Objectionable Obligations

Can someone be bound by a moral obligation and yet at the same time have a moral complaint about being so bound? That is, there is something they morally ought to do.

Yet they have a moral complaint about being the one who is bound to do it: it is unfair that they, and not others, should bear the burden of having to do or attend to whatever this obligation requires. And this complaint makes a certain difference to the obligation itself, to related obligations of that agent, and to the claims that others have on her. This is what I shall call an “objectionable obligation.”

Do such obligations exist? Is the idea even coherent? And if it is, what are the implications, for moral theory and for us as moral agents? These are the questions I address in this paper. I try to show that in some commonplace situations, our intuitive reaction is that someone has both a moral obligation and a moral complaint about standing under it.

For instance, systemic discrimination, properly understood, involves not just a failure by more privileged groups to fulfil their (non-objectionable) obligations to subordinated groups, but also the placing of subordinate groups in positions where they acquire objectionable obligations. I then explore some of the consequences of such obligations for moral theory (in particular, for theories like consequentialism and contractualism, that seem to leave no conceptual space for objectionable obligations, and for our analyses of obligations, since the existence of objectionable obligations opens up a whole series of questions that we are not used to asking about our obligations) and also for us as moral agents, who may have what Herman has called a “duty to be an agent of moral change,” one who works to change not just unjust social practices or wrongful behaviour but, more radically, other people’s duties.

About the Law, Philosophy and Social Theory Colloquium

The Law, Philosophy and Social Theory Colloquium is jointly presented by the University of Michigan Philosophy Department and the School of Law. The public sessions feature presentations by leading or emerging voices in the fields of legal theory, moral or political philosophy to faculty members from the philosophy department, the law school, the history department, the Ross School of Business and the African-American Studies department, among others. The Colloquium is open to the academic community.

Professors Ekow Yankah (ekow@umich.edu) and Sarah Moss (ssmoss@umich.edu) organize the Colloquium. If you would like to receive Colloquium announcements, please contact Alex Wroble (arwroble@umich.edu) and ask to have your name added to the workshop’s email list.