By Mark English
In an aside in a recent piece on moral intuitionism, Daniel Kaufman remarked that he was unsure whether “there really are such things as moral obligations and duties.” .
I think I understand what he is getting at here, but rather than trying directly to address his question, I want to sketch out – very briefly and impressionistically – a way of thinking about duty and obligation, within which such a question wouldn’t normally arise.
Social life is clearly dependent on individuals adopting certain conventions, playing, as it were, by certain rules. The successful use of language, for example, involves adopting the phonological, syntactic, pragmatic, etc. conventions of a certain linguistic community. This is not a matter of obligation or duty, of course, just simple necessity.
But within a (necessarily convention-based) community there will be expectations that might be seen as involving duties or obligations; which have, in other words, a moral dimension. Take truth-telling. Does one have an obligation, when using language, not to use it to deceive one’s interlocutor?
Well, put it this way: if your interlocutor finds out you are deceiving her, she will not be happy. In other words, there is a general reciprocal expectation of truth-telling. You tell me the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. If this perceived obligation is thought to be breached, the communication (or attempt at deception) fails, and the perpetrator of the breach is sanctioned in some way (shamed or ostracized, say).
Of course, the lie may not be picked up (immediately or later), in which case the communication succeeds – at least from the point of view of the speaker. The technical conventions that make language possible clearly do not preclude its use in deception, and it has even been suggested that language evolved at least in part because it made possible new and sophisticated means of deception and manipulation.
There is, however, a general expectation of truth-telling upon which all communication – including deception – depends.
Take another example: the (often spontaneous) convention of forming queues at bus stops or shop counters. The person who breaks the convention, who pushes in, is disapproved of (and sometimes humiliated and forced to go back to the end of the queue).
Even this trivial example can be described in terms of obligations and rights. One is obliged to wait one’s turn; and, if one has been waiting in line, one has a right to be served before the transgressor. Or again, no one has a right to push in (except perhaps in certain circumstances).
To me, obligations, duties and rights are no more mysterious than this: they arise naturally as a necessary and intrinsic part of social life. They are all about conventions and expectations, and these conventions and expectations are perfectly real though fluid, often changing over time or from sub-group to sub-group.
Another example. Parents are almost universally considered responsible for caring for their children, but what do adult children owe their parents? There is room for many points of view here. Basically, any perceived or felt obligation is going to be dependent on a whole range of factors, some relating to general beliefs and expectations, some to the nature of the particular parent-child relationship under consideration.
I am involved with visiting my old and very frail mother (who is in a care home) on a regular basis, and this could be seen as fulfilling a duty (and a promise). But, if it is a duty, it is the kind of duty that Cordelia talked about in relation to her father, King Lear:
“Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit…” 
Those who are familiar with the play will know that the talk of duty is not quite what it seems, but is Cordelia’s way of expressing a deep and genuine love for her father. (The audience sees this immediately, but not – tragically – her father.)
Duty, in other words, can in some contexts take on a richness and a warmth of meaning which is totally absent from most academic discussions of the concept.
Context is crucial here. According to my account, duties and obligations and rights only ever exist within specific social contexts and are, in effect, generated by social interaction. There are – unsurprisingly, given the logic of reciprocity etc., and our shared biology – patterns and commonalities within and across cultures, but every actual act or expectation is situated.
Of course, you could also see duties and obligations as existing in (or deriving from) some kind of religious or Kantian moral realm. But going there would involve postulating some kind of spiritual reality over and above the normal social world, and so moving beyond the naturalistic framework I am working within.
Now, there are just a couple of further points I want to make.
One is that our actions (and our selves) will – and should – be judged in general and not just in moral terms. You can’t really separate the moral from other aspects of life. The question of what I should do and the (related) question of what sort of person I should strive to be are not just moral or ethical questions (in the usual, fairly narrow, sense of those words).
Take the dutiful son or daughter. Are they necessarily making better choices than their less caring siblings? It may well be that someone might be judged as dutiful and caring, but lacking in other desirable qualities, like adventurousness or ambition, for example. After all, a bit of ruthlessness is sometimes a good thing, don’t you think?
There is (I am suggesting) no separate domain of ethics or morality. Human existence is a relatively seamless whole. You can abstract away from the whole (as occurs in discussions of religious or philosophical ethics, or in deontic logic), but, to the extent that you do, you are moving away from the human world or at least distorting it.
Sciences like physics have had tremendous success in using simplifying abstractions. But such theoretical approaches (deploying abstract models, etc.) don’t work so well in the social sciences – and certainly not in the realm of moral discourse.
One last point relates to an issue I may come back to in a future essay: the all-encompassing (from a human point of view) power of the social world.
Some may say that by focusing on the descriptive and the social I have not been doing justice to the normative side of things or that I am claiming somehow that moral duties are just social phenomena. But there is no ‘just’ about it. The value-laden social and cultural world is more powerful and all-pervasive than we often realize, more an intrinsic part of our thinking and deliberating than our (typically Cartesian) thoughts and deliberations lead us to think it is.
Our very personhood is utterly dependent on social context. Just look at how children deprived of social and cultural input turn out; or what strict solitary confinement does to a person.
In fact, the social and cultural world creates and sustains us, exhibiting potencies, properties and powers not unlike the (merely imagined) powers of an absolute deity. But this is a topic for another time.
- “Intuition and morals,” The Electric Agora, September 21, 2015.
- William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1.