Obligation: A Social Theory

Obligation: A Social Theory

Obligation: A Social Theory

Obligation: A Social Theory

Excerpt

This is a book about obligation, not freedom, but neither can be treated without the other. In one way, obligation and freedom are polar opposites: freedom is an absence of constraint, and obligation is constraining. What is obligatory is somehow binding, but it is not binding as force is binding, nor is it binding even as law is, when law is backed by force and its violation brings punishment. For superior force cannot be disobeyed, law can be, at the risk of punishment, but obligation can indeed be violated, and its violation may bring no punishment at all, not even a sleepless night. So although obligation may be opposed to freedom, as all bonds are, it is not so starkly opposed as law or force. "You ought not" is not so strong a statement as "You my not," and "You ought" is different from "You shall."

Paradoxically, obligation cannot exist without freedom. Unless one is free not to do something, he cannot be obligated to do it. "You ought" implies "You are free not to." Force can and does exist without freedom, for it eliminates freedom. The law does too, when it can; armed robbery is stopped by the police, when possible. One is not merely punished for breaking a law, but violently suppressed if caught at it.

To act under obligation is to act freely. Response to obligation is the measure of a man, and requires self-restraint and self- discipline, in some cases anguish. Yet the conditions for obligation are not just the absence of external restraint and perhaps the presence of external discipline, but also the absence of internal necessity. For if everything we do is what, psychologically, we must do, there is no freedom not to do it; and "You ought" loses all meaning if it is false that "You are free not to. . . ."

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