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What's an obligation? Well, it's something you have to do. So is not killing George Bush an obligation of mine? No, that's just morality. Why isn't it an obligation? Nothing you did makes it wrong to kill Bush; it always is. But that's not true! We can imagine some life I could have led where it would be right for me to kill Bush. (Am taking the liberty of having Bush have done some things differently in the counter-factual, but that's necessary regardless because what if the new life for me involved talking to him.)

Alright, let's try again. What's an obligation? Obligations are changes or differences in the moral landscape. The idea here is no one alive is justified to kill Bush, so my not being justified in killing him is not a change or difference. But if I agree to meet someone at the park Sunday, that is an obligation because the requirement to show up is different from what other people have to do Sunday. Sound good?

Sorry, nope, that one is incoherent too. Additionally, it's ambiguous, so I'll go over both possibilites.

One possibility is obligations are changes in the moral landscape compared to the average person in our society (can't be compared to everyone, because on any issue where there isn't total agreement of every last person (that isn't us), we couldn't compare). But what's an average person? Mean, median, or mode? Well mean (add all values, divide by total number of values added) is right out. You can't just mix views and expect a coherent result. The mode (whatever value comes up the most) won't work either, because all worldviews are unique. And the median (arrange data on a number-line, count in from both sides at equal speed, and thus find the middle one) won't work either because we can't just line theories on a number-line -- they don't compare that way.

Alright, so we're not comparing obligations to some sort of average in our society. The other possibility is we are comparing to the default. By default, it's wrong to kill George Bush; this is always true unless something happens to change it. Sound good?

Sorry, no. Here we are picking one moral landscape (named "default") to compare everyone to. Any differences are obligations. But society has changed drastically in the last 2,000 years. Could we really have used the same default then as now? How could the 2,000 year old one have mentioned not to kill Bush?

Well, it can't. It would have to say something more like "By default, don't kill innocents." But then to determine obligations, we can't just compare with the default moral landscape, because it doesn't have answers to all propositions. It doesn't have {Kill-Bush=No, Kill-Nader=No, Kill-IMAO=No, etc}

But it's worse than that. Is the default moral landscape supposed to correspond to a default life? If not, How would we decide what goes in it? But if so, what's a default life? The truth is there's no such thing. There are as many ways to approach life as there are people.

Anyway, the point is obligations are incoherent. Not just a little fuzzy and misunderstood, but incoherent beyond rescue. They make no bloody sense. They don't exist.

This doesn't mean you can now cheat on your girlfriend. It just means technically what's stopping you is contained in morality and your choices, not in an "obligation".

But wait, Elliot. What if you agree to meet a friend at the park Sunday, then another calls and wants to do something else Sunday? What do you tell him? Wouldn't you say you had to do something else. (Yes.) And isn't "I have to do something else" equivalent to "I'm obligated to do something else." (Yes, again.) So what are you doing talking in incoherent terms like obligations?

Well I figured out what they're good for! They can be used to express (emphasise if you like) a difference between your view of a moral landscape and that of the person you're talking to. In my view, it's right for me to go meet the first friend at the park. But the second friend doesn't. Thus I say there is an obligation to express the difference in our views.

A close variant is that obligations can actually be used to express the difference between your view any other you choose. For example you might acknowledge an obligation not to cheat on your girlfriend. This is expressing a difference between your view and any view from the class that does allow for cheating.

So to sum up, speaking of obligations is useful to express or emphasise the difference between two moral landscapes (or worldviews, or problem situations, same difference). But obligations don't exist anymore than "bigger" exists.

Elliot Temple on February 23, 2004

Comments (8)

interesting, as always

you lost me near the end where "obligation" is explained as shorthand for "there's a difference between your and my moral landscape". when your 2nd friend calls you, I don't think he has a "different" moral landscape than you, he'd probably *agree* you should go with your 1st friend, it's just that he *didn't know* you had made that plan (probably). now that you've explained it to him, he'd be like "oh okay". to say "I have an obligation" in this situation is probably more like a combination of (1) giving information your 2nd friend didn't have (="I made a plan") + (2) explicating your moral outlook (="i choose to honor such plans"). There's no "different" moral landscape here, just knowledge (1) which your 2nd friend didn't have.

chances are, your 2nd friend *shares* your moral landscape (else why would you be/stay friends?), and in any event he probably *knows* your moral landscape, in which case saying (2) is unnecessary. this is why, mostly, saying to your 2nd friend, "I already made plans for Sunday" is enough. the "obligation" is implied by your 2nd friend's knowledge of the type of person you are

Blixa at 11:47 AM on February 23, 2004 | #855

you seem to be taking moral landscape to mean something like "theories about morality". but it includes far more info than that. it's closer to a worldview or problem situation which has *all* information relevant to someone's life/choices. if it has all that info, and someone is told about his friend's agreement to go to the park, then it has to change (add that new info).

Elliot at 12:41 PM on February 23, 2004 | #856

ok gotcha, good (& necessary in my case) clarification, thanx

Blixa at 1:26 PM on February 23, 2004 | #857

I can't tell if you are merely playing a semantic game or not.

What do you mean "bigger" doesn't exist? You mean a relation between two things is not a "thing"? You mean that it doesn't have existence in the Cartesian sense? Do you mean bigger is only a relevant concept as a function mapping? Or are you claiming that something that is a relation or function is not a thing that exists?

You say these nonexistent things can be used to express a difference between two other things. How can it be used if it doesn't exist? Why not say "obligations exist; obligations are the states of confusion caused by a difference between your view (of a moral landscape...) and someone else's view (of ...)"

how is that the same as Not Existing?

do you mean by "obligations don't exist" that "obligations aren't really binding?" Because people can *feel* bound.

foo at 10:47 PM on February 26, 2004 | #858

bigger exists in a different way than a baseball bat does. obligations do not exist in the baseball bat sense. clear enough?

Elliot at 4:42 AM on February 27, 2004 | #859

ah, so obligations don't exist anymore than hope does.

Got it.

Would you like to answer the other question of why you don't call an obligation a kind of relation?

Here's a possible definition. Person A at time t, has goal structures, g_1, g_2, ... g_i. They are not in fact, well ordered, but enumerated as such for simplicity. An action X is an obligation to A when the taking of action X logically entails giving up actions at time t that fulfill or are in line with fulfilling, goal g_i, but not taking of action X logically entails giving up at that time actions that fulfill (or are in line with fulfilling) goal g_j.

An obligation is an action/activity that arises out of a relation between differing goal structures. Subsequent goal rearranging or conflating attaches differing value judgment onto such an obligation.

foo at 2:00 PM on February 27, 2004 | #860

i have no idea what you just said.

Elliot at 2:57 PM on February 27, 2004 | #861

If your concern for the little Iraq children that gwbush had a direct hand in killing maiming and raping outweighed your personal sense of survival then it would be your moral obligation to kill gwbush.

mojo at 9:49 AM on June 19, 2004 | #862

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)