AIR ACCIDENTS can be viewed as random tests of the extent to which those responsible for keeping airplanes flying are doing their duty.

For example, the crew of an American Airlines plane recently tried to land it three times, in low visibility, with 124 people aboard, in Harlingen, Tex. On the third pass, they hit two sets of runway approach lights four feet off the ground. The collision was severe enough to deploy some oxygen masks in the passenger cabin and knock ceiling panels loose. Yet after the plane regained altitude and landed safely in San Antonio, other crews took it to Dallas-Fort Worth and then on to Denver where damage to the exterior of the plane was discovered and the plane taken out of service.

One may view this as nothing more than an isolated incident of questionable judgment, but there is some evidence to suggest that Americans -- always ambivalent about their duties -- have been particularly loath to live up to their responsibilities in recent years.

A survey of young Americans found that most rank trial by jury high among their rights. However, few indicated a willingness to serve on a jury.

Patriotism is reported to be in vogue. However, Americans would rather pay volunteers to serve in the military than support a draft in which all would share the burden.

A survey conducted by H & R Block shows that Americans favor a flat tax. However, that support is offered on one troubling condition: that the respondent's favorite loophole not be closed.

These observations led me to ask my class at The George Washington University what the term "duty" brought to their mind. They responded uneasily. They felt that people ought to be free to do what they believe in. Duties are imposed, alien, authoritarian -- what the principal, the curriculum committee, the society, "they," want you to do.

I responded with a little impassioned address about the common good: If everyone goes to the forest and fells a tree, soon the hillsides will be denuded. We cannot rely on the fact that once we are out of trees, people will recognize the need to plant new ones; it takes years for trees to grow. Hence, we must, I explained, expect members of society to plant some trees now, invest in the infrastructure, trim the deficit, etc., so that the next generation will have a forest, a thriving economy, a future. We must balance the desire to focus on one's own interests with some obligation to the commons. True, duties are not fun, otherwise there would be no need to impose them. But a civil society cannot do without them.

Well, the students reflected aloud; they understood where I was coming from. Okay, they said, maybe there was room for duty, but -- compliance ought to be voluntary, they insisted. I felt I had failed them; I never got the point across.

Americans have never been very duty-bound. The country was created by people who escaped duties imposed by authoritarian monarchies and dogmatic churches. And the ethos of the pioneers was of striking out on one's own -- even if, as a matter of fact, settlement was carried out by groups very much dependent on one another.

But over the last decades the need for duty to the commons has grown as the supply diminished. Consider:

Demand Side. Practically no one expects that America can do without some defense. The problem is that defense requires a continuous willingness to dedicate resources to national security that might otherwise be used to enhance one's standard of living. As obvious as this may seem, the fact is that Americans have found it very difficult to sustain such a commitment. The defense budget typically reflects cycles of neglect followed by hysterical reactions to some real or alleged crisis. There is no well-grounded commitment.

On the domestic front, voluntarism is now supposed to replace many government services. Anyone who points to the limits of such an approach is immediately suspect of being an old-time liberal, a champion of big government. But this simple-minded dichotomy -- do things privately or via the government -- conceals the real issue: What duties to the commons should the government impose?

Most would include, aside from defense, support for basic and medical research, some environmental protection, public education and services for the deserving poor. But today these obligations to the commons are left without a moral underpinning. Most do not subscribe to a social philosophy which endorses these commitments. Instead, we celebrate laissez faire and a generation rich in Me-ism.

Supply Side. Americans are hardly enamored with the notion that they have duties to the social weal. They find escape in an odd concoction: a misapplication of Adam Smith mixed with surging liberterianism, pop psychology and a dash of liberation theory.

Americans have been brought up on a highly simplified notion of the invisible hand: Everybody goes out and tries to "maximize" himself -- and the economy thrives for all. There is no need to curb self-interest, even greed; it is the propellant that fires up economies.

Now the reach of the invisible hand has been extended to wholly new spheres. Antismoking campaigns, pro-seatbelt moves, Social Security, environmental protection and employe safety are said to work best without "coercion" -- if people are left to their own devices.

In this rejection of any sense that we have duties to each other, we gloss over the consequences to innocent bystanders of such a free-for-all, it's-up-to-you-Jack attitude. These range from the effect on children of those who choose not to buy insurance, to the neglect of "public goods" -- goods we all need but no one is individually entrusted with procuring (e.g., highways).

Pop psychology is still with us. It argues that everyone ought to focus on his or her own growth. Society and its duties are viewed as standing in the way of self-fulfillment.

Pollster Daniel Yankelovich estimated that in the late 1970s, 17 percent of Americans were deeply committed to a philosophy of self-fulfillment and another 63 percent subscribed to it in varying degrees. These people said they "spend a great deal of time thinking about myself" and "satisfactions come from shaping oneself rather than from home and family life." They had a strong need for excitement and sensation and tended to feel free to look, live and act however they wanted, even if this violated others' concepts of what is proper.

The significance of this is that the escape from duty reaches beyond neglect of the community's needs to the neglect of one's immediate family.

Last but not least are the interest groups which elevate Me-ism to a group level. True, lobbies have been around since the founding of the Republic. But in recent years their power has increased sharply. And the consequence is that service to each interest group is easily put above a concern for the general welfare.

How do we redress the balance between the "I" and the "We" -- so that we enhance the sense of duty?

There obviously are no simple solutions, but schools could help. They could change their civics courses from teaching that the government has three branches and the Supreme Court nine members (and so on), and instead promote civility. However, since most schools are overworked and underfunded, they are unlikely to do much.

More may be achieved if the issue is put on the agenda of the nationwide town-hall meetings we are, in effect, constantly conducting. The subjects vary, from civil rights to environmental protection to deficit reduction. However, the process is the same: Triggered by a leading book (such as "Silent Spring"), a series of reports in leading newspapers or on television (e.g., on Vietnam), or by commissions (on education), we turn our collective attention to an issue. We debate it at length.

At first it seems nothing happens, but gradually a new consensus arises that affects people's behavior. We agree to pollute less or drink less; we exercise more; we become more sensitive to the rights of minorities or women.

The issue of our social obligations as Americans -- our duties -- is overdue for such a treatment. Meanwhile, we each ought to examine ourselves: What have you done for your community lately?