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Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

By David Baggett 

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

Adams opts for the view that the good provides the proper framework for thinking about the right, and not the other way around. But he thinks the right, and categories closely related to it, have a distinctive and important role in ethics.  The good has a conceptual priority over its opposite that the right does not have. Goodness is not to be understood in terms of badness. But right is to be understood in relation to wrong. If something is not wrong to do, it’s right in the weak sense of being permissible; if something is wrong not to do, it’s right in the strong sense of moral obligation.

The obligatory, we may say, is what we have to do. It’s at least conceptually possible there are good actions to perform that aren’t obligatory—this is the category of supererogation—and this is one way the concept of the obligatory marks off a potentially smaller territory than that of the good. Behavior may be bad without violating an obligation, but what is wrong must always be bad. That is because anything we can plausibly regard as moral obligation must be grounded in a relation to something of real value; this is a point that will engage much of Adams’s attention in his discussion of obligation.

Kant embraced “rigorism,” the idea that no action is good in some ways but bad in others—this was a function of his view that nothing is good independently of its relation to morally ordered will. In Adams’s framework, though, in which the goodness of finite things consists in fragmentary and multidimensional resemblance to a supreme Good, it’s to be expected that actions will sometimes be partly good and partly bad.

In Adams’s view, the most important difference between the right, or obligation, and the good, is that right and wrong, as matters of obligation, must be understood in relation to a social context, broadly understood, but that is not true of all the types of good with which we are concerned.

Adams’s main project in this chapter is to argue that facts of obligation are constituted by broadly social requirements. In a later chapter he argues that those that have full moral validity are aptly understood as constituted by divine commands, and thus by requirements arising in a social system in which God is the leading participant.

Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation: Adams quotes Mill’s effort to capture a truth of meaning: there’s a connection between the semantics and metaphysics of morals—and regarding obligations, the idea semantically is that part of the notion of Duty in every one of its forms is that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. A person ought to be punished in some way or other for failing to discharge a duty, if not by opinion, then by the reproaches of his own conscience.

It’s not that the nature of moral obligation is given by the meanings of the words, such as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘obligation’. What we understand if we understand what those words mean in the relevant contexts is rather a complex role that moral obligation plays in a scheme of things. Understanding the semantics of obligation leaves metaphysical questions open, regarding the reality and nature of obligations. We can understand the role of obligations and still ask if there’s really something that is suited to fill this role. And if so, what is the best candidate?

Not all uses of ‘ought’ express a moral requirement. Sometimes it expresses a moral opinion alone. What must be true, on broadly semantical grounds, of anything that is to count as moral requirement or moral obligation is that we should care about complying with it. Anything that really is a moral obligation should be treated with a certain seriousness. If we shrug it off with a “Who cares about that?” we are not really treating it as a moral obligation. It is part of the semantically indicated role of moral obligation that it is something one should take seriously and care about. And it’s important that it be something one can be motivated to comply with, and something such as to ground reasons for compliance.

If an act is morally wrong, then in the absence of sufficient excuse, it is appropriate for the agent to be blamed, by others and by himself. To say of one he would be to blame is to say that it would be rational for him to feel guilty and for others to resent him, Gibbard says, who understands blame in terms of feelings of guilt and resentment. Adams agrees that such feelings are importantly typical of blame, but blaming need not be emotional. But blame in some form is appropriate when an agent is fully responsible for a wrong action.

Adams asserts that it’s part of the roles of obligation and wrongness that fulfillment of obligation and opposition to wrong actions should be publicly inculcated.

Adams argues these constraints on the nature of moral obligation seem to be built into the meaning of the discourse of moral obligation, and thus broadly analytic. But some theories ignore them. For example, utilitarians have sometimes tried to sever the link between obligation and sanctions.

Parfit seems to imply that requiring moral theories to satisfy the publicity condition (it must be a theory that everyone ought to accept, and publicly acknowledge to each other) commits one to some sort of subjectivism or antirealism, but Adams thinks this surely wrong, saying that to affirm a principle of conduct, while denying that it ought in general to be inculcated, if it is applicable to people in general, is not to affirm it as a principle of moral obligation.

Adams thinks it’s also a mistake to collapse the notion of the morally obligatory into the notion of what we have most reason (from a moral point of view) to do. Nagel does this when characterizing impersonal or agent-neutral reasons for action becoming “demands of impersonal morality” without any argument for the transition. There’s nothing in this that represents the full force of moral requirement or obligation, for there is a large difference between doing something irrational and doing something morally wrong. The concept of moral obligation is not there just to tell us about balances of moral reasons, but rather to express something more urgent.

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