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Obligatory Hairsplitting

Several weeks (okay, months) ago I had a very interesting e-mail exchange with a retired philosophy professor, Jim, about rights and obligations. Concerned that we weren't talking about the same thing, I asked him to describe the difference between moral obligations and moral rights.

I perceive no difference. To say that "S has a right to X" [is defined as] "Others are obligated to act in a manner consistent with S's maintaining X." To say others have an obligation is to say you have a right, and vice versa.

Our conversation was a long time ago and we talked about a many more things than this, but I made what I think is an important point during that conversation and so I'd like to repeat and expand upon it here.

There is a difference between moral obligations and moral rights under some ethical systems. Speaking about obligations specifically, it is true that a person's positive right to X means that others are obligated to provide X, but the converse is not true — there may be obligations to provide X even in the absence of a right to X. (Of course I reject positive rights, but that's not germane right now.)

Under a virtue ethics approach, the source of a moral obligation is one's own commitment to virtue, or personal integrity. Not the condition or need of any other person. For example, a virtue ethicist may recognize a moral obligation to aid an injured child on the grounds that doing so helps create the kind of society they want to live in, or for the psychological value in fighting against human suffering, or as a long-shot investment ("Maybe as an adult he'll cure cancer!"), or even on the abstract value of human life. Notice that these motivations are not based on the child's need. They originate in the helper, not in the helped. They in no way establish a right of the child to receive help, but those values coupled with strong integrity could create a moral obligation.

Due to individual choices of values, it is even possible for some people to be morally obligated to help while others are not! Clearly this is far removed from the standard thinking that the child's need is the source of a right to assistance.

The case is clearer when we aren't discussing two strangers. Consider a married couple, instead, one of whom is sick and will soon die without an expensive operation. The healthy person may have a moral obligation to pay for the operation because they love their spouse and integrity demands preserving one's highest values over lesser values — e.g., sell the boat to pay for the operation, because the spouse is more important than the boat.

A stranger's moral obligation in this case is obviously smaller, and perhaps zero, depending on their own values. The situation is very different when the moral obligation is assumed to stem from the (positive) rights of the sick spouse: If the obligation exists due to their need, shouldn't it fall evenly on both the spouse and on the stranger, rather than more heavily on the spouse?

Consider your own reaction to the sick spouse case. Do you believe the spouse and the stranger have equal or unequal moral obligations? What is the source of that obligation — values or needs? (Or both?) Do you view moral obligations from a virtue ethics or positive rights perspective?


… for once, I really wish I had a commenting system. Feel free to comment by e-mail, and I may post 'em to this article.

Tiny Island