What obligation is there to be moral? Part 3

Part 3 of a three part series. Pt1. Pt2.

Required obligations?

Which things need to be committed to (if any)? In other words, if “something being obligatory” means that it is required for something else, which kinds of “something else” must we be required to commit to in the first place?

Are there any kinds of commitments that need to be made? Could someone avoid making commitments entirely, thereby avoiding obligations? Or would they still be obliged to be moral? Is morality a kind of obligation that transcends the need to commit to it in the first place?

It seems theoretically possible for someone to avoid making social and commitments. For example, there could be a person that refused to engage with others in society, and was therefore unable even to make implicit or unstated commitments to others. More simply, perhaps this person lived on a deserted island, alone with no one to make society with. What if someone refused to make moral commitments? Other than social or legal consequences, would there be any moral consequences?

One argument might be that there are no consequences for being immoral, for failing to uphold a moral commitment, but that it is still obligatory to uphold moral commitments for their own sake. If something is obligatory for the sake of being moral, must we assume that we need to obey morality or be moral in the first place? For example –and to clarify the question– if not murdering is obligatory in order to be moral, the question becomes whether we are obliged to be moral in the first place. The question is not whether we approve or disapprove of murder, nor whether there will be legal repercussions for committing murder (if we are caught).

The question is: must we assume that we need to obey morality or be moral in the first place?

If the answer is yes, then this pushes the question back one step: if it is obligatory to be moral in the first place, then being moral itself is obligatory. If morality is obligatory, it must be required for something else. This raises the same question again: “must we be moral in the first place?” You can see how this causes an infinite loop; we never reach an independent reason to be moral. This is like saying that being a thief is required to be a thief; being a liar is required to be a liar; being happy is required to be happy; being fast is required to be fast, etc.

If the answer is no –to the first question or any of its succeeding iterations– then what “something else” is moral behaviour required for? If the answer is ‘nothing’, then it cannot be necessary to be moral in the first place. Answering with ‘nothing’ is another way of saying being moral is obligatory ‘for its own sake/in order to be moral’. There would be no way to have a meaningful obligation because “required for nothing” seems to mean “there is no metaphysical force behind this moral threat”.

If, alternatively, someone tries to define morality as: “that which is required without any further justification/requirements”, or “the obligation which has no other requirement”, then I return to my central thesis: what, then, is the consequence for not being moral?

If being moral is obligatory in any metaphysically moral way, even if it is the only kind of “obligation which has no other requirement”, what is the repercussion for not being moral? We have now returned to my central idea, and it seems that without evidence of a metaphysical  necessity to be moral, there is no reason to believe that there is force behind any supposed obligation to be moral.

Perhaps you believe moral forces exist, in which case you dismiss my entire argument. If you haven’t already, read why I disagree that moral forces exist in my post rejecting moral realism.

What obligation is there to be moral? Part 2

Part 2 of a three part series. Pt1. Pt3.

Forces compel in their own realms only

If I make a social commitment, I would be compelled to uphold that commitment by social forces (e.g. social penalties like lower social status, group exclusion, etc). If I make a legal commitment, compulsion might come in the form of legal forces (e.g. the police). Social and legal obligations are only forceful in their respective realms: social obligations are not mind-independent forces, neither are legal obligations.

Assuming I can meaningfully make a moral commitment, what kind of forces would compel me to uphold a moral commitment? Strictly speaking, the appropriate answer is ‘moral forces’, and if such a force existed, it would compel us to uphold moral obligations and provide the threat of moral consequences. We need to analyse moral obligation as its own kind of force, independent of other kinds of forces (social, legal, etc).

So if we are to analyse moral obligation, and obligation requires a force or consequence, where is the empirical evidence for moral consequences or moral forces? Either would require that the universe has moral properties. These metaphysical moral properties would somehow constitute moral forces, that could make claims to moral obligation true.

Do moral consequences exist?

There are social or legal forces in the universe. These forces are not universal, metaphysical properties, but localised to human interactions and institutions. They are not claimed to be metaphysical in nature, independent of human-minds. Social repercussions for not upholding social commitments, are evidence for social forces in society, likewise, legal repercussions for breaking the law are evidence for the existence of the legal forces in society.

With the law, it is easy to see the force that makes legal commitments legally compelling. At some point, if you continue to break the law, physical force will be applied to you until you comply.

Likewise, stated or unstated social contracts compel participants to uphold social obligations. For example, if you constantly break your word, you may suffer expulsion from a group. The group’s members’ collective choice to socially exclude you does limit (or end) your ability to socialise with them.

In each case, there is a force behind the repercussions for breaking a commitment. Those forces are what establish meaningful consequences, and those forces actually exist (in their respective realms).

But by what force is a moral commitment compelled? Sure, social penalties and legal penalties may follow a supposed immoral act, or the breaking of a moral commitment, but what evidence is there for any strictly metaphysical moral consequences?

If there is no such thing as a moral force, then (as I said in part one), there would be no way to make a claim to moral obligation meaningfully. However, if we look at this another way, assuming we can make a moral claim to obligation, but there is no empirical force to compel us to uphold a moral commitment, then we can break our moral commitments. If we break our moral commitments, and there is no moral forces, there is no moral consequences. The takeaway message is that without empirical moral forces, there are no truth moral obligations.

There is no evidence for moral forces, and hence no moral obligations outside of the socially or legally associated man-made repercussions.

Obligation without consequence

One possible response to the above is that “we ought be moral/good just because”. There doesn’t need to be a consequence, or moral force, but somehow moral obligations exist without caveat.

Could someone avoid making commitments entirely, thereby avoiding obligations? Or would they still be obliged to be moral? Is morality a kind of obligation that transcends the need to commit to it in the first place?

On to part 3

What obligation is there to be moral? Part 1

Part 1 of a three part series. Pt2. Pt3.

Imagine for a moment, you are in a store buying your groceries, when an animal rights activist approaches you as you place bacon rashers in your trolley. They begin an exchange of ideas with you by saying: “You shouldn’t buy bacon, it is immoral.” You reply with a sarcastic meta-ethical question: “Why shouldn’t I be immoral?” The vegetarian replies, “Because it is your obligation to be moral, of course!” You push back with, “What happens if I am not moral, though?” And so the conversation goes.

Whether or not being vegan/vegetarian is good (or not), is not the purpose of this post. I hope the above gives an taste of what I will discuss below.

What does it mean to say that there is an obligation to be moral?

“It is your obligation to be good”

In most ethical conversations, the idea that “one ought to be good”, is usually assumed, and it is the purpose of the conversation to figure out what is good.  However, a meta-ethical question takes a step back and challenges this very assumption. Regardless of what is moral or immoral, is there a requirement to act according to moral statements?

In this three part series, I hope to show that if there are no consequences for not being good, then there is no meaningful obligation to be good/moral.

Morality means obligation

  1. All claims such as ‘you ought be good’, ‘you are obligated to be good’ etc are only meaningful if there are consequences for not complying.
  2. There are no metaphysical consequences for not complying with moral obligations.
  3. So, strictly speaking, claims of moral obligations such as ‘you are obliged to be good’ or ‘there is an obligation to be good/moral’, are meaningless.

I will go on to clarify by explaining, that while there can be numerous consequences for supposed moral claims, their consequences are not of a metaphysically moral nature. So despite, there being consequences, social, legal or otherwise, there is (strictly speaking) no moral obligation to be moral.

Defining obligation

We need an understanding of obligation, both generally and in its specific forms: obligation (adjective) and obligatory (noun).

In the adjective form, something is obligatory if it is required for something else. For example, “having an IQ score over 130 is obligatory for acceptance into Mensa“.

An obligation (noun) is a commitment that needs to be fulfilled. A commitment may be the result of a contract (verbal, written, assumed, or otherwise), promise, duty, or some metaphysical force.

Obligations may be of various natures for example: social or legal. For example, signing a legal contract signifies a commitment to its terms, and the need to fulfill the commitment is due to the nature of its legal force. This legal contract may also carry social implications. If you don’t pay your rent, society might shun you. The reason the statement “You ought to fulfill your legal obligations” is meaningful, is because there is a force of consequence. In this case, it is the legal ramifications of breaking your contract.

Only by specifying a type of obligation can we imply a claim to obligation’s force of consequence. Without a force of consequence, there is no consequence, and the use of the word obligation is faulty, making the statement or claim meaningless.

Statements of obligation

Consider the following statement in the form, “X is Y”: “Giving up your seat on a bus for an elderly person is a social obligation”. “Giving up your seat on a bus for an elderly person” is an act (X), claimed to be a social obligation (Y). This proposition can be true or false, depending on whether X is actually a Y. If there is a social obligation to give up your set on the bus for an elderly person, then it is true. If it is not, it is false.

Alternatively, consider the meaning of: “Giving up your seat on a bus for an elder person is an obligation”, removing the “social” part of “social obligation”. Without specifying, what type of obligation X is, it is not able to be true of false without further clarification. The statement begs the question: “What type of obligation is it?”

Consider a generic statement: “X is an obligation”. Unless an explicit type of obligation has been stated, there cannot be an associated kind of consequence –a type of force that compels X. As a result, “X is an obligation” without clarification is meaningless because it claims there is a force of consequence without naming the type of force.

Context-less utterances

Imagine someone said “shutting the door is your obligation”. Perhaps you have been employed as a door-man. You are contractually obliged to shut the door for an apartment complex. If we remove ‘your’ from the sentence (‘shutting the door is an obligation’), it becomes devoid of context. Again, an obligation for what?

Only in a ethical conversations, do utterances like “compassion is an obligation” go unchecked. Such a sentence is without context, and the natural question is again, an obligation for what? In pleasant company, you might both share assumptions, or not care to discuss the assumed context, but in itself –if intended as a claim to obligation without context– it begs the question ‘for what?’

Replace ‘compassion’ with other words and you can see the structure of the sentence is clearly begging the question:

  • “Knitting is an obligation”

Knitting, in itself, is not an obligation — (knitting is an obligation for what?). For the earlier example, compassion may indeed be a social obligation (but this should be specified), but if this isn’t intended by the utterance, and cannot be assumed, then the statement is assuming its own premise. An obligation to knit, for example, is assumed to be obligatory because it just is. This circular reasoning can be pointed out more clearly by trying to provide itself as a context.

If a different statement is considered (one where the kind of obligation is specified), “Morality is a moral obligation”, it becomes a clear tautology, saying nothing of interest. Consider its counterpart: “knitting is a knitting obligation”. Well, of course, knitting is an obligation for knitting. This is because if you don’t knit, the consequence is necessarily that knitting is not fulfilled/achieved.

Types of obligations

“X is a social obligation” could be true. It depends what X is. The statements will be false however, unless there are social consequences for not upholding X. Furthermore, not upholding X might have other kinds of consequences in addition to social ones (such as legal ones), but unless there are social consequences, the statement would not be strictly true. That said, while it might be strictly false to say that “X is a social obligation”, it may still be true to say that “X is [another type of obligation]” (e.g. “X is a legal obligation”).

Likewise, “X is a moral obligation” is only strictly meaningful if there are moral consequences for not upholding the obligation. While there may be social and legal consequences for not upholding obligation X, it is not true that “X is a moral obligation” unless there are metaphysical moral consequences.

But are there such things as moral consequences?

On to part 2