I know only the German terms. There, Pflicht and Verbindlichkeit are not 100% the same but 99% percent of the time used interchangeably.

edit: Within the context of legal discourse.

  • Yes: consider "on duty" and "guard duty". Or are you thinking of a specific context? – nnnnnn Apr 30 at 12:42
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    I would say the difference is that one's duty is enforceable, for example in the military services – sentry duty, on duty. Or a rota, such as a duty chemist open during unsocial hours. But an obligation is more of a social matter. As a godfather I have an obligation towards a young relative, as a team member to turn up to play in a match. – Weather Vane Apr 30 at 12:46
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    In one sense, "duty" is assigned from an authority, "obligation" is a personal emotion. But the division is fuzzy. – Hot Licks Apr 30 at 12:46

To me it's a case of a person being obligated to do something, versus them being expected to because of who they are, or what organisation they are affiliated with.

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As has been said, there is overlap between a duty and an obligation, but this is because both words have several nuances that are created by context. English is exceptionally dependent upon context.

Considering only the general differences:

A duty is imposed upon someone in an absolute manner (See Hot Licks above) usually by virtue of their accepting a position of responsibility – there is no excuse for not carrying out one’s duty.

Failure to carry out a duty will usually be a criminal offence.

An obligation is either (i) moral and imposed by society or (ii) incurred as a result of entering into a civil agreement (usually a contract) with someone.

Failure to carry out an obligation will usually be a civil offence.

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A particular author can stipulate that duty and obligation will be used in different ways within a particular text, and specify what they are. There is, however, no general difference between them that can be assumed to hold across all the various contexts in which they are used. In other words, one is entitled to assume that they are synonymous, unless there is something about the specific context that gives one a reason to think that, in that context, they are not.

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