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

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