In this post I am going to offer an account of the basis of moral obligation. When we ask about the basis of moral obligations, I take us to be asking for an explanation for why objective moral obligations exist? What is their source? What we are looking for is not an account of what our obligations are, but rather some thing (or things) that serves as the source of obligations, that explain why moral obligations exist at all. I believe that the answer to this question is fairly straightforward.
I will begin my answer be drawing our attention to a kind of experience that is very common; namely, the experience of being wronged or hurt. Think of an experience that you have had in which you felt wronged by someone else. It need not be a particularly egregious example; it might be a time in which people you care about made fun at your expense or laughed at some misfortune of yours. Or it could be something even more mundane like being cut off by another driver. Now the key feature of such experiences is the feeling of being wronged. This feeling reveals something very significant about what we think about ourselves.
When a driver cuts me off in traffic, especially if it is on the freeway and my kids are in the car, I feel something that can best be described as righteous anger. In the case of egregiously dangerous examples, the driver has carelessly placed my life and the lives of my passengers in jeopardy. What a jerk! He shouldn’t do that to me. Why? Because I matter and my passengers matter. When a driver intentionally cuts me off, there is a value judgment behind that action, namely that his desire to quickly get where he is going trumps both my desire to get where I am going quickly and, more importantly, my need to be safe. As the cut-off driver, I have to react quickly to ensure that I will not collide with the other vehicle and I have to do so in a manner that protects me and my passengers and all of the other people on the road with us. That is asking quite a lot. Even though all of us deal with this kind of thing fairly regularly, that does not change the fact that it places us in serious jeopardy, and plenty of drivers fail to react effectively. What makes us so angry when we are cut off is that we recognize how close we have come to a potentially catastrophic collision. But even in cases that don’t necessarily involve danger of serious bodily injury, there is still an offense caused since the driver, by his actions, asserts that his desires trump mine.
Aggressive drivers who consistently practice unsafe habits see other drivers as mere obstacles. What matters to them is that they get where they are going as fast as possible and everyone else on the road is merely an obstacle to that end. So, we rightly feel wronged when we are on the receiving end. I feel wronged because I know that I am not a mere obstacle. I know that I matter, dammit! And when a person does something that involves ignoring this fact, I feel wronged.
So, what I want to say is that this feeling of being wronged is based in a veridical experience of our own importance. When I am wronged I am viscerally in touch with the objective fact that I matter morally. This fact, that I matter and its corollary, namely that it is wrong for people to act as if I don’t matter, is the starting point of a genuine understanding of the basis of ethics. The more important step, however, is to make what is simultaneously the most obvious and the most easily overlooked of inferences. That is, I need to recognize that, while it is true that I matter, there is nothing special about me. In other words, if I matter, then every other person matters just the same. There is no reason to think that I matter but nobody else does, or that I matter more or in a special kind of way. So, I matter, but I do not uniquely matter. And it seems to me that once I make this inference, which as I say is obvious, then I have to recognize that I have obligations. To acknowledge that other people matter is to acknowledge that I should not treat them however I want; that I cannot legitimately treat them merely as means to an end or merely as obstacles in the way of my getting what I want.
Now I said that this inference is both obvious and easily overlooked. We are social creatures and thus it is obvious to us that we live in a world of fellow persons. But we are also self-centered by nature and so we easily ignore and discount the interests of others in favor of our own interests. This is what the rude driver does when he cuts off one of his fellow drivers; he discounts their interests (in safely arriving at their destination in a timely manner) in favor of his own desire to get where he is going as fast as he can. So, our own self-interest constantly interferes with our ability to make the inference I mentioned, which is something we are called on to do every time we interact with another person.
So, what is the basis of morality? Why do objective moral obligations exist? The short answer is that moral obligations exist because persons exist. A person is a being that matters. The existence of beings that matter logically entails the existence of objective moral obligations.
I want to slow down a bit and explain my argument a bit more carefully. I think that, on the basis of what I’ve said so far, we can establish two important theses:
(1) I matter morally.
That is, every person is directly aware of the fact that he/she matters. I know that I matter in a very direct way. This is particularly salient when another person wrongs me. What I am aware of when I have such an experience is the fact that I am a being whose interests and agency must be acknowledged and respected (more on this below).
(2) There are other beings that are relevantly like me.
I know that I am not the only person in the world. Each of us finds ourselves in a world that is populated by others who are relevantly like ourselves. In particular, I know that other people have interests and agency. These factors, interests and agency, are what make me matter morally and thus I know that there are other people who are relevantly like me.
Now, from these two claims, I think that a third follows rather naturally:
(3) Every person matters morally just as much as I matter.
Obviously it is important that I am speaking of moral mattering. In a different sense of “matter” one person might matter more than another. For example, an ace pitcher may be more important to a baseball team than a reserve catcher. But this would not entail that the pitcher matters more as a person than the catcher. So, from a moral perspective, every person matters just as much as every other person. More specifically, the interests of any one person matter just as much as the like interests of any other person. This claim is thus an assertion of impartiality. It is this third claim that forces us to admit the existence of objective moral obligations.
Now, even though I think that the impartiality claim is fairly self-evident, I think that we can do better than rely on its self-evidence. Suppose that I doubt that everyone else matters just as much as me. Have I made an error? To prove that objective moral obligations exist and arise from the existence of persons, I need to argue that the answer is yes.
Before I argue for this conclusion, I want to say more about what it means to recognize that there exist other beings that are like me. In doing so we will also think more carefully about why I matter morally (i.e., what makes it the case that I matter) and why, more generally, persons matter morally. Obviously I am a unique individual and there are things that are true of me that are not true of any other person. Such things include facts about my history, about my current location, about my appearance, etc. But I know that such differences between me and other people are relatively insignificant when it comes to the morally relevant property of personhood (or the fact that I matter morally). That is, if I think about what makes it the case that I matter morally, I soon realize that the facts about my history, about my appearance, and certainly about my spatial location (indeed any specific fact about me as an individual) are irrelevant to the fact that I matter. I know this because if any of these things were otherwise (if, for example, my appearance were to change, which indeed is happening all the time) I would not cease to matter. What makes it the case that I matter is that I have desires and needs; that I desire happiness and want to avoid unhappiness and suffering; and, perhaps above all, that I can make choices, that I can pursue my interests, in short, that I am an agent. I know that agency matters because I know directly that one of the greatest harms that can be perpetrated against me is the denial of my own agency. When I am forced to do something against my will or when I am forcibly not permitted to pursue my interests, I feel this as a great harm. Of course there are other harms too; causing me pain, even if it does not involve any threat to my agency, is a harm; denying me access to things that I need is also a tremendous harm. So, when I recognize that there are other beings like me, what I recognize is of course not that there are others who are exactly like me, but that there are others who have the features that I recognize as features that make it the case that I matter. I recognize that there are other conscious agents in the world.
Very importantly, it is not the case that I matter because I have my perspective. Everyone has a unique perspective and I certainly have my own. But what makes me matter is not that I inhabit my perspective. Rather it is the case that I matter because I am a conscious agent. We’ll return to this issue later, but it seems clear that this gives us very good grounds for rejecting egoism. An egoist is someone who believes that every person matters uniquely to him or herself. In other words, if I am an egoist, I will assert either that only I matter or that I should pursue my interests above all else. But surely this involves a mistake. What makes my desires, my needs, and my agency matter is not the fact that they are my desires, needs, and agency but rather the fact that they are somebody’s desires, needs, and agency. How do I know this? Well, it seems to me that it is part of knowing directly that I matter. When I am wronged what makes it wrong is not that I am wronged but that a person is wronged. It just so happens that this person is me, but that, so to speak, is merely accidental. I experience the harm as a wrong that happens to a person, who just so happens to be me. That it happens to me allows me to experience it directly as a wrong, but that it happens to me in no way makes it the case that it is wrong. I can see this even more clearly when I imagine being someone else who is wronged. In that case, I can see that it is just as possible to wrong someone else as it is to wrong me. As I said, we will return to this issue below.
Now, it is hard to imagine that either statement (1) or (2) could be false. But, as I said, they compel us to accept (3). To show this I will show that (3) is the only reasonable inference from (1) and (2); that is, other inferences involve some kind of error. As far as I see it, there are basically four possible conclusions to draw from (1) and (2):
(3a) Only I matter.
(3b) I matter more than any other conscious agent.
(3c) I matter to me, but other people don’t matter to me (at least not as much as I matter to me).
(3d) Every conscious agent matters just as much as I do.
Now to this list we might think that we need to add some claims that only specific groups of people matter. That is to say, (3a)-(3c) all involve claims that a specific individual matters in some unique way that other people don’t, but strictly speaking I could infer rather that some group of individuals matter while everyone else doesn’t. So we might think we should add claims like (3a’) (Only me and my family matter). But obviously the main difference between (3a, b and c) and (3d) is that the first three all involve claims of exclusivity while (3d) is a universal claim. And that is the real issue: Is it the case that everyone matters in the way that I matter, or am I justified in thinking that only I (or some select group of people) matter? So, I don’t think that we need to worry about exclusive claims involving groups. Once we’ve shown that the exclusivity claims about me (an individual) are unreasonable, we have thereby dismissed exclusivity claims generally.
I maintain that (3d) is the only reasonable thing to infer from (1) and (2). (3a) and (3b) can be dismissed relatively easily since both imply that there is something fundamentally different about me compared to every other conscious agent in the world. First, let’s note what an odd state of affairs such a situation would represent. Out of all the people in the world, I and I alone matter morally (or I matter more than everyone else). There is no evidence whatsoever for such a claim. In order to justify the conclusion that I am special (i.e., that I matter in way that nobody else does), I need to identify some relevant difference between myself and everyone else that could explain why I matter but nobody else does. But there is no such difference. Similarly, to justify (3b) I would need to identify some relevant difference that could explain why I matter more. But there is no difference that could plausibly account for this discrepancy. Thus, it is unreasonable to believe either (3a) or (3b). If I know that I matter and I know that there are other conscious agents who, as I indicated above, are like me in the relevant way (that is, have the features in virtue of which I matter), then there is no justification for believing either that only I matter morally or that I matter more.
The problem with (3c) is twofold: first, it presumes that something can matter morally to one person and not another. But it is difficult to see how we could establish this. Second, and much more importantly, it fails to acknowledge a very crucial aspect of the fact that I matter. Remember that I said that when someone harms me, I feel wronged. The reason I am so upset at the driver who cuts me off is that I know that he should not do it. That is, I matter and he is wrong not to recognize this. Indeed, this is the problem with so many people in the world: they don’t realize how much I matter! What I am saying here is connected to the error that I attributed to egoism earlier. Let’s revisit that point.
If I believe that only I matter to me and other people don’t matter to me; then it is illogical to presume that I ought to matter to other people. Thus, when another person harms me, it should not confront me as a wrongdoing. After all, the driver who cuts me off is acting on the basis of the fact that he matters to him and I don’t matter to him. But this cannot account for that fact that I feel wronged. Remember, I am maintaining that the experience of being wronged involves a direct and veridical experience of the fact that I matter. But then if I am wronged it can only be because the wrongdoer acted in a way that ignored my legitimate needs or interests (i.e., acted as if I don’t matter). So, it seems to me that my experience of being wronged brings me directly into contact with the fact that I matter, not just to me, but that I matter, period.
Thus, the most reasonable inference is (3d): Every person matters the same way that I do. (3a, b, c) all involve some kind of error or unreasonable presumption. On analysis, it seems clear that what makes me matter is that I am a conscious agent. If I believe this, then I have to believe that other conscious agents matter and that they matter just as much as I do.
Now, the existence of other conscious agents that matter in the same way that I do entails the existence of moral obligations. The fact that you matter morally means that I cannot treat you however I might want; I cannot use you as a means to my ends nor can I treat you as a mere obstacle to the achievement of my ends. Thus, behaving morally mean treating other people with the respect that they are owed in virtue of being persons.
The source of moral obligations is persons. The fact that persons exists entails that objective moral obligations exist. Notice that this satisfies the requirement that I laid out in my previous post in this series. I said there that we need to find a source of moral obligations that is external to any particular person. That is precisely what we have: The existence of persons does not depend on the beliefs, desires, attitudes, etc. of any particular person. Thus, we have found the source of objective moral obligations.
Before I close, I want to do two things very briefly. First, I will make some brief comments about the role that God might play in the foundation of moral obligations. Second, I want to raise some questions about my position as I have described it here that I will try to address in future posts.
In my last post I reported that though many thoughtful and intelligent people claim that only theism can account for objective morality, I find such comments completely without foundation. I hope that this current post begins to explain why. What could God have to do with it? A person is a being with interests and agency. Persons matter morally. Every person matters. Thus we have obligations toward persons. How could God establish this or change it. Even if God does not exist, persons still exist and thus objective moral obligations still exist. So God is completely unnecessary for the foundation of moral obligations.
Finally, here is a list of questions/objections that one might have about the position that I’ve described and argued for here. In a series of future posts, I intend to address each of these questions. Please feel free to add to the list in the comments.
(1) Do my obligations arise from the fact that I wouldn’t want people to discount my interests? Are we to understand that morality is grounded in reciprocal altruism?
(2) Why should I care about other people?
(3) What is the source of the fact that I matter? Why do I matter?
(4) Isn’t God the reason that persons matter morally? You say that God does is not necessary for moral obligations, but isn’t he necessary for the fact that persons matter morally? Some theists will agree that every person matters but will insist that only God can make it the case that we matter.
(5) What about non-persons? Do non-human sentient creatures matter?
(6) Where does this moral ought come from? Moral properties are queer things and you have not shown how such queer things are possible.
(7) It cannot be true that everyone matters the same or that like interests deserve like consideration. Obviously I am going to give the interests of my loved ones (my children, for example) more consideration than the interests of complete strangers. And there is nothing morally wrong with doing so.