Obligations and the Obligatory

What is the connection between our moral rights and duties and what we ought to do?  What principles bridge these different forms  of moral talk?  

In my last post on Retributive rights I mostly avoided the language of “ought” because I was there concerned to conjure retributivist rights out of the abstract logic of Hohfeldian rights.   But there is no reason to be coy here.  On the Retributivist view the hinge that connects talk of right and ought is just this.



A has a claim against B that B φ.
B has a duty to A to φ .


It is morally permissible for A to force B to φ . 

(R) is something new.  So far as I know, all prior attempts to connect moral rights with moral oughts have involved variations on.  


Someone has claim that A  not φ.
A has a duty to someone not to φ .


It is impermissible for A to φ.

The variations involve dropping one half  of the bi-conditional and/or adding qualifications of various sorts on either side.   

(R) and (M)  are logically independent and a Retributivist can, and I do, reject (M) without qualification. 

A notorious problem with (M)  is that it seems to lead directly to paradox.  I promise A that I will φ and I promise B that I will not φ .  The promise seems to give A and B claims against me.  A has a claim that I  φ, B, that I refrain from φ-ing.  But if (M) is correct it would follow that

(O)    it is impermissible for me to φ.


(O’)    it is impermissible for me  not to φ.

How can that be so? If I really ought to do φ and I ought not to do φ then how do I decide, … well,what I ought to do? 

Or is it that somehow one promise cancels the other out? And, if so, what mechanism determines which promise prevails?  

I think we should reject the idea that (O) and (O’) can be simultaneously true.   These sentences are not formally  contradictory  but the point of a moral theory is to tell us what we ought to do and (O) and (O’)  do offer contradictory, and hence worthless, advice.   I take the fact  (M) yields this result as proof that there is something wrong with it. The Retributivist diagnosis is that the paradox  arises from misunderstanding the relation between claims and oughts  in general and the claims created by promising in particular.  

The general point is that, for the Retributivist,  having a duty to to someone to do something does not entail that it is morally impermissible for you not to do it.   Rather it entails that it is morally permissible for that person to force  you to do it;  whether your doing it is permissible or not.  

The particular point about the claims of promising is this:   On the retributivist account,  when I  promise you to φ I  do two things:   

(i)  I give you permission to force me to φ if need be.

(ii)  I  invite you to believe– at least in part because I have done (i)– that I will do φ and thus acquire liabilities to compensate you if I don’t φ and you suffer in consequence.  

Note again that  neither (i) or (ii) entail that I ought to φ.    

Now, If I promise A to φ and B not to φ, I have given A permission to force me to φ and B permission to forcibly prevent me from not φ-ing and, insofar as they are relying on my promise I am obliged to compensate whoever I disappoint for the costs they incurred .  It is an unenviable position.   I have a dilemma,  but it is not the paradox of (O) and (O’).  There is nothing I both ought and ought not do.

Other things being equal, we have an obligation not to harm others. But sometimes things are not equal. Sometimes we will hurt someone no matter what we do.  When we make contrary promises we put ourselves in such a  situation and morality must guide us in deciding what we ought to do. What we have promised does not settle the matter.   

I think that one of the merits of the Retributivist account is that it will give us a plausible reconstruction of how we actually reason when we find ourselves in these dilemmas.    But I will postpone that discussion till a future post.   

Instead, let’s round this off by asking if there is some way that (R) could be forced into the same kind of paradoxical corner that traps (M).    

How about this:  what if A promises B to φ and B promises C not to force A to φ.  According to (R), A’s promise to B makes it the case that: 

It is morally permissible for B to force A to φ.  

And yet B’s promise to C makes it the case that:  

B has a duty, to C, not to force A to φ.   

Isn’t this a paradox?  No. Because B’s promise does not make it morally impermissible for B to force A to φ.  Instead, according to (R), it makes it permissible for  C to forcibly prevent B from forcing A to φ.  No paradox here: nothing that is both impermissible and not.  

So am I saying that if A promises B to φ then it is always permissible for A to force B φ?  Yes!   

Am I saying that then we are permitted to anything we like to force someone to keep their promises?  No!  

To see how I can say both those things, stay tuned…