A Quick Theory of Moral Obligation

Mar 24 2014

I recently made a distinction between moral laudability and moral permissibility. I feel as though I did not explain well why moral obligation is not entailed by the fact that a given action is or would be moral.

Briefly, to say someone is morally obligated to do action A is to say that if they fail to do A then they are morally wrong. The question I am addressing here is under what conditions is some person P morally obligated to do action A. And as I go, I will explain why just because action A is moral, one is not always morally obligated to do A.

The Basic Part

Let's start with a view that I hope is not controversial:

(1) Person P is morally obligated to do action A if failing to do A causes harm.

(If you prefer, you can substitute the last half with "if doing ~A (not-A) causes or allows harm")

The easy objection to the above is that it does not allow for cases where it is impossible for P to do A. For example, I cannot keep little Timmy from tripping and falling into the well if Timmy is in Tulsa and I am in Miami. Fortunately, this is an easy one for us to fix, and in fixing it we can bracket all kinds of conditions that would prevent us from being obligated to do things that we cannot actually do:

(2) Person P is morally obligated to do action A if failing to do A causes harm and conditions S allow P to do A.

Above, S denotes some schema or set of conditions. (Normally we'd use a Greek letter for that, but I'm sure you're fine with the S, right?)

So for brevity, we can say that however we expand S, the end result is that it will prevent moral obligation in cases where it is either impossible or highly impractical for S to do A.

I am using the word harm, by the way, according to its typical legal philosophy usage. Tracing back to John Stuart Mill's "Principle of Harms," it is generally taken to mean doing actual physical or emotional damage. (Causing inconvenience or annoyance is not, for example, harmful by this definition.)

The Interesting Part

So now we arrive at what is the really interesting question: Are there conditions other than preventing harm that cause us to become morally obligated? If we answer no right away, then we get a very convenient result:

(3) Person P is morally obligated to do action A if and only if failing to do A causes harm and conditions S allow P to do A.

In other words, the only reason I am ever morally obligated to help is if I am preventing harm. We could call this a strong principle of moral obligation, since it ives us a very clear line.

But things may be murkier than they appear in (3). There may be actions that we are morally obligated to make for other reasons (such as, say, keeping promises). So at least some people will argue that (3) is too strong.

What if we approach the problem from the other end of the spectrum? What if we delineate a class of conditions that we are definitely not morally obligated to perform:

(4) Person P is not morally obligated to do action A if A causes comfort, convenience, or pleasure, but neither causes nor alleviates harm.

So I may be able to do something for someone that would make that person happy or increase their convenience. But just because it's (a) possible for me to do it, and (b) pleasurable or helpful to someone does not mean I am obligated to do it.

Most importantly about (4) is the fact that P is not morally obligated to do A simply because P's doing A would eliminate a small or moderate amount of money, labor, stress, annoyance, or frustration on someone else's part.

(4) is designed as a sort of lower bound for the possibility of moral obligation. Rejecting (4) is dangerous, for the more eagerly we assign moral obligation, the more likely we are of finding ourselves obligated to give away all of our time, resources, and money merely for the convenience of those around us.

If you reject (3) but accept (4), then at least we have narrowed the space for moral obligation.

The Utilitarian Part

A utilitarian holds that determining whether an action is morally good is a matter of performing a hedonic calculus (i.e. a pleasure/pain calculation) to determine whether the action will, on balance, make more people happier.

If action A causes, on balance, more pleasure than pain, it is moral to do A.

But I made a mistake in some comments on an earlier post. I assumed that for rule utilitarians, if it is moral to do A then person P is morally obligated to do A. I mistakenly thought this because the pleasure/pain calculus (when generalized the way a rule utilitarian does it) does indeed point to consistently invoking a rule. But I stepped a little too far.

Moral obligation does not follow from the satisfaction of the pleasure/pain calculus, nor is it required by either act or rule utilitarianism. For if this was the case, then we would all be obligated to do all sorts of happiness-inducing things, like giving everyone we meet a nice long foot rub. (After all, you may be inconvenienced, but everyone you meet will be happier! If you give 10 foot rubs, that's 10 pros, and 1 con.)

So just like a deontologist and a virtue ethicist, the utilitarian must also define the point at which a morally good action becomes a morally obligatory action.

But something interesting does fall out from this otherwise rather banal point:

  • Just because you can make a economic case for it being moral to do A, you cannot therefore claim that it is obligatory.

Or, to state it differently, just because it is within P's capabilities to do A and P does not suffer any economic setback by doing A, you cannot jump to the conclusion that P is hence morally obligated to perform A. Why is this the case? Because economic goods accrue in the pleasure/pain calculus, but they don't (by their very existence) have an impact on obligation above and beyond any other conditions calculated. In other words, economic impact is just one datum, and a rather minor one in most cases.

The Part About Meerkats

Let's look at a quick example from a utilitarian perspective:

Let's say I penned a brilliant book on the life and behavior of meerkats. Let's say that Sue would come to understand meerkats better if she had my book.

Given the conditions immediately evident in this scenario, my giving Sue a gratis copy of the book might make her a little happier, and maybe me too. So it is morally permissible for me to give her the book.

However, I don't seem to have met condition (2), (3), or even (4) above. So I am not morally obligated.

Now, if I don't want to give Sue the book, the conditions may end up being morally neutral (it is not morally permissible, nor is it morally impermissible). If I don't want to give her the book, and she doesn't really care about the book, we're heading toward a utilitarian judgment of immorality. That seems weird, but... that's utilitarianism for you.

Even if Sue really, really wants a free copy of my book, and even if I want to give it to her, I'm still not morally obligated to give it to her because I still haven't satisfied conditions (2), (3), or (4). Of course, I'm morally permitted to give her the book. There's no doubt about that.

Then there's the case where Sue's future depends on her knowledge of meerkats. A final exam for a must-pass required college course on meerkats is looming, and Sue's Internet is down, and her only hope of passing is my amazing meerkat book. In this case, we might have made it passed (4). After all, we're not talking about comfort or pleasure, we're talking about wellbeing. At least some people may now claim that I am now morally obligated to give Sue my book if (and only if) giving her the book does not result in my sustaining and equal or greater amount of displeasure.

But even if I am then obligated to Sue, and even if you're a rule utilitarian, you cannot claim that because I am morally obligated to give the book to Sue, I am morally obligated to give the book to everyone. Though it'd be nice if I did that.

The Part with a Disclaimer

This is all a very rough sketch, and definitely not a completely developed notion of moral obligation. But in spite of that, I hope it clarifies some of the confusion raised by my previous post.