The Nature of Moral Obligations: Sociability

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Author Brett Kunkle Published on 07/10/2015

Reflection on moral guilt (see yesterday’s post) leads us to discover another feature of moral obligations. Moral guilt seems to alienate people from one another.1 If one fails to live up to one’s obligation to uphold the laws of the land, alienation from individuals or even from a group of individuals will ensue. For example, someone who takes innocent life will experience alienation from that person’s loved ones, maybe a spouse or child. Such persons will be angry and may direct hatred toward the murderer. In addition, the murderer will be alienated from society-at-large and subsequently locked away. However, such alienation can be alleviated. Moral guilt can be removed by forgiveness from the appropriate party. Implicit in this discussion is the social nature of moral obligations.

The instantiation of moral obligations is internally related to personhood. Moral obligations only obtain between persons. In contrast, we don’t have obligations to inanimate objects. If I see a piece of wood lying on the ground, I’m not necessarily obligated to refrain from taking a hammer to it and breaking it into pieces. The proponent of naturalism may reply that if the piece of wood in question were part of someone’s house, then I would be obligated not to destroy it, and thus, I would be obligated to an inanimate object. However, my obligation obtains only in virtue of that piece of wood’s relationship to a person. My obligation is not to the wood itself but to the person, namely the owner of the house to which the wood is attached.

The proponent of naturalism may respond in a second way, arguing we have moral obligations to non-persons because we have obligations to creatures in the animal kingdom. We are obligated to care for and not harm animals. My first response is a question: Are we obligated to animals in the same way we’re obligated to human persons? The answer must clearly be no. Certainly there is a distinction between killing an innocent cow to eat and killing an innocent human to eat. If hungry packs of wolves were killing deer populations in a particular region of woods, would we send in the military to intervene? No. Indeed, we refer to such action as killing but refrain from using moral terms like murder. However, when we see human genocide, the world community recognizes an obligation to act.

Secondly, if our supposed obligations to animals are unlike our obligations to other persons, maybe they’re not obligations at all. Given a theistic framework, our moral obligation to care for animals is not an obligation to the animals themselves but rather an obligation to the personal Creator who brought them into existence and has charged human persons to rule over and be good stewards of His created order.

The social nature of moral obligations makes sense of the first feature, moral incumbency. Imagine a teenager who is preparing to play scrabble. She opens the box containing the scrabble board and tiles and proceeds to dump the pieces on the kitchen table. However, her attention is quickly diverted by the sitcom playing on the living room television. She wanders in that direction. Now imagine that she returns to the kitchen table and discovers the following words formed by scrabble tiles: “Take out the trash.” If the teenager comes to discover the words were formed by her chance dumping of the pieces on the table, there would be no moral incumbency behind this command. However, if she discovered this was her dad’s humorous way to communicate his commands, the incumbency of her moral obligation to obey dad would press in on her. Thus, moral obligations obtain when there are at minimum two persons involved.

But one more thing must be said. Imagine this teenage girl discovered it was not dad who arranged the tiles but rather her six-year-old brother. The moral incumbency would not come into play because the younger brother is not a person with the requisite authority to make such commands. Thus, a moral obligation has incumbency when a command is issued by an appropriate authority.

Again, we turn to the naturalist for an account. How do moral obligations that arise by a chance collision of atoms obtain in the actual world? How would naturalism account for moral obligations, with their requisite social nature, in virtue of purely material and non-social processes? Impersonal forces cannot give rise to personal ones. Moreover, how could non-rational physical processes be the basis of authority for moral obligations? Thus, another feature of morality further presses in on the naturalist because given naturalism, there’s no appropriate personal authority to ground moral obligations.

Given these four features of morality—immateriality, incumbency, guilt, sociability—what’s the best explanation? Naturalism can’t provide adequate ontological grounding for morality. Our moral obligations go much deeper than naturalism’s accounting. So, if moral obligations can’t be properly grounded in a nonreligious view of the world, then we should move in the direction of a theistic worldview that offers us a much more plausible explanation.