A close friend of mine recently had a sudden and unexpected death occur in his family. He was not close to his brother, whose drug-abusing lifestyle made his death somewhat less shocking than it otherwise might have been. In spite of all this, my friend instantly recognized an obligation to help with funeral arrangements, attend to his grief-stricken family members, and generally do what needed to be done.
No one reading this is likely to be shocked by my friend’s actions. In general, we tend to think of family commitments as something that imposes special obligations upon us. This is one of the principal strengths of deontological ethics: it allows special obligations to carry special normative weight. Deontologists will often cite this theoretical advantage as an indicator of the superiority of their approach to ethical decision-making. We all think we have special obligations to family, and the deontologist can account for this pervasive social norm.
But my friend’s unfortunate news got me thinking about the nature of our special obligations. Why think we have them at all? If we do have them, how might they best be accounted for? If we don’t really have any special obligations, what explains the fact that we all seem to think that we do?
These questions are not easy, and I won’t attempt to resolve them here. In light of the pervasive social norm that supports acting as if we have such obligations, I will set aside the first question. The answer to it seems obvious enough for our purposes. But the second and third questions require some trickier philosophical work. They require that we try to find an explanation for our perceived special obligations, and then determine whether a given explanation supports such obligations as a moral fact or a mere fiction.
There are several options for explaining special obligations. Our treatment here will be limited to familial obligations, in order to both remain connected to the experience that prompted this inquiry, and because we are better served from the standpoint of clarity if we limit the scope of our discussion.
The first possible explanation of special obligations is simply that we are socialized to believe such commitments apply to us, and that they do so independently of our preferences. In other words, my friend might feel obligated to help with his brother’s funeral arrangements because he has internalized the appropriate social norm. On this explanation, we don’t have any special obligations to our family beyond those which society imposes upon us.
Another possible explanation of special obligations is that we are biologically disposed to defend our progeny, and we have extended this to other members of our family as a result of the human adaptation of sociality. On this account, my friend feels obligated to help with his brother’s funeral arrangements because humans have evolved into the sorts of organisms that have adopted preferential treatment of family members as a positive adaptation. Special obligations are thus a kind of biological tribalism, reducible to an advantageous adaptation.
A third explanation is that special obligations are a kind of moral fact, distinct from a biological fact or a social norm. There are many ways that this concept can be illuminated, but the general idea is that our having special obligations to our family members is a case of moral truth that is not reducible to either of the above explanations. There is a moral fact of the matter in this case, namely that my friend really was obligated to help with his brother’s funeral arrangements, and not just because some social norm or evolutionary adaptation dictated as such.
All of the above are oversimplifications of how we might explain special obligations to our family members. Our analysis also ignores the plausible account that tries to combine features of more than one of the explanations presented. However, our analysis also indicates the difficulty in trying to account for even widely accepted and commonplace moral ideas. Like so many of our everyday moral concepts, special obligations are widely accepted and adhered to by a vast majority, even if they are not readily explicable for that same majority. Whether this lack of moral understanding is cause for concern is another matter that must be left for another day.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.