Skip to main content

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

By David Baggett

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

The role that our moral discourse marks out for obligation obviously has other features besides its relation to guilt. One of them is that obligations constitute reasons for doing that which one is obliged to do, and reasons for refraining from doing that which it would be wrong to do. One problem about the nature of obligation is to understand how it grounds reasons for actions.

As a nonconsequentialist Adams is skeptical that obligations are always happily attuned to the value of expected results. We think we may be obliged to tell the truth and to keep promises even when we do not expect the consequences to be good, and when we have no idea what the consequences will be. What would motivate us to do such a thing?

Adams, in accord with Rawls (and more recently Evans), argues that the idea the conscientious agent has good enough reason for her action simply in the fact that it’s the right thing to do seems too abstract. If we are to see the fact of having an obligation as itself a reason for action, we need a richer, less abstract understanding of the nature of obligation, in which we might find something to motivate us. According to social theories of the nature of obligation, having an obligation to do something consists in being required (in a certain way, under certain circumstances or conditions), by another person or a group of persons, to do it. So one reason or motive for complying with a social requirement is that we fear punishment or retaliation for noncompliance. What other motives does this account open up?

An alternative suggestion Adams wishes to pursue is that valuing one’s social bonds gives one, under certain conditions, a reason to do what is required of one by one’s associates or one’s community (and thus to fulfill obligations, understood as social requirements). The reason Adams has in mind is not one that arises from a desire to obtain or maintain a relationship, but rather that I value the relationship in which I see myself as actually having, and my complying is an expression of my valuing and respecting the relationship. This is a motivational pattern in which I act primarily out of a valuing of the relationship, rather than with the obtaining or maintaining of the relationship as an end.

A morally valid obligation obviously will not be constituted by just any demand sponsored by a system of social relationships that one in fact values. Some such demands have no moral force, and some social systems are downright evil. A moral conception of obligation must have resources for moral criticism of social systems and their demands. But Adams thinks there’s a premoral conception of obligation in which we can see social facts as constituting obligations independently of our moral evaluation of those facts.

It will be particularly important if we believe (as Adams thinks is plausible) that the actions of commanding, demanding, and requiring can’t be understood or identified apart from their tendency to create obligations. This is to avoid circularity. A premoral conception of obligation, on the other hand, identifies a kind of sociological fact, closely connected with such linguistic (and social) events as commanding, which can be used in explaining the nature of moral facts of obligation. So Adams claims.

There are cases of commands and presumed obligations that aren’t genuinely moral cases of obligation. Yet the people in question have the concepts of command and obligation that serve them effectively in describing their social system and living within it, and that we could use as anthropologists to describe the system. To be sure, we who do have a conception and practice of moral critique of our social systems wish to distinguish such cases as institutional or official cases rather than bona fide cases of obligation and duty, but Adams thinks the fact remains that much of our understanding of social and linguistic systems depends on our grasp of premoral conceptions of obligation.

To say a conception of obligation is premoral is of course not to say that it is totally nonnormative. Most of the persons within the social system in question still need to regard the indicated obligations as providing reasons for compliance. A conception of moral obligation, however, will insist on better reasons for complying. It will impose a certain kind of critique of reasons for complying.

Adams will next try to show that a system of human social requirements can go some distance toward meeting this requirement although, in the end, he believes the moral pressure not to make an idol of any human society pushes us toward a transcendent source of the moral demand. Several aspects of the relational situation are important to the quality of our reasons for complying with social requirements, and are relevant to the possibility of such requirements constituting moral obligation.

  1. Morally good reasons will not arise from just any social bond that one in fact values, but only from one that is rightly valued—that is, from one that is really good. How much reason one has to comply with the demands of other people will depend in no small part on the value of one’s relationship with them. If the relationship is with a community, the individual’s attitude toward the community and her participation in it make a difference to the value of the relationship. But the community’s attitude toward the individual is at least as important. Where community prevails, rather than alienation, the sense of belonging is not to be sharply distinguished from the inclination to comply with the reasonable requirements of the community. A “community” is a group of people who live their lives to some extent—possibly a very limited extent—in common. To see myself as “belonging” to a community is to see the institution or other members of the group as “having something to say about” how I live and act—perhaps not about every department of my life, and only to a reasonable extent about any department of it, but it is part of the terms of the relationship that their demands on certain subjects are expected to have some weight with me. And valuing such a relationship implies some willingness to submit to reasonable demands of the community—as an expression of one’s sense that one does belong and one’s endorsement of the relationship.
  2. Our reasons for complying with demands may also be affected by our evaluation of the personal characteristics of those who make them. Normally we have more reason to comply with the requests and demands of the knowledgeable, wise, or saintly.
  3. How much reason one has to comply with a demand depends not only on the excellence of its source and of the relationship or system of relationships in which the demand arises, but also on how good the demand is. Is the demand good and the sanctions implied in the demand appropriate? It also involves evaluation of the relational history of the demand itself. Does the making of the demand affect the relational situation for the better or for the worse? And what’s the wider social significance of the demand? It is particularly important that the demand, and the social system of which it forms a part, should be good in ways that fall under the heading of fairness.
  4. An objection might be that if we have the values of actions and demands, we don’t need the actual social requirements to explain the nature of moral obligation. But Adams thinks this is mistaken, because it matters that the demand is actually made. It is a question here of what good demands other persons do in fact make of me, not just of what good demands they could make. It’s fashionable in ethical theory to treat moral reasons and moral obligations as depending on judgments about what an ideal community or authority would demand under certain counterfactual conditions. But Adams is skeptical. First, he doubts that the relevant counterfactuals are true, partly because they seem to be about free responses that are never actually made. Secondly, he doesn’t think he cares much about whether these counterfactual conditionals are true because they’re motivationally weak. By contrast, actual demands made on us in relationships that we value are undeniably real and motivationally strong. The actual making of the demand is important, not only to the strength, but also to the character, of the motive. Not every good reason for doing something makes it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it. Having even the best reasons to do something doesn’t amount to having an obligation to do it. But the perception that something is demanded of me by other people, in a relationship that I value, does help to make it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it.

Social requirement theory can explain the connection with guilt, which is a main ground of obligation, and the reason-giving force of obligations—big advantages of the theory . Another test it passes pertains to its answers to what in fact is obligatory. It needn’t entirely agree with our pretheoretical opinions; a theory has for one of its purposes the task to challenge some of those opinions. But a theory can be quickly rejected if most of the obligations it assigns to us are to perform actions that have always been regarded by most people as wrong. There is a limit to how far pretheoretical opinion can be revised without changing the subject entirely. This poses no problem for social requirement theory.

Given that the role of moral obligation is partly determined by the obligations we actually believe in, it seems also to be part of the role of moral obligation to be recognized. Rightness should turn out to be a property that not only belongs to the most important types of action that are thought to be right, but also plays a part (perhaps a causal part) in their coming to be recognized as right; similarly for wrongness. This too comports with social requirement theory, for on any plausible moral sociology, actual social requirements play a large role in our coming to hold beliefs about moral obligation, and Adams thinks it plausible to suppose that our belief formation is sensitive to the values of relationships and demands that should play a part in a social requirement theory.

Adams admits such a theory is on weaker ground when it comes to objectivity as a feature of the role of moral obligation. I may wrongly think I have an obligation that I do not have. We’re not inclined to censure Huckleberry Finn for acting contrary to his erring conscience in not turning in a runaway slave. The question that arises at this point for a social theory of the nature of moral obligation is whether it is too subjectivist. Does it make it too easy for a society to get rid of its obligations by changing its demands? On social requirement theory developed so far, a society would be able to eliminate obligations by just not making certain demands, and that seems out of keeping with the role of moral obligation.

This isn’t just a disturbing theory. Moral reformers have taught us that there have been situations in which none of the existing human communities demanded as much as they should have, and things that were morally required were not actually demanded by any community, or perhaps even by any human individual in the situation. In this way actual human social requirements fail to cover the whole territory of moral obligation.

Where demands are made, they sometimes conflict, both as between different social groups and within a single society. Often, both sets of demands and relationships can manifest some degree of goodness, but a flawed goodness.

These are all reasons for thinking, as most moralists have, that actual human social requirements are simply not good enough to constitute the basis of moral obligation. More could be said, but for theists it’s somewhat unnatural to confine ourselves to that apparatus, since a more powerful theistic adaptation of the social requirement theory is available.


Leave a Reply