Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Promises and Conflicting Obligations

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Promises and Conflicting Obligations

Article excerpt

Some obligations we create by declaration, by the exercise of normative power. In the case of a promise, we do so by communicating the intention of hereby undertaking an obligation. In the case of a command, we do so by communicating the intention of hereby binding someone else to perform. Or so I shall assume. Call these voluntary obligations. As I use the term, a voluntary obligation is not merely an obligation that results from our choice, nor even from our choice of an obligation. A voluntary obligation is the result of a specific form of choice--namely the decision to communicate the intention of hereby binding someone to perform. Of course, there are various ways in which declarations or exercises of normative power may fail at their purpose but the fact that the speaker intended to bind someone by declaration is often crucial to their being so bound.

The claim that such a declaration could ever generate an obligation has been disputed. (1) Here I join other authors in assuming that normative power is a reality and so voluntary obligations do exist, but I shall also be assuming that many obligations are not in this sense voluntary. For example, parents are bound to feed their children regardless of promise, command or any other form of declaration. And this raises a question: how do voluntary obligations relate to involuntary obligations? In particular, can one have a voluntary obligation to do something that is involuntarily forbidden? Here I am mainly interested in promises and thus in whether one can bind oneself to do what one is involuntarily obliged not to do, but I shall also ask whether another can put me in this position by issuing a valid order. (2)

At one extreme is the view that, while declaration may create voluntary obligations where none previously existed, it can do so only within the limits laid down by our involuntary obligations. That is the view taken by advocates of what I shall call the "natural right theory" of promissory obligation (see section 3). At the other extreme is the view (toward which I myself now incline) that the content of binding promises and valid commands is not constrained by our involuntary obligations as such. (3) There is a related issue about whether our present voluntary obligations are restricted by those we have previously assumed (e.g., our past promises). I shall consider the latter issue in the second section and the former in the third but before getting down to business, we need a clearer view of what it is to be bound by an obligation.

1. Obligation

How one thinks about conflict of obligation will inevitably depend on how one thinks about obligation itself, and there is no way of setting up the debate about the former without making claims about the latter, claims that some will dispute. (4) In this section, I describe three marks of obligation. A mark of obligation is a condition that any obligation must satisfy and furthermore a condition that helps to differentiate an obligation from other considerations that might persuade one to act. I shall further assume that these three marks suffice to differentiate obligations from all other practical considerations, so that any practical consideration that bears them constitutes an obligation. But the issue as to whether practical considerations bearing these marks can conflict is, I maintain, of theoretical interest whether or not they all constitute obligations. (For example, we need to settle whether you might find yourself in a situation in which guilt will be apt whatever you do.) So those who doubt that the presence of these three marks is enough for obligation may still engage with the argument of the next three sections.

So what is distinctive of obligation? I will start with the following claim: it makes sense for you to do something simply because you think yourself obliged to do it. If you think yourself bound by your promise to go on holiday with me, then it makes sense for you to go on holiday with me even though you can see nothing else to be said for so doing, do not feel like going and so forth. …

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