more sacrifice they make – the more moral they are. This seems a strangely contradictory exhortation. It seems better to me to encourage children to find that which truly makes them happy, which in turn will increase happiness of others around them.
If this seems selfish, it is. But then, selfishness is not a bad thing. People often equate selfishness with belligerence, when in reality these are two separate personality traits. Belligerence and other pejorative attributes often equated with a colloquial understanding of egoism are frequently antithetical to true selfishness. For example, you can usually get better customer service by simply being nice, rather than being a sanctimonious turd.
Anyway, I didn’t mean to get into a whole philosophical discussion about the meaning of duty and selfishness. I heard this quote at the end of the 200th episode of the Escape Pod podcast, featuring Heinlein’s paradoxically, uncannily, bizarrely intriguing story “—All You Zombies—.” It’s a pretty cool podcast with lots of interesting stories. Check it out.