by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
On its face “noblesse oblige” exhorts one to higher purpose:
“Noblesse oblige” is generally used to imply that with wealth, power, and prestige come responsibilities.
In French, “noblesse oblige” means literally “nobility obligates.” French speakers transformed the phrase into a noun, which English speakers picked up in the 19th century. Then, as now, “noblesse oblige” referred to the unwritten obligation of people from a noble ancestry to act honourably and generously to others. Later, by extension, it also came to refer to the obligation of anyone who is in a better position than others – due, for example, to high office or celebrity – to act respectably and responsibly.
It is easy to elevate the conversation to the lofty realm of righteousness generally:
In ethical discussion, it is sometimes used to summarize a moral economy wherein privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege or who cannot perform such duty. Finally, it has been used recently primarily to refer to public responsibilities of the rich, famous and powerful, notably to provide good examples of behaviour or to exceed minimal standards of decency. It has also been used to describe a person taking the blame for something in order to solve an issue or save someone else.
One should not however be swept away by the archaic romance of the analysis in spite of its appeal to traditional story-book values. Indeed it is prudent to remain in contact with earth in spite of the atmospheric feature of noblesse oblige. Specifically the dignity of the obligation mustn’t translate into becoming a door mat, mindless liberalism. Noblesse oblige is not an excuse for long-suffering toleration of inadequacies. Nor do I think it is appropriate to attach haughty characterization to the adage, that somehow people born on the right side of the tracks tower above the disadvantaged. Perhaps a more clinical though nonetheless acceptable rendition is either of the following:
The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines it thus: Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
(Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms to one’s position, and with the reputation that one has earned.
The Oxford English Dictionary meanwhile says that the term “suggests noble ancestry constrains to honorable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility.”
It is necessary to rein in the headiness of the aphorism and to impart to it mortal practicality:
In Le Lys dans la Vallée, written in 1835 and published in 1836, Honoré de Balzac recommends certain standards of behaviour to a young man, concluding: “Everything I have just told you can be summarized by an old word: noblesse oblige!” His advice had included comments like “others will respect you for detesting people who have done detestable things.”
Note the latter quotation in particular; viz., that adoption of higher moral ground doesn’t mean that you should ignore bad behaviour just because you’ve been blessed with either privilege or bounty. This narrower view of the apophthegm does in my opinion strengthen its virility and its buoyancy as a behavioural model.
A critical analysis of noblesse oblige discloses the risk of conflation which leads to imprecision of thought.
Noblesse oblige, while seeming to impose on the nobility a duty to behave nobly, thereby apparently gives the aristocracy a justification for their privilege. Their argument is “as nobles, we have rights, but we have duties also; so such duties validate our rights”. The jurists Dias and Hohfeld have pointed out that rights and duties are jural correlatives, which means that if someone has a right, someone else owes a duty to him.
The distinction is pivotal. In short it stands for the proposition that having a right does NOT mean you have a duty; rather it means that if you have a right, someone ELSE owes you a duty. This effectively destroys the otherwise neat argument by which the aristocracy might wish to keep its nose well in the air on the theory that they’re burdened with a duty to the masses. In other words, the higher classes haven’t any claim to prerogative even when it appears to impose a duty. So much for that cornball deduction!
As a result if one is to attribute any sense to noblesse oblige it has to be founded on no perverse sense of entitlement – I’m mean, really – you were born to great things! Give me a break! No, the motivation for adoption high-ranking morality has to be something else. One of those things might be instinct, which I admit for me anyway is in danger of becoming a catchall. But I still can’t distance myself from its forceful imperative. If nothing else it eliminates the conceivable effect of doubt and having to say later, “I knew I shouldn’t have done that!” Another though perhaps less venerable hook on which to hang some credibility is that succumbing to an undignified course of action diminishes one in the eyes of others – a twist upon the difference between a politician and a statesman if you will. Noblesse oblige at least temporarily tempers one’s passion for revenge which in turn is clouded by adages such as that of Confucius, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”. All considered the remnant of this circumspection is that it is probably wiser on balance to take the high road. For whatever reason!