Thursday, January 21, 2016

No Obligation Required

There was a recent speech that included the phrase, “our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen." Neither the nature nor the politics of that speech are relevant to this blog, and we won’t be going into them here, but I do want to discuss one piece that I believe is quite relevant. There is a single word in that quoted phrase which encapsulates a severe divide between different philosophies, and that divide tends to complicate these discussions. It marks a difference so stark that the opposing views may as well be speaking different languages, even though they use the same words.

That word, of course, is “obligations”, and the divide is between those who believe such obligations exists and those who do not.

I’m not talking about the specific “obligations of a citizen” referenced, but rather the general idea the reference embodies, that we have obligations by the very act of being alive, or of being alive in a particular location or under particular circumstances. It’s a fairly common belief, as also represented by such ideas as the obligations of being human, the obligations of being a neighbor, the obligations of being a man (or a woman, depending on who is speaking to whom) in the 21st Century, and the list goes on and on. Sometimes it seems that every single person who has an agenda of any sort also believes that people have an obligation that goes along with that agenda.

They don’t. There is no such obligation. An obligation implies a debt, and you have to incur a debt in some fashion. You don’t just wake up one day and have a debt. It doesn’t work that way.

I am not discussing the idea of legal obligations. What is legal is whatever the people who write the laws say is legal, and you can’t really discuss that in any larger context. If the law says that blue houses must have three windows in the east wall then blue houses are legally obligated to have three windows in the east wall. Absurd, but legal (two words that go together far more often than most people realize). If the law saddles you with obligations because you woke up then you have those legal obligations. What is legal is entirely situational to whatever is currently written into law, and isn’t required to make sense. In fact, people would probably be surprised if it made sense more often.

When it comes to moral obligation, though, we expect that debt to make sense. “I owe you this because …” Are you morally obligated to have three windows in the east wall of your blue house because the law says so? Probably not. I can’t think of any compelling reason that would make sense. Depending on the neighborhood and the environment, I could possibly think of reasons why doing so would be good or useful, but required as a debt? That doesn’t seem very likely.

That is the crux of the issue. Far too often, we have come to mistake “that is a good idea” for “that is an obligation.” The two are not interchangeable. Eating healthy and getting plenty of exercise is a good idea - a great idea, even - but it’s not an obligation. Bathing daily and wearing clean clothes is a fantastic idea, but still not an obligation. These things can become obligations, but that takes an intentional action to make them so. They are not obligations simply because we exist.

I believe that good manners, considerate behavior, and just plain being kind to one another will make the world a better place, and I really would like to see the world become that better place, but I am under no illusion that these are compulsory ideas. No one is obliged to be considerate. By the same token, no one is obliged to tolerate someone being inconsiderate. We must all act as we deem fit, and then respond to actions as we deem fit as well. We can discuss what would make better actions or better responses under different circumstances, but they do not become obligations just because they are better. In fact, declaring them to be obligations makes them more difficult to discuss. If I’m spending my time justifying why they are required, I am losing time to explain why they are good. Time is a finite resource. It is not helpful to squander it by intentionally making discussions more difficult. If you tell a person what he has to do, you put him on the defensive. You can get far better results by showing a person what is good to do.

I don’t accept obligations I have not chosen for myself, and I don’t expect anyone else to do so either. I want a better world, but it won’t be better if we have not walked there together, by choice. A better world by force is not actually a better world. It’s just swapping one evil for another. We don’t need mythical obligations to make things better. We just need to understand why they are better, and work toward making them so.

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