The Principle of Duty

David Selbourne
Date Published
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The Principle of Duty is an important book. In the preface to the 1997 edition (the edition being reissued by Faber Finds) David Selbourne states his aim to be, ‘to address the oldest traditions and propositions of political philosophy as well as the most modern of our anxieties, so that, by means of a restatement of civic principles rooted in the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Romon worlds, we might begin to rediscover the conditions for living together in our tormented age.’

In short, The Principle of Duty argues that limits must be set to selfish individual entitlement if a free social order is to be preserved. Amplified a little in David Selbourne’s own words, ‘ a leading theme in my book . . . is that, just as the citizen owes obligations to himself or herself, to his or her fellows, and to the civic order to which he or she belongs, so the civic order owes obligations, political, economic, social, educational and cultural in the widest sense, to the citizen.’ A careful reading of that makes it clear this book politically is neither to the left or to the right, indeed, to quote David Selbourne again, ‘my civic objections to market-driven notions (especially those which lead to the dispersal of public goods by ”privatisation”) provoked much of the ”right”, while my invocation of civic duty alienated some on the ”left”.’ More positively, however, it was widely praised across the political gamut:

‘Rarely has a work of political theory seemed so timely. At a moment of popular malaise and political exhaustion, The Principle of Duty seeks to identify the structural flaws in modern liberal society and to suggest energetic ways in which it might be reformed…It should encourage politicians, academics and journalists to employ its language and to enter the forgotten philosophical terrain which it explores’.
Editorial, The Times, 23 May 1994

‘Timely and compelling . . . Selbourne’s solution is to reassert an argument which both the liberal tradition and the common law have long recognised, but has been progressively ignored: that people have duties to themselves, their fellows and society, which are fully the moral equivalents of their rights . . . He has tried to think his way not just into the theory of a better social order, but of its practicalities. There is much in what he says that demands and deserves very careful thought.’ A. C. Grayling, Financial Times

‘Selbourne’s arresting, irascible and sometimes moving book is an important contribution to political thought, made at one of the turning-points of political discourse in Britain.’ John Gray, Times Literary Supplement

‘Important . . . the work of a much fiercer apostate from the old brand of socialism . . . As a summons to reconsider the tenets of of exclusive self-interest, whether expressed y right of left, it is a genuinely original contribution to the modern debate . . .’ Hugo Young, Guardian

Passionate . . . One of the few books that manages to be both withering about the world we live in and optimistic about how we should make it a better one. It has changed the way I look at a lot of things. It also made me realize the debt we owe to the great western political philosophers and how little we heed them.’ Nicholas Tate, Books of the Year, Times Educational Supplement

‘Stimulating and noble . . . The Principle of Duty lets no one smirk in solitary selfishness . . . Politicians of every hue should be made to read this dense and careful book, then be shut away for a week to ponder its peculiar relevance before releasing more dollops of their platitudinous drivel. Their first civic duty is to understand, in a profound sense, what they are talking about. David Selbourne has shown the way, and he deserves our full attention.’ Brian Masters, Mail on Sunday


David Selbourne is a British political philosopher, social commentator and historian of ideas. Lord Carlile of Berriew has described him as ‘perhaps the leading political philosopher and theorist of our day’ and Douglas Murray of the Social Affairs Unit as ‘ one of our most significant historians.’ Reflecting his wide-ranging and impressive intellectual accomplishment, Faber Finds are reissuing four of…

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