The Nature of Moral Obligations: Moral Incumbency

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 07/08/2015

In discussions of morality, we often use phrases like “John ought to do X” or “John ought not to do Y.” But what is this oughtness we refer to? What can be said of it to help us better understand the nature of morality? The oughtness of a moral obligation is what philosophers call incumbency, and as we explore the nature of moral incumbency, four observations arise that seem to resist naturalistic explanations.

First, the incumbency of moral obligations demands something from us and binds us to something. Moral obligations have an external force that presses in on us and compels us to act or refrain from acting in certain ways. We may be more acutely aware of this invisible demand when we’re alone. For example, imagine I’m at a convenience store to purchase a Snickers candy bar, and the lone cashier informs me he has to use the restroom in the back of the store and subsequently departs from the cash register. Prior experience informs me this convenience store has no security cameras, and a quick observation helps me to determine no one else is in the store and no cars are in the parking lot. At this point a temptation to take the Snickers without paying for it may come rushing into my mind. However, the temptation is accompanied by a second experience, an awareness of what I ought to do. My awareness of an obligation not to take what does not belong to me presses in on me with such force that it compels right action. Therefore, I stand at the counter with my Snickers, waiting for the cashier to return.

The objector may claim that not everyone experiences this incumbency. But what follows from this? Certainly my experiences or feelings are irrelevant to the actual state-of-affairs. My claim is not that the experience of moral incumbency is universally felt, but that one’s incumbency to moral obligations obtains in the actual world.

Second, moral obligations are unconditional imperatives. They’re incumbent upon us whether we desire them or not, agree to them or not, or recognize them or not. There’s no opting out of our moral obligations. We simply must obey. And no one thinks you are excused if you choose not to fulfill them. Indeed, we’re justified in considering such a person to be morally reprehensible or deficient and deserving of punishment.1 This is why fathers who don’t desire and consequently refrain from paying child support are called “dead-beat dads” and sent to jail.

Third, this incumbency applies not only to one’s actions but to the underlying motives as well. I may have an obligation to help a little old lady across the street, but my obligation reaches deeper than just the action itself. I also have an obligation to be properly motivated in doing so. If I help the old lady across the street because I believe we ought to take care of weaker individuals in society or because I believe she has dignity and value in virtue of her being a human being, I am properly motivated. However, if I’m motivated by a desire to get some money from her in the end, I would be considered morally repugnant. Thus, moral obligations make demands not only on the observable action but on the unobservable motive as well.

Finally, moral obligations place demands on us prior to any action.2 It is neither necessary nor sufficient for one to be in the midst of action to experience the incumbency of obligations. We may simply reflect on a given behavior and experience the demands of our moral obligation. I reflect for a brief moment on the act of child abuse, and I am immediately aware that I ought to refrain from such behavior.

So what is the naturalist to make of moral incumbency? It would seem such a feature of moral obligations do not fit a naturalistic view of reality. Moral obligations have an invisible external force that makes demands not only on our actions but on our motives as well, and those demands come into play prior to any action. At the same time, such obligations may be counterproductive to our good. If naturalism is true, it would be very difficult to account for the fact of moral incumbency.