Personal Constraints?

A personal constraint is a constraint on action that arises from certain associative relations, such as kinship, friendship, etc. Typically, they are injunctions to treat one’s personal relations with a certain form of priority over strangers even if, for instance, not doing so would promote more good overall. One could construe this as a constraint on rational action, viz., that any action that disobeyed such a constraint is all-things-considered irrational, or as a moral constraint, that any action that disobeyed such a constraint is all-things-considered immoral. (I’ll leave this question open.) Personal constraints differ from personal options. I might have an option to treat my wife with a certain priority in the face of a greater good elsewhere, but I need not do so–in a conflict case I could also be justified in acting for the greater good. Personal constraints deny that one can be justified in refusing to act with priority to one’s associates. Do such constraints exist? I want very briefly to run an argument up the flagpole that they do not.

As I’ve just started exploring this topic in depth, it’s possible that this argument has been given a bajillion times already (that would be helpful to know!). Anyway, here goes:

1. Personal constraints depend on and are regulated by a certain “associative relation”, call this Relation A.
2. As I bear Relation A to a person to a lesser degree, my associative duties to that person are weakened. (by 1)
3. The person to whom I bear Relation A to the strongest degree is my future self.
4. Hence my strongest associative obligation is to my future self. (by 2 and 3)
5. Though I have the option not to do so, I have no constraint against sacrificing my future self for the greater good.
6. Hence, there is no person I am not justified in sacrificing for the greater good, though I may have options not to do so. (By 4 and 5.)

(6) is the denial of personal constraints. As far as I can tell, the argument (roughly) valid, give or take. Are the premises true?

1. You might deny (1) if you believe that personal constraints are, as Samuel Scheffler calls them, “non-reductive”. In other words, that they don’t depend on any particular interaction, say, they only depend on the fact of one’s personal relationship in a certain way. (That he’s my father, versus that we’ve spent all this time together, etc.) But this is compatible with the argument here. Relation A need not be reductive. The only thing that the argument requires for Relation A to be plausibly construed as scalar, and as diminishing the “further” one is from the agent. And it seems to me that even a non-reductive Relation A has these features. That x is my father entails greater associative obligations than that y is second cousin.

3. This is, to my mind, the crucial premise. But it is hard to see how, on either a non-reductive or reductive account of Relation A, (3) could be false. Non-reductively, “being my future self” seems to be at least as strong as any relationship one could bear to someone else (say, “being my father”). If the account of Relation A is reductive, it is hard to see how one could bear the proper sort of “interaction and influence” (to quote David Brink) to my future self any less than to others close to me. Brink, for example, suggests that the right sort of “interaction and influence” just is psychological continuity and connectedness. But under this conception of “interaction and influence,” (3) obviously follows. I guess I’m skeptical that any plausible Relation A could both (a) establish personal constraints, (b) mark a strong distinction between one’s self and one’s associates. Anyway, it would be helpful to know of plausible ways of denying (3).

5. Could one hold that one behaves immorally/irrationally by sacrificing one’s self for a greater good? Perhaps this might be plausible if the greater good was substantially insignificant, for instance, if sacrificing one’s self would increase the good by a net of precisely one enjoyed lollypop, say. For what it’s worth my intuition is that it remains permissible to sacrifice one’s self under those conditions. But even if it’s true that one is blocked from sacrificing one’s self when the overall benefit is small, because one’s constraints get weaker as one gets “further away” along the dimension of Relation A, this will lead to extremely narrow constraints. To put this another way, let’s say that there are certain “permissibility conditions” under which I might sacrifice my child’s interests for the impersonal good (such as there is a substantial amount of good to be achieved by doing so). But the “permissibility conditions” get wider as Relation A diminishes. But if the circumstances of permissibility for the person to whom I bear Relation A to the strongest degree, my future self, are wide to begin with, the set of permissibility conditions for the sacrifice of others will be so wide as to wonder whether any constraints exist at all.

I’m a bit wary of this argument at a few points; mostly the argument for (3) relies on simply denying that there are plausible denials of (3). I may have just not run across them yet. It would be especially helpful to be made known of such arguments, if they exist.

32 Replies to “Personal Constraints?

  1. Hi Dale,
    I don’t think that (4) follows from (1) and (3). I realize, of course, that you explicitly claim only that (3) follows from (2) and (3), but you also claim that (2) follows from (1). So you are committed to the view that (4) follows from (1) and (3).
    (1) says that “Personal constraints depend on and are regulated by a certain ‘associative relation’, call this Relation A.” It doesn’t say that personal constraints depend only on and are regulated only by Relation A. So as far as (1) is concerned, it could be that whether or not you have a personal constraint with respect to S depends not only on whether or not you bear Relation A to S but also on whether or not S is yourself. Those who accept the self-other asymmetry think that whether the patient who is affected by some action is also the agent of that action is morally relevant with regard to whether or not the agent has any moral obligation with respect to that patient. So it seems to me that someone can accept (1), (3), and (5) while denying the conclusions that you draw from them (i.e., (4) and (6)).

  2. Hi Doug –
    You’re right. I’m committed to (4) following from (1) and (3). You’re also correct to notice that, as stated, (1) is ambiguous in that way. Of course, I meant (!) to indicate the stronger reading, that associative obligations are dependent upon and regulated by Relation A only. So my bad on that one.
    You will reply that the stronger disambiguation of (1) is more controversial, perhaps just in the way you note. But we might ask the following question: why do I have an associative obligation to x (where x is non-identical with me)? Straightforwardly, the answer is going to appeal to Relation A: Relation A is morally important (i.e., it’s a kinship relation, or a relation of mutual sympathy, or a relation of mental connectedness and continuity, or something like that). Linking obligations to Relation A in a non-ad hoc way seems to require that A explain my associative obligation. (Otherwise it is unclear to me why Relation A should govern our personal obligations in any case.) But then it just seems a stretch to me to say that A offers an explanation for my associative obligations to others, but not to the very person to whom I bear the strongest instance of Relation A. You might reply that some of the explanation is missing: you bear Relation A to x, and x is not you. I don’t have any convincing argument here, just a feeling that this position has a fair bit of internal tension: admitting Relation A’s importance in every case except the case in which that relation is the strongest. But that might just be table-pounding.

  3. Hi Dale,
    You write: “You might reply that some of the explanation is missing: you bear Relation A to x, and x is not you. I don’t have any convincing argument here, just a feeling that this position has a fair bit of internal tension: admitting Relation A’s importance in every case except the case in which that relation is the strongest.”
    I don’t see any internal tension at all. There’s just an asymmetry between self and others. Why is it wrong to drive recklessly in a populated city? Answer: Because someone might get hurt as a result of your recklessness and that someone might be someone other than you. Why is it morally permissible to drive recklessly on a deserted island? Answer: Because although someone might get hurt, that someone would be you. Where’s the internal tension in such a position?
    Do you accept the following:
    (7) Although it is wrong to harm others without their informed and autonomous consent even when doing so promotes the greater good, it is not wrong to harm oneself without one’s own informed and autonomous consent when doing so promotes the greater good. (I’m thinking, here, of cases where through carelessness or negligence I harm myself while pursuing the greater good).
    If you accept (7), then what explains the apparent asymmetry between what it is permissible to do to yourself and what it is permissible to do to others that your acceptance of (5) and (7) commits you to? Won’t this be a reason to reject your stronger version of (1) while accepting (5)?
    If you deny (7), then why? Hopefully, it won’t be some reason from which (6) immediately follows.
    It seems to me that your argument is addressed to those who accept the self-other asymmetry: those who accept (5) but deny (6). But such people will reject your stronger version of (1) precisely because they accept the self-other asymmetry. So, as colleague of mine likes to say with regard to some of my arguments, I think that your argument lacks “overwhelming rhetorical force” given that the people it is directed at will refuse to accept (1).

  4. Intuiutive Objection: there are constraints on the ways you treat others that don’t apply to the way you treat yourself.
    More formal objections:
    1 is either false or insfufficient to establish 6. Either not all contraints are ‘personal’ constraints, or not all personal constraints are grounded on associative relationships.and/or
    6 doesn’t follow from 1-5. Just because you can waive a prima facie constraint against harming *your* future self doesn’t mean you can waive the constraint against harming other people. They are importantly different.
    What do you think?

  5. I am tempted to suggest that you run the conclusion by your wife/significant other and let it go at that. But more helpfully:
    I deny (1). I don’t think there is any relation in common between my wife, my second cousin, my business partner, my childhood friend, my father, a waitress whom I’m on a first-name basis with, and my future self. I think Relation A is just standing in for the idea that we think of these various relationships as more or less “distant”. But distance in this context is a metaphor, and it isn’t scalar; there are contexts in which, faced with a conflict, I should prefer my father to my business partner, and contexts in which I should do the reverse.
    I also share the skepticism that my future self is at the maximum of closeness to my present self. I think of it like this: the idea of personal constraints (/options) stems from the idea that a human life contains a number of roles and relationships, and flourishes (for consequentialists, “things go better”) when these relationships are maintained in preferential ways. But there isn’t this kind of harmonious social interaction to be concerned about between my present and future selves. So the concept doesn’t really apply.

  6. Just a few quick points, then on to “The Empire Strikes Back”:
    Doug –
    1. I wasn’t trying to suggest that the self/other asymmetry had an internal tension. I was trying to suggest that pairing a strong self/other asymmetry with the claim that Relation A plays such a strong role in explaining associative obligations contains an internal tension. It’s not enough just to say that “and it’s not you” functions in the explanation. That rider must have a rationale. But whatever the rationale is, it seems to me that accepting the role of Relation A tells against that rationale. And it seems to me that any account of personal constraints must accept a strong explanatory role for Relation A.
    2. That’s an interesting point re: (5) and (7). Why couldn’t I accept both (5) and (7)? You might say: because accepting (7) commits you to a self-other asymmetry. But what does this say so far about associative obligations? I am at a loss to see why accepting (7) would lead to the denial of the stronger version of (1): all the stronger version of (1) says is that associative obligations are fully regulated by Relation A. You might think that (5) is just flatly inconsistent with the stronger version of (1). But this depends on whether (1) asserts the existence of associative obligations. But even if it does, I could simply accept (1) as an assumption for reductio. I don’t see why (7) would cause me to not be able to do that. (You might have a point here, I guess I’m just not seeing it.)
    3. Funny you should mention, I actually started thinking about this argument in response to a defense of associative obligations that explicitly rejects the self/other asymmetry: Brink’s “Impartiality and Associative Duties”. Brink (I think) would deny (5), by the way.
    Matt –
    Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right that there’s an intuitive worry going on here. But, as I suggested above, pairing that point with personal constraints is tricky.
    Re: (6). That one I totally botched. Here’s what I should have said: (6) Hence, I have no associative constraint against sacrificing others for the greater good, though I may have associative options not to do so. Maybe I’ll change that in the original post. Thanks. So, in essence, I agree that you might not be able to harm others, but not yourself. But this can’t be an associative constraint–one based on Relation A.
    Heath –
    I’m running out of steam, but your suggestion looks important so I want to do it justice. I’ll give it a shot tomorrow. Thanks all!

  7. Hi Dale,
    It seems to me that if one accepts (5) and (7) [or (5) and ~(6)], the best explanation for such a conjunction of claims will be the self-other asymmetry: that whereas agents can have a moral duty to promote the welfare of others, agents cannot have a duty to promote their own welfares. (If you think that there is a better alternative explanation, I would like to hear it.) Now anyone who accepts the self-other asymmetry must deny (1). If you think that whether you have an associative duty to promote the welfare of S depends on whether S is you or some other, then you cannot accept that whether you have an associative duty to promote the welfare of S depends only on whether you bear Relation A to S.
    By the way, I still don’t see any internal tension between accepting that the self-other asymmetry (that whereas agents can have a moral duty to promote the welfare of others, agents cannot have a duty to promote their own welfares) and accepting that Relation A plays a role in determining the extent of one’s obligations to others. There is a tension only between your stronger (1) (that says that one’s obligation to any S depends only on whether one bears Relation A to S) and the self-other asymmetry. But that’s the point. Anyone who accepts the self-other asymmetry will deny (1). But anyone to whom the argument is addressed [i.e., those who accept (5) but deny (6)] will accept the self-other asymmetry, as that what best explains why they think that there are personal constraints with respect to others but not with respect to oneself. So the argument lacks the power to convince those to whom it is directed.

  8. (3) seems obviously false to me. I don’t love my future people as much as I love some other people. Nor is my future self my friend, the person I’ve shared the good times with, my father/mother/sister, or the like. In fact it is hard to think of a relation that I have to my future self such that it would be a plausible ground for the relevant constraints.

  9. Jussi and Heath,
    Why can’t Dale just say that Relation A is the caring-about relation or, better still, the psychological-connectedness relation?

  10. Dale,
    Perhaps I’m just echoing Heath and Jussi, but I suspect that advocates of personal constraints would not accept that one can have the kind of “associative relation” with oneself that is good and/or contributes to one’s well-being in the ways that the standard examples of associative relations are supposed to be good and/or contribute to one’s well-being. I think that eudaimonist defenders of personal constraints would say that the *source* of personal constraints isn’t the proximity of the relata or the strength of relation A, even if these matter to the nature or obligatoriness of the constraints. The source is instead various goods that are supposed to be realized through the honoring of the constraints.

  11. Thanks for the comments everyone! They’re very helpful. A few words:
    Heath –
    You mention the “not very helpful” point re: asking my significant other about it (let’s just say “partner”). But I think there’s something to this so I want to spend a second-or-two on it. Here’s my response. You might think that the view here fails to really capture the essence of personal relationships and their importance. But none of what I have said here denies personal options. It is surely the case that to be a “good partner” one should treat one’s partner with priority. But it sounds a bit odd, at least to me, that one is thereby morally, or rationally, required to be such a good partner. Morality, or rationality, allows room for one to be a good partner. But it also allows room for one to be a bad partner. I guess I think morality/rationality is just open on this score, especially in the face of greater goods elsewhere. That’s just my gut feeling.
    Re: Relation A. I think Doug’s point is a good one, but you might be a non-reductivist. You might say that these relationships are just sui generis. But then I might reply: why isn’t being one’s future self just as important as being one’s doctor, or mother? You might reply (in, I think, a reductivist tone): because that doesn’t contribute to human flourishing (your own flourishing?) in the proper way. This is a really interesting suggestion, but I want to know a little more about it. First: it doesn’t seem to me to accept a per se associative obligation. Here your obligation is to your own flourishing: treating associates with priority is required for so doing. I actually think that’s plausible. But if so, second: it doesn’t seem to me obvious that obligations to my future self don’t promote my flourishing, especially if they protect me from sacrificing myself for greater goods elsewhere. Third: wouldn’t basing one’s associative obligations in obligations to one’s own flourishing/welfare be a denial of (5)? Maybe this is just a call to say more about your proposal, as I’ve probably gotten it wrong in some way or other.
    Doug –
    Thanks for spelling it out a bit more, I think I see the worry better. However, I think one can perfectly well accept (5) and (7) without denying the stronger version of (1). Why? Because the conjunction of (5) and (7) only commits one to the self/other asymmetry as concerns non-associative obligations. (7), I take it, applies to everybody. You might reply: what’s the principled difference, here? I reply: associative obligations are associative. At the level of bare intuition, they’re supposed to be grounded on the–to borrow Heath’s phrase–distance, or closeness, of a given person to you rather than on some other morally relevant factor (such as a person’s autonomy or rational agency capacity, or something). Hence I think there’s a perfectly good rationale for accepting the self/other asymmetry in one sort of obligation and not the other. The self, after all, is maximally close. Again, that doesn’t preclude me from denying (1), but I just don’t think I have to deny (1), even if I accept (5) and (7).
    Re: internal tension. Since there is a principled difference between associative and non-associative obligations on this score, one has to come up with a plausible rationale for maintaining the self/other asymmetry in the associative domain, rather than merely in the non-associative domain. But my purely a priori speculation is that any such rationale will be in tension with accepting the importance of Relation A. After all, one has to explain why Relation A fails to determine associative obligations for precisely one person, and precisely that person to whom I bear Relation A to the strongest degree. You can’t simply say that Relation A determines one’s obligations to others. It is this latter qualification for which we seek a rationale.
    Here’s a slightly different worry that, I think, is along the same lines. Would you find this congenial? Let’s say that non-reductivism is true. In that case, I would have to say that “being one’s future self” is an important associative relationship (just as I did above). But then the person who accepts the s/o distinction would just say that that’s false: important associative relationships don’t include the relationship with one’s self. This is a more open option if non-reductivism is true because Relation A isn’t simply given–it is, to a certain extent, up for grabs. Anyway, I guess I’d respond by arguing that non-reductivism is implausible generally. Lionel McPherson has a good article on this in Phil. Studies: “The Moral Insignificance of ‘Bare’ Personal Reasons.” But I admit my defense on this score if non-reductivism is true is weak.
    Jussi and Michael –
    Does my response to Heath touch on your concerns?

  12. Hi Dale,
    Forget about (7) for now. If I accept (5) and ~(6), won’t I accept that there is a personal* constraint against my sacrificing others, but not against my sacrificing my future self, for the sake of promoting the greater good? Won’t I, therefore, accept the self/other asymmetry as concerns associative obligations? And won’t I, therefore, reject the stronger version of your (1)? And isn’t it the case that your argument is meant to convince those who accept (5) but deny (6) by getting them to grant the stronger version of (1) as well as (3) and (5)? Thus, isn’t it the case that you need those who accept (5) and ~(6) to accept the stronger version of (1) as well?
    *You seem to just drop the modifier ‘personal’ in many places where you mean to refer to personal constraints. Am I right about this?

  13. Hi Doug –
    Re: “constraints”. You’re right. I’ll try to be sharper.
    I’m not sure I had a specific audience in mind in giving the argument besides fans of personal constraints generally. Different people will surely deny different premises. The real question is whether he or she can deny his or her favored premise plausibly. Brink, for instance, would reject (5). But whether he can do so plausibly is the real question. (I’m inclined to believe he can’t.) The person on behalf of whom you’re arguing will likely deny (the stronger) (1). The question is whether he/she can do so plausibly. I’ve been pushing for a plausible rationale for a qualified (1), but so far I’ve not seen it. It would be unsatisfying to be told that the rationale just is (5) & ~(6). After all, as I’ve understood the dialectic, a weakened (1) is supposed to support the acceptance of (5) and the denial of (6). There thus has to be an independently plausible rationale for weakening (1). I’ve no argument that it doesn’t exist, I just haven’t seen it.

  14. Dale,
    As others have pointed out, (1)-(6) is invalid. This, related, argument is valid. Is it the argument at which (1)-(6) gestures?
    (1a) Personal constraints depend on and are regulated by a certain “associative relation”, call this Relation A. [Premise]
    (2a) If (i) person S bears relation A to person B in degree N, (ii) S bears relation A to person C in degree M, (iii) M is lesser than N and (iv) S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to B) duty D to do x to B then S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to C) a duty to do x to C. [1]
    (3a) The person to whom I bear relation A to the strongest degree is my future self. [Premise]
    (4a) I do not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to my future self) a duty to refrain from sacrificing my future self for the greater good. [Premise]
    (5a) There is no person I have a duty (in virtue of bearing relation A to him) to refrain from sacrificing for the greater good. [1,2,3]
    Regardless of whether this is exactly the argument you had in mind, I am fairly confident that (1)-(6) is only as plausible as is / implicitly relies on (2a). (2a) is susceptible to some counterexamples. Presumably I bear the associative relation to my cousin to a lesser degree than I bear it to my brother.
    So imagine that my cousin and my brother are both maitre’ds. I claim that I may, by virtue of the associative relation, have a duty to refrain from berating my cousin for failing to seat me as promptly as he promised he would, whereas I do not have a duty, in virtue of the associative relation, to refrain from berating my brother for failing to seat me as promptly as he promised. Perhaps my cousin is a very sensitive and temperamental guy, whereas my brother takes criticism well. Now, you might suggest that I don’t have the duty to refrain from berating my cousin in virtue of my bearing relation A to him, but we might imagine that I have no duty to refrain from berating someone identical in every respect to my cousin except that he is not kin (and, in point of fact, this seems intuitive).
    We could tweak this counterexample to (2a) so that it serves to cast doubt directly on (5a). If my cousin would be utterly agonized were I to sacrifice him for the greater good, whereas my brother – stoic as always – would march blithely to his fate then, it seems to me, I might have a duty in virtue of my bearing relation A to my cousin to refrain from sacrificing him for the greater good, whereas I don’t have this duty in virtue of my bearing relation A (again, to a stronger degree than I bear it to my cousin) to my brother. (And, again, the reason I think I have this duty in virtue of my bearing relation A to my cousin is that I’d have no problem throwing my cousin’s counterpart to the wolves.)
    I might just be misunderstanding the nature of relation A, and it is also worth noting that I have conflicting intuitions regarding whether I have any special duty to my cousin simply in virtue of his being my cousin. But, given that the game here is to show that – ASSUMING there is such a thing as relation A – we have no duty in virtue of it to refrain from sacrificing those to whom we bear it for the greater good, I stand by all I’ve said.

  15. I don’t understand how the final conclusion (6) is supposed to follow from premisses (4) and (5). This seems to have something to do with the relation between “personal constraints” and “associative obligations”. As far as I can tell, all you’ve said about this is that personal constraints “arise from” associative obligations. But I’m not really sure what that means. Is the idea that a personal constraint can arise only from your strongest associative obligation? If so, I wonder, why can they not also arise from weaker ones?

  16. Angus –
    Your reconstruction is terrific; (2a) is basically what I was gesturing towards in (2). And thanks for the potential counter-example. This is a tricky case, but I wonder if I need to accept that, in the case you mention, I actually have a stronger associative obligation to my cousin than to my brother. I think this goes to what we mean by such obligations. As I was presuming, perhaps wrongly, an associative obligation is a requirement to treat one’s associates with an appropriate level of moral priority, even in the face of a greater good. The level of this priority is scalar and can be more or less. And I was presuming that, as Relation A diminishes, the strength of one’s associative obligations also diminishes. (I was understanding this in the following way: the priority one is required to grant one’s associates over the greater good diminishes.) But “moral priority” is always indexed to a certain morally relevant factor, the most important of which will be personal well-being. Hence it seems to me that there’s nothing inconsistent about saying that I have a stronger associative obligation to my brother rather than my cousin in this case, even while accepting that I should not yell at my cousin rather than my brother: my cousin, rather than my brother, will experience a loss of personal well-being that my brother won’t. No harm, as it were, no foul. I think this might be operating in the “marching blithely” case, too. The priority one is req’d to grant to one’s brother isn’t lexical: hence the cousin’s extra pain and suffering might be cause to refuse to sacrifice him rather than one’s brother.
    Here’s another case. Let’s say I have a candy bar. My partner doesn’t care for candy bars, but my college roommate loves them. Hence in this case, it is certainly true that I should give the candy bar to my college roommate rather than my partner. (And that I should give my candy bar to my college roommate rather than the candy-bar loving stranger.) But this is because nothing morally relevant is achieved by giving the bar to my partner rather than my college roommate. (Even if she likes it a small bit, however, we might imagine that, because the mandated priority is not lexical, his love of candy bars overrides her minor affection.) It is still true that I ought to grant her greater moral priority. This would still be compatible with the spirit of (5) or (5a): I don’t think I have any requirement to treat myself with any priority over the greater good. Anyway, this is just a thought. Have I responded to your worry?
    Campbell –
    I was treating “personal constraints” and “associative obligations” as synonymous. Does that cause problems? Also, I see where the confusion might have arisen. I’ve changed it in the post; it was just a typo. I said “associative obligations” when I should have said “associative relations”.

  17. Dale,
    You say: “I was presuming, perhaps wrongly, an associative obligation is a requirement to treat one’s associates with an appropriate level of moral priority, even in the face of a greater good…But “moral priority” is always indexed to a certain morally relevant factor, the most important of which will be personal well-being.”
    This is what I get when I put your explication of exactly what is an associative obligation into my own stilted terminology:
    (P) If S bears relation A to person B to a sufficient degree then S has a duty to serve B’s interests (to some extent [and staying agnostic on what exactly counts as “B’s interests”]) even if S’s serving B’s interests does not bring about a greater good that S has it in his power to bring about.
    (P) suggests that (2a) (and, mutatis mutandis, the rest of the argument of which (2a) is a premise) might be clarified thusly:
    (2b) If (i) person S bears relation A to person B in degree N, (ii) S bears relation A to person C in degree M, (iii) M is lesser than N and (iv) S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to B) a duty to serve B’s interests (to some particular extent) then S does not have (in virtue of bearing A to C) a duty to serve C’s interests to that same extent or more. [1a]
    (3b) The person to whom anyone bears relation A to the strongest degree is his future self. [Premise]
    (4b) If S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to future-S) a duty to serve future-S’s interests (to such-and-such extent) then S does not have (in virtue of bearing A to some other person B) a duty to serve B’s interests to such-and-such extent or more. [2b,3b]
    (5b) S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to future-S) a duty to refrain from sacrificing future-S for the greater good. [Premise]
    (6b) Future S’s interests in not being sacrificed for the greater good by S are the same as (or greater than) anybody else’s interests in not being sacrificed for the greater good by S. [Premise]
    (7b) S does not have a duty to refrain from sacrificing anybody for the greater good. [4b,5b,6b]
    For the reasons you give, (2b) is immune to my (looking back on them fairly easily dispatched) earlier counterexamples. Thus, if the above is a fair characterization of your argument then you’ve responded to my worry and, moreover, I cannot think of any good counterexamples to (2b).
    However, (6b) (into which I’ve, maybe unfairly, corralled you) seems dubious to me; I’m fairly confident that my future self would be a lot happier being thrown in front of a bus to save a horde of kids by me than he would be being thrown in front of a bus to save those same children by my cousin.
    All of what I’ve said, of course, turns on whether (2b) – (7b) captures the argument you have in mind, and I’m only very marginally confident that it does. I’m slightly more confident, however, that you need some principle like (6b), and I’m equally confident that, at the very least, (6b) needs to be spelled out carefully in order to avoid the sort of objection adumbrated in this comment’s penultimate paragraph.

  18. Whoops, the relevant part of the penultimate paragraph of the previous post should actually read: “I’m fairly confident that my future self would be a lot happier being thrown in front of a bus to save a horde of kids by me than my cousin would be being thrown in front of a bus to save those same children by me.” (There must be a more elegant way to put that.)

  19. Dale,
    What do you think of the following argument?
    (i) If I’m A-related to person X to lesser degree than to person Y, then the set of people to whom I have an associative obligation includes X only if it includes Y.
    (ii) I’m A-related to myself to a greater degree than to any other person.
    (iii) I have no associative obligation to myself.
    (iv) I have no associative obligation to anyone. [From i, ii, iii]
    This seems to be in the same spirit as your argument, and it has the virtue of being valid.

  20. Angus and Campbell –
    You guys write as if validity is some kind of a virtue! Fair enough all ’round: my original argument wasn’t intended to be strictly valid, but rather a starting point for discussion (that gestured wildly toward validity).
    Campbell –
    I like your reconstruction.
    Angus –
    Hmm. I feel as though something is being lost in the translation. I’m going to take the liberty of borrowing your well-worded schema to see if I can make a few alterations:
    (2c) If (i) person S bears relation A to person B in degree N, (ii) S bears relation A to person C in degree M, (iii) M is lesser than N and (iv) S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to B) a duty to grant B moral priority over the overall good (to some particular extent) then S does not have (in virtue of bearing A to C) a duty to grant C moral priority over the overall good to that same extent or more. [1a]
    (3c) The person to whom anyone bears relation A to the strongest degree is his future self. [Premise]
    (4c) If S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to future-S) a duty to grant future-S moral priority over the overall good (to such-and-such extent) then S does not have (in virtue of bearing A to some other person B) a duty to grant B moral priority over the overall good to such-and-such an extent or more. [2c,3c]
    (5c) S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to future-S) a duty to grant future-S moral priority over the overall good. [Premise]
    (6b) Future S’s interests in not being sacrificed for the greater good by S are the same as (or greater than) anybody else’s interests in not being sacrificed for the greater good by S. [Premise]
    (6c) S does not have a duty to grant anyone priority over the overall good, in virtue of bearing relation A to him/her. [4c,5c]
    (7c) S has an associative obligation to some person B if and only if, in virtue of bearing relation A to B, S has a duty to grant B moral priority over the overall good.
    (8c) S has no associative obligations. [6c,7c]
    I’ve left 6b as is, because I think it’s now irrelevant. Basically the idea is that, whatever the relevant factors are, associative obligations are just obligations to treat one’s associates with priority with respect to those factors. If one is uncomfortable with the “good” as the crucial morally relevant factor, you’re free to re-word the argument substituting “overall good” for your favorite factor. (I’ve said “moral priority” here, but if one prefers the suggestion that associative constraints are constraints of rationality rather than morality, one is free to drop the “moral”.) If I have no obligation to treat myself with moral priority with respect to morally relevant factors, I have no obligation to treat anyone else with moral priority with respect to morally relevant factors.
    I’m pretty sure this works, and I don’t think I’ve committed myself to anything I can’t commit myself to. Have I erred?

  21. Dale,
    Thanks for the clarification; I no doubt muddied the waters with my previous comment. Here’s a final attempt to poke a hole in the strongest part of your argument.
    You noted earlier that “moral priority is always indexed to a certain morally relevant factor, the most important of which will be personal well-being.” This suggests to me that one implication of (5c) is that S does not have (in virtue of bearing relation A to future-S) a duty to bring about future-S’s well-being instead of bringing about the overall good. And this, in turn, seems true iff
    (M) Were S to bring about future-S’s well being and not bring about the overall good then S would not act as S was obliged to act.
    But if we assume that it is (ceteris paribus) irrational for someone to choose not to bring about the overall good (because, as is widely granted, he has an obligation to bring about) then it would seem that (M) is true because its antecedent is false; S could not bring about future S’s well being without bringing about the overall good (insofar as an important part of future S’s well being is that he has lived a rational life).
    (M)’s analogue, however, is this: “Were S to bring about B’s well being and not bring about the overall good then S would not act as S was obliged to act,” and, if this is true, it is surely not in virtue of its antecedent always being false.
    In short, perhaps (5c)’s plausibility derives from a set of considerations that do not lend support to your conclusion.

  22. Angus –
    I confess to not fully understanding the upshot of your last post, but here are a few worries to start.
    1. (5c) doesn’t imply (M). There’s a scope problem with “not” in (M). Rather, it implies:
    (Ma): Were S to bring about future-S’s well being and not bring about the overall good then S would act as S was not obliged to act.
    2. Nothing in my view supposes an obligation to bring about the greater good. One can fail to have an associative obligations while also maintaining associative options, that is, options to treat one’s self and one’s associates with moral priority. Hence it would not necessarily be either irrational or immoral to fail to bring about the greater good rather than favoring one’s self or one’s compatriots.
    3. I would think it’s manifestly implausible to believe that a good life entails living a “rational” life. Maybe it’s true if “rational” here simply means “prudentially rational,” but rationality can mean much more than that and certainly does in your example. In your case, it just seems wrong to say that S can’t live a good life if S doesn’t promote the greater good, and this is for standard reasons.

  23. Dale,
    I believe the scalar nature of relation A bugs me most.
    When I think of a personal constraint, I think of it as role-related. My obligations to my business partner are special in business matters and not elsewhere (or much less so). Likewise for my obligations to my employer or customer or various acquaintances. Obligations to my relatives and friends are much broader but still circumscribed; for example, they don’t necessarily get (as much) priority in matters of criminal law or business. Many obligations to my children cease when they attain majority. And so on.
    Your use of relation A seems to establish a lexical priority: if X is closer to me than Y, then (the personal-constraints advocate must say) X’s interests always take priority over Y’s. But that’s not the intuitive idea. X’s interests may take priority in more cases, or they may take priority when X’s and Y’s claims both apply. But there may very well be cases where Y’s take priority over X’s.
    Consequently, even if there is a relation A and my future self is closest to me on its measure, it doesn’t follow that my future self’s interests would take priority over anyone’s. That would only follow if there was some (e.g. role-related) context in which my future self had relevant claims. I’m not sure there is such a context. But there may be: maybe I have obligations to my (future) self not to leave my talents totally undeveloped, not to get addicted to very destructive drugs, not to amputate healthy limbs, etc.—-in short, not to degrade or destroy my capabilities. That might be so even if such things would serve the greater good.
    You ask some good, pointed questions about how to spell this out. Maybe I should deny (5); I don’t think I have to for my suggestion to work. I would also entertain the possibility that flourishing is sometimes self-effacing; you flourish better if you accept your obligations to others for their own sake, not because doing so contributes to your flourishing. I’m not sure how to fit that in. My thoughts here are not in concrete.
    You also say, “Morality…also allows one to be a bad partner.” I guess I just disagree. If your partner betrayed you in a deeply hurtful way, for the greater good, would you still entertain the idea that they were a moral person? Or flip it around; would your partner still think of you as a moral person? Maybe this is just a clash of intuitions.
    Doug,
    Dale rightly divined that I would be a non-reductivist, at least for the most part, about the morally relevant relations I stand in with others.

  24. Heath,
    I don’t think you’ve got Dale’s argument quite right.
    You say this:

    Your use of relation A seems to establish a lexical priority: if X is closer to me than Y, then (the personal-constraints advocate must say) X’s interests always take priority over Y’s. But that’s not the intuitive idea. X’s interests may take priority in more cases, or they may take priority when X’s and Y’s claims both apply. But there may very well be cases where Y’s take priority over X’s.

    But it would be more accurate to say this: if X is closer to me than Y, then Y’s interests have priority over the greater good only if X’s interests have priority over the greater good. This doesn’t imply that X’s interests have priority over Y’s interests.
    Dale’s original formulation of the argument may have been misleading in this respect. His premise (4) was: “Hence my strongest associative obligation is to my future self.” However, as Angus and I have pointed out, he should have said: “Hence if I have an associative obligation to anyone, I have an associative obligation to myself.” This revised premise is consistent with one’s obligations to others being equally as strong as one’s obligations to oneself.

  25. Dale,
    Here’s another reconstruction of your argument.
    Let A and B be any people.
    1. If A has an associative obligation (a.o.) to B, then, for some relation R, it is in virtue of A’s being R-related to B that A has an a.o. to B.
    2. For any relation R and person X, if A has an a.o. to B in virtue of A’s being R-related to B, and A is R-related to X, then A has an a.o. to X.
    3. For any relation R, if A has an a.o. to B in virtue of A’s being R-related to B, then A is R-related A.
    4. A does not have an a.o. to A.
    5. A does not have an a.o. to B. [from 1,2,3,4]
    Since the choice of A and B was arbitrary, it follows that no one has an a.o. to anyone; there are no associative obligations.
    Whaddya reckon?

  26. Campbell,
    OK, fair enough. I think the gist of my objection stands, which is that the a.o.-partisan is not going to say that, if I have an a.o. to X, X’s interests take priority over the greater good tout court. She will say, rather, that X’s interests take priority in certain contexts. It does not follow from the fact that my future self’s interests never take priority over the greater good, that I have no a.o. to myself; that only follows if there is some context in which my future self has relevant claims. More generally, the context-bound nature of my special obligations makes it impossible to establish the sort of hierarchical relation that relation A was supposed to be.

  27. Hi guys –
    Again, terrific comments and questions. Some incoherent ramblings:
    Heath –
    I think I’m persuaded, or at least tentatively persuaded, that my argument is not particularly persuasive for those who hold a non-reductivist view. I was hoping to make the argument more general, but I think that I sacrificed perspicuity and plausibility in so doing. So I think you’re right, that the non-reductivist could either offer a rationale for denying (5), or offer a rationale for denying (1), viz., that there is not any particular relation that one bears to another person that determines personal constraints, but rather a collection of roles, and that one’s moral obligations are defined and circumscribed by those roles.
    My next move is to deny non-reductionism. (I don’t think there’s any great originality to my moves here; I like McPherson’s piece in Phil. Studies on this one.) One might ask whether such a view could be generally sustained. For instance, what is it about one’s friendship relations that give rise to personal constraints in certain cases? More tendentiously: why is it that I have special obligations to my friends but not, say, special obligations to “fellow sentient beings”, say? There has got to be something about that friendship relation that distinguishes it from the wider relation. And it seems to me the answers to these questions are pressure to adopt a reductivist story. (Viz., there’s greater “connectedness” between one’s self and one’s friends, etc.) (BTW, I would characterize the “flourishing” response as reductivist, no? And in that case, it seems perfectly natural to claim that the most significant relationship to develop on the basis of a concern for flourishing is my relationship to my future self. You note that flourishing is sometimes undermined by selfishness or an objectionable level of self-regard. But that’s compatible with the view here: your largest obligation is to your own flourishing.)
    Anyway, off the top of my head that’s the way I’d respond. But I recognize the pressure to deny, rather than accommodate, non-reductivism.
    Campbell –
    Yeah. I think that works, too. Unfortunately, it misses the scalarity of Relation A. And I think that might need to be spelled out. In particular, I’m worried that someone could deny (4) rather easily on this view and say, for instance, that it only seems like you don’t have an AO to yourself. In fact you do, but it’s very weak (as I mentioned in the original post). In order to defend my argument against that claim, it has to be that I bear Relation A to myself to a greater degree than anyone. So I think I like your other reconstruction better, but I’ll have to think about it more.

  28. Dale,
    I wouldn’t be eager to maintain a strict non-reductionism. In fact it seems obvious that it is not a brute fact that, say, one has special obligations to one’s wife. What I would deny is that the “reductive” facts are (completely) psychological, say that I and my wife are strongly emotionally connected. Rather, I would want to point to non-mental facts about promises made, stable social structures, the good of the kids, etc. at least to some extent. Since the relevant facts are not going to be the same for all kinds of relationships, I still think there’s a lot of heterogeneity among special obligations. And these facts will not generally be such as to privilege my future self. At this point, though, the consequentialist might just step back a level and ask what makes these facts so pertinent, with the ultimate goal of pointing to the greater good or something like that.
    OK….here’s an example which is something to the point, and which should if nothing else spark conversation. I take the following to be a model of a structure of obligations which (a) is in some sense ultimately motivated by consequentialist considerations, (b) contains (analogues of) personal constraints, and (c) does not have any special privilege for future selves. If this is a realistic model then I take it that even a consequentialist can make room for personal constraints.
    A soldier is obligated (within the military code) to obey the orders of his superior officers, and these obligations are strictly ordered up the chain of command: a higher-ranking officer’s orders take precedence over a lower-ranking officer’s. Moreover, these obligations trump both (i) the soldier’s obligations to his future self, in that he is obligated to carry out these orders even if they cause him injury or death, and (ii) the greater (military) good of gaining a hill, winning a battle, etc. in that the soldier is to follow orders regardless of whether doing so will attain his military objectives.
    Now, I am quite certain that this strict code arose for basically consequentialist reasons—highly authoritarian militaries are better at winning battles ( i.e. achieving the greater military good). You could think of it as a form of rule-consequentialism, though it is somewhat self-effacing since I suspect soldiers are trained not to think of it in these terms. However, no military theorist is going to say that a soldier is not obligated to obey orders, or is allowed to ignore the orders of a higher-ranking officer in favor of those from a lower-ranking officer, in pursuit of the greater good. The constraints on action remain, even when the greater good can be (or is thought can be) achieved by breaking them, and they are not driven by anything that would privilege the future self.

  29. Heath –
    Thanks again. That helps clarify matters. Though I reserve the right to change my mind totally, it seems to me that what you’ve got going there is a theory that contains no special obligations at all. Rather, and I say this with hesitation, it seems as though what you’re calling personal obligations are not different in kind from regular old obligations. I’m referring specifically to your reference to “promises made”, etc. Here’s a question: if I made such promises to a total stranger–truly and sincerely–would I have just as much of an obligation to fulfill them as I do to my partner? In other words, is there any extra “moral heft” added to the promise given that it’s a promise to my wife? If not, I’m not seeing how this is a true case of special obligations.
    And also, I think you’re right that a consequentialist could support the “chain of command” example. Indeed, not just a rule-consequentialist, but also a two-level consequentialist would be able to accommodate it. And if that’s right, what we’ve got here is not a genuine case of special obligations. To put this perhaps a bit more precisely, the fact of someone’s relationship to me (whether characterized reductively or non-reductively) doesn’t appear to be operating as a morally relevant factor in your examples. My requirement to spend–to take an easy case–my resources on my family rather than distant needy strangers, for instance, is just a result of other, non-associative factors (promises made, etc.).

  30. Dale,
    Do you really want to concede that people might have associative obligations (albeit very weak ones) to themselves? If so, I don’t see how you can deny that they have associative obligations (albeit perhaps even weaker ones) to others. I thought your position was that there are no associative obligations, not that all associative obligations are very weak.

  31. Hi Campbell –
    I’m not eager to concede that point. My intuitions say that there are no per se moral obligations to one’s self. And I think this intuition is widely shared. But the move I was trying to make was to say that even if you think that you have a per se obligation to yourself, this doesn’t really get you anything like associative obligations in the way we generally understand them, as the only plausible obligation to one’s self is extremely weak, making one’s associative obligations to others so weak as to be hardly worth talking about. Anyway, you’re right that if someone denies the premise that there are no obligations to one’s self, then there could, in principle, be some associative obligations. All I was trying to suggest there was that the resulting picture would be so weak as to be unrecognizable to those who generally posit such obligations. And for that move, the scalarity (scalarness? scalaricity?) of Relation A is required.

Comments are closed.