Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Puzzling Conditional Obligations

If you make a promise (and haven't been released from it), then you're obliged to keep your promise.  The obligation is, in a sense, conditional. Note that you've no moral reason to go around making extra promises just so that you can keep them.  Keeping promises isn't a good to be promoted in this way.  (We might instead think that keeping a promise is neutral, while breaking one is bad.)

It's natural to think that obligations that are in this way "conditional" should mimic this axiological structure: being bad to violate, but neutral between complying and cancelling. For if they were positively good to comply with, that reason would seem to transmit up the conditional and yield us an unconditional reason to get yourself into a position where the obligation (applies and) can be met.

With this in mind, the following putatively conditional obligations begin to look puzzling:

(1) The obligation of the rich to donate significant amounts of money to charity.

Giving to charity is straightforwardly good.  So there's just as much reason to become rich in order to give more to charity, as there is to give to charity once already rich. (I think Peter Unger was the first to make this point?)  For a concrete illustration, suppose a talented young person is choosing between two life paths: (i) a struggling artist earning $40k and donating 10% of it, or (ii) a financial trader earning $500k per year and donating just 1% of it.  People in general will be more likely to condemn the person for "selfishness" if they choose the second path, when in fact it's the more generous of the two. (Suppose that, even as a struggling artist, they could at any time switch to trading and earning vastly more, but simply prefer not so.)

The upshot: we focus overly much on actual income, and not enough on potential income, when it's really the latter that's morally significant.

(2) The supposed obligation of (well-off) parents to send their kids to public school (so as to incentivize themselves to better support public education).

Again, if there's really moral reason to do this, it's to achieve a good not avoid a bad.  So it would equally seem a moral reason to become a parent (so you can send them to public school, and thereby incentivize yourself to better support public education).  Parents who home-school or send their kids to private school are not doing any worse by public schools than are other adults who remain childless by choice (and so are similarly uninvested, on a personal level, in public education).  But it doesn't seem remotely plausible to suggest that well-off people are obliged to have kids for this reason, so I think we should be similarly skeptical of claims that well-off parents are obliged to choose (what they believe to be) a worse education for their kids for this reason.

In general, I think, when people focus on those in a position to achieve some good, we should re-focus the moral question more broadly on those who could get into a position to achieve that same good.


  1. I'm curious why you seem to favor the route of treating them as unconditional positive obligations to get into a position where the conditional obligation obtains and not the alternative you propose where the obligation is a negative one; the latter seems more appealing to me. Regardless, case 1 seems more about the fraction of income donated rather than about the absolute amount donated (and thus not about actual vs. potential incomes).

  2. Hi Richard,

    My two cents:

    (1) I think people in general would not see the described behavior as someone who sacrifices his preferred career (artist) in order to give more to charity, but someone who wants to become rich just to be better off (which I think is not wrong, but it's a different motivation). A reason for this is that the person in the scenario donates just 1%, which would seem unusual if the goal of becoming rich is in order to give more to charity: if that's the goal, one would think the person in question would want to give a lot more, not just 1%.

    (2) I'm not familiar with the claims that there is such obligation, but I find them puzzling. I would say there is an obligation not to do that!

    In more detail: While it depends on the quality of the different schools and other factors, at least in most cases I'm familiar with the probable outcome of sending their kids to public school instead of a much better private school will be that their children will learn less and worse than they otherwise would, and be less knowledgeable (and I'm not sure if less intelligent, due to lesser intellectual stimuli when young). I would say they have an obligation to give their children a better education, so sending them to public school is not only not obligatory, but impermissible - except, of course, if public school is just as good or they hire private tutors, etc., to compensate; all of that is also alright.

    Additionally, their children will be able to contribute more to society (not the main reason for the parents' obligation, though) if they learn more and better.

  3. Relevant:

    "Earning to give involves deliberately pursuing a high-earning career for the purpose of donating a significant portion of earned income, typically because of a desire to do effective altruism. Advocates of earning to give contend that maximizing the amount one can donate to charity is an important consideration for individuals when deciding what career to pursue"


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