–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Some Questions about Obligation

by | Jun 9, 2024

[1] You are with a friend in a restaurant, and he tells you that you ought not to (in the moral sense) order the linguine con vongole that you are considering. When you ask him why, he tells you that eating clams violates their interests. You reply that you don’t care about clams’ interests, and he says that you ought to care. When you ask why, again, he tells you that as a general matter, you ought to care about others’ interests. Does this make the initial claim more compelling?  

[2] Would it make any difference if your friend also told you that moral obligations are “real,” in the sense of being “mind-independent” or some such thing?

[3] Imagine that you deny that moral obligations are “real” in this sense, and say, “Hey, this business about the linguine con vongole is just your opinion, man.” What would settle the dispute between the two of you?

[4] On an earlier occasion, you argued with a different friend about the moon’s gravity. She said that it is lower than the earth’s gravity, while you claimed it is higher. She pointed out that people have visited the moon and showed you footage of astronauts jumping up and down in a way only possible in lower gravity. Is there anything comparable that your friend today might do to demonstrate that eating linguine con vongole is wrong? Or that violating interests is wrong?

[5] Suppose that there are three of you at lunch and that the second friend says that the linguine con vongole is fine but that you shouldn’t order the lamb chops, which you also have been considering. When you ask why, she explains that while the clams have no claim to personhood, the lamb does and that it is wrong to treat another person as a means rather than as an end. So, your friends agree that some of the things you are thinking about eating are wrong to eat, but they disagree as to which one(s). What would settle the dispute between them?

[6] Would it make any difference to their dispute if moral obligations are “real” in the sense mentioned in [2]?

[7] Since the second friend is disposed to eat some things that the first friend thinks would be wrong to eat, are the second friend’s gustatory inclinations (according to the first friend): (a) equally morally abhorrent to yours? (b) less morally abhorrent than yours, though still morally abhorrent? (c) not morally abhorrent?

[8] Imagine that both friends agree that any and all meat/fish/seafood/poultry consumption is immoral, but one of them is a moral “realist,” in the sense identified in [2], while the other is a moral subjectivist in the Humean sense. Does this affect the force of their otherwise identical normative judgments regarding your lunch? Is there a reason to take one’s judgments more or less seriously than the other’s?

[9] Assume that your friends think that both suffering and personal sovereignty/prerogative are valuable, but they disagree as to which is the greater or more overriding value. What would settle their dispute?

[10] Suppose that you choose the lamb, drawing the moral ire of both your friends, and they say they will shun you for it. Now imagine that a third friend joins the lunch party and also objects to your dining choice. While he doesn’t say it is morally wrong to eat lamb, he talks a lot about your character and indicates that eating animals is a vice and thus, undermines your flourishing. Is there an obligation to flourish or to be a certain sort of person? If there is, is it different from the obligation to do – or not do – certain things?

[11] A fourth friend arrives late to the lunch party. He has no moral theory and eschews moral discourse, advocating and opposing things entirely on the basis of what matters to him and what he cares about, and he also says that he will shun you for eating the lamb. Should you take the first three instances of shunning more seriously than the third? And what if you neither accept the first three friends’ moral/axiological reasoning nor care about the third friend’s dietary eccentricities? Is there anything substantive beyond all of this that differentiates the cases of shunning?

[12] Is there a reason to care more about violating someone’s moral convictions than his or her personal preferences (or vice versa)?

[13] What meaningful difference is there between being shunned or otherwise sanctioned for being immoral and being comparably penalized for being disliked? 

[14] Why are “don’t just do it out of a sense of duty” and “do it because you want to” such  commonly used phrases?

[15] Suppose your friends argue amongst themselves about your shunning. The first three are critical of the fourth, saying, “Well, in our case, we rightly shunned him – the shunning is legitimate – while in your case, you did not and it is not.” Does this make any difference to being shunned by the first three friends versus being shunned by the fourth? 

[16] Imagine two societies: In the first one, people are punished for violating moral principles, derived from a moral theory that a sufficient number of people think is true; in the second, people are punished for doing things a sufficient number of people dislike. What substantive difference is there between the two societies? 

[17] Suppose that there also is a “moral reality” to which the consensus of one or the other societies in [16] “corresponds.” Does this change anything?   

[18] After some consideration, you realize that you don’t care about keeping these friends and consequently, their threats of shunning have no bite. Does it matter that you have been labeled “immoral” nonetheless?

[19] What is the significance of a negative moral judgment for which there is no sanction of any kind that matters to the accused?

[20] Does the existence of a “moral reality” in any way affect the answer to [19]?

[21] Imagine that there is, in fact, a “moral reality” of the sort that we have been discussing, but that the moral judgment of every person in the world contradicts it. Imagine further that everyone agrees with regard to what is right and wrong. What would the claim that something is morally “permissible” or “impermissible” mean in these circumstances?

[22] Imagine two worlds, one in which there is a “moral reality” and one in which there is not. In both worlds, there is significant disagreement over what is right and what is wrong. What would be the substantive difference between the two worlds?

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