The Problem with Moral Obligations

A lot of moral philosophers have said that we have a moral obligation to do x.  But hold on there!  Let’s back up a bit.  The question that needs to be asked is why.  Why do we have a moral obligation to do x?  In fact, let’s take it one step further: why do we have moral obligations at all?  I could imagine one responding back saying, “well, we should have moral obligations because. . . ” Well, hold on there.  The “should” in that sentence already implies an obligation.  In other words, it’s stating that we have a moral obligation to have a moral obligation.  But then, why have that second order moral obligation.  Again, the response could be “Well, we should have a moral obligation to have a moral obligation because. . .” and again it’s repeating itself.  So the question remains: why do we have moral obligations?  Should we have moral obligations?  If so why, and to what?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Paper Topic. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Problem with Moral Obligations

  1. Killer J says:

    We don’t have moral obligations. Nobody is obligated to do anything with themselves; I have friends like this. We do have moral responsibility. To me, responsibility implies choice but does not necessitate action like obligation does.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    I’m wondering what it means to have moral responsibility but no moral obligations. Responsibility does imply choice, whereas obligation entails duty.

    This seems very existentialist to me where someone like Sartre would say that since we are free, we have no constraints or obligations. However, because we’re free, we can do anything we want, but we must be responsible for them. Is this what you mean Jeff? If this is the case, then doesn’t this lead to moral relativism?

  3. Killer J says:

    I’m not connecting the dots man. Maybe I wasn’t clear by my idea of a responsibility. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s in humanity’s best interest to be morally responsible.
    I am a therapist, therefore, I have a responsibility to do my best with each client whether I “like” them or not. I don’t have a duty, or obligation, to act as such. Should I choose to act morally responsible, my clients benefit by getting my best shot at helping them and I benefit by sharpening my skills and feeling good about myself.

    That make sense?

  4. Shaun Miller says:

    I understand where you’re coming from. You’re saying that we have no need of moral obligations but it’s in our best interests to be morally responsible so that we can benefit in society.

    What you’re talking about is first-order moral obligations. So to answer the question: do we need moral obligations? Your answer is no.

    I guess I needed to be clear on what my question was. I was thinking more in the lines of second-order moral obligations. So this would say do we have a moral obligation to have a moral obligation? In other words, should we have a moral obligation?

    I could see your answer being no as well because you don’t believe we need first-order moral obligations. It’s something to ponder.

  5. Killer J says:

    I get what you’re saying. I’m going to go with no then for the sake of staying consistent. I don’t like ‘should’s’ anyway, I prefer ‘could’s.’

  6. Killer J says:

    I want to know your opinion.

  7. shaunmiller says:

    I’m still developing it. If anything, I’m sympathetic to a virtue type of ethics. Mainly because I think morality has to do with your character rather than your actions, and also because it has the least amount of flaws with it. I’d like to develop this line of thought further, and maybe I will in the future.

  8. Killer J says:

    I don’t know man. “Walk the walk” resonates more with me than somebody that has moral character but doesn’t necessarily act on it. I guess I would rather have somebody do the ‘right thing’ for the wrong reasons rather than do nothing at all.

  9. shaunmiller says:

    You have just mentioned the flaw in virtue ethics. However, I find that through character, one does the right actions. . . usually.

  10. I agree with what Jeff said – he mentioned that moral obligations are basically things that benefit society. I completely agree. In fact, to take this one step further, I think that there are a lot of things that people say regarding ethics which fall into this category. “Listen to your conscience.” “It’s your moral duty.”

    My hunch is that biologically people have a sense of what’s best for humanity. There’s this thing that biologists call the “altruist gene” ( The idea is that an organism instinctively behaves in a selfless manner for the benefit of others. And I argue it’s selfless because the organisms probably don’t have such a sophisticated society where they’ve got systems of trust like credit scores 🙂 In other words, they follow “morals” without even knowing what that means. They simply do it because they’re programmed to, and this programming exists in their DNA so everyone does it, thus benefiting the species.

    So I dare say the reason ethics exists in the first place and the reason we say these things is because it’s in our DNA – it’s a system by which altruism can be encouraged, and this benefits society. So to get to your original question – why do it? Either because you’re forced to by your genes, or because you’re intelligent enough to recognize that the reason the urge to be “good” exists is because in the long run it helps humans survive.


  11. shaunmiller says:

    Vic, I see what you mean. However, I think you agree with Jeff on the outcome, but disagree on how to get there. You mention an altruistic gene where we act on selfless manners for the benefit of others. Jeff, as far as saw in what he wrote, is saying that we act for selfish purposes for everyone to benefit.

    Both of you, however, are basing your answers on some biological, evolutionary reason. So we have moral obligations (do you want to call it that?) is because it’s in our blood! If that’s the case, then we naturally are ethical. So what this means, since it’s in our nature, is that we have no choice but to be ethical. Is this what it leads to?

    I guess my question wasn’t based on a biological purpose but this tangent is interesting nonetheless.

  12. Killer J says:

    I don’t think Vic, and certainly not me, were saying we have no choice but to be ethical. If I understand Vic, higher-order organisms like people have the intelligence to make decisions regarding morality, whereas lower organisms may be ‘forced’ to follow these moral obligations as they lack the means to comprehend what’s best for their species survival.

  13. shaunmiller says:

    Well, Vic mentions genes, and I get worried when someone says that our ethics is based on biology because if that was the case, then that means it’s part of human nature. We are born with them. This is the argument that I see:

    1. If we are born with something, then it’s in our nature to be that.

    2. If someone is born with Parkinson’s disease, then it’s in that person’s nature to have Parkinson’s disease.

    3. If one is born with that something (in this case, Parkinson’s disease), that person has no choice but to have Parkinson’s disease.

    Now with this line of argument, replace “Parkinson’s disease” with either “altruistic gene” or “selfish gene.” This is how I see it. So if we’re born with these altruistic/selfish genes, then we are by nature altruistic/selfish. Thus, we are by nature moral because we are born with them.

  14. Killer J says:

    What about a altruistic gene that predisposes, but not necessarily predicts human nature? One can have genetic coding that ensures a high likelihood of future behavior matching the coding, but not be bound to that genetic coding.

    Isn’t it possible for all species to have a altruistic or selfish gene? To lower order, limbic system oriented creatures, they probably know nothing other than what the gene drives them to do. Our fancy cerebral cortex’s enable us to choose to ignore or deny what’s in the best interest of our species.

  15. shaunmiller says:

    What about a altruistic gene that predisposes, but not necessarily predicts human nature?

    I have a worry with the word “predispose.” To me, that almost sounds like determinism. It’s like saying carnivores are predisposed to eat meat, or humans are predisposed to have speech. So to say predispose still seems like it’s in the realm of it’s in our nature.

    Could species have altruistic or selfish genes? Perhaps, but I’m more inclined to go for selfish genes if I had to pick one. I don’t see the evolutionary advantage of an altruistic gene. How do altruistic genes help it survive?

    To say that our brains enable us to choose to ignore or deny what’s in our best interest, then I would say we are ignoring our genes. If that’s the case, then we are ignoring what nature has instilled in us. But this seems odd. How can we ignore what nature has given to us? Do you mean we can choose to act what nature has given to us? That I can see.

  16. Killer J says:

    Well, think of a child born to alcoholic parents. The kid is born with a physiological addiction. I’m not sure (nor is anybody) if there is an actual addiction GENE, but there certainly is a physiological predisposition for that child to grow into an alcoholic.

    A more controversial example would be sexual orientation. Through the examination of twin studies, some theorize that sexual orientation is NEITHER purely choice NOR genetic. The theory goes that one is born with a gene that predisposes their sexual orientation, and the environment (whatever that may be) then solidifies or counter-conditions the sexual predisposition. The research I am talking about says nothing about conscious choice in the matter, but those are some examples of predisposition.

    All children born to alcoholics and all children born with a certain sexual orientation gene don’t automatically fulfill their genetic predisposition. Nurture plays a role, and the individual is an active participant during this phase.

    Not too big a leap to imagine a selfish (more likely, as you asserted) or altruistic gene with the same qualities.

  17. shaunmiller says:

    I see what you mean Killer J. So we are born with these genes but something (perhaps the environment?) “triggers” these genes into action. This goes off on a tangent suggesting that if this happens, are we responsible because it’s now in our nature to become alcoholics, homosexuals, etc. but I’ll leave that on the side for the moment.

    So what it comes down to is that we have no moral obligations but we have moral responsibilities.

  18. Killer J says:

    Yeah, you seem to get what I’m saying here.

  19. shaunmiller says:

    I don’t know how to say it but here’s my worry with this evolution talk about ethics. It seems that if we reduce ethics to biology, then it’s a form a reductionism. I’m more inclined with a holistic picture of the world, especially when it comes to ethics (if there is such a thing).

  20. Killer J says:

    What’s wrong with reductionism?

  21. shaunmiller says:

    Well, as I’ve said before, I tend to look at the world from a holistic picture. The sum of the whole is greater than it’s parts. It seems that if we look at the world in pure biology, we exclude nature (unless one is a proponent of memes, but we’ll ignore that for the moment). So here’s one example: biology states that the best way for our genes to propagate is for them to replicate and much as they can. The easiest thing is basically reproduction. So based on this, the concept of marriage is pointless because we restrict our genes from propagating to its fullest. What biological reductionism ignores is culture.

  22. Killer J says:

    Some might say, “You are morally obligated to be fruitful and multiply!” From a reductionist standpoint, as you asserted, this would make sense. It would also work from a more holistic view, as this lingo involves culture via religion as well.

    I get what you’re saying though, I’m just sayin’…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s