Consider the following case, culled from the authors’ lived experiences (with slight modifications). You are in the fortunate position of marrying into a family with the financial means to offset a substantial amount of the cost of an otherwise unaffordable wedding. During the planning, after the costs have been offset, your in-laws insist that at least three Frank Sinatra songs will be played at the reception. You and your partner don’t hate Sinatra. In fact, you both enjoy “That’s Life” and other hits on occasion. But both of you would prefer not to hear Sinatra’s crooning at the reception.
Intuitively, it seems that your in-laws are entitled to make the request to hear Sinatra in virtue of their financial contribution to the wedding. After all, it’s a significant financial contribution. But it also strikes us as intuitive that your in-laws shouldn’t make the request – it’s you and your partner’s big day. Put another way, it appears that your in-laws have standing to make the request, but ought not.
That your in-laws could have such standing and an obligation not to act on it is puzzling. It’s also not all that unusual. If we think about political contributions or giving to university endowments, for example, it may also seem that contributors have standing to make certain demands that they ought not make. Given how prominent these cases are in both our social and political lives, we need a way to determine which demands are appropriate and when.
These cases are clearly not market transactions, an exchange of goods where appropriate demands are delimited and abided by. Suppose your in-laws state explicitly, “We’ll help pay for the wedding only if you agree to play three Sinatra songs at the reception!”. Wouldn’t that be weird? It’s not just that in the original case the terms are there but left unstated or to be filled in as needed, like an incomplete contract. There are no terms. Your in-laws haven’t given you money for to-be-decided compensation. Though they are perhaps entitled to some kind of reciprocity—and it may be vague how much—that reciprocity is not a matter of quid quo pro.
These cases are also clearly not cases of charity. In cases of pure charity, no demands for reciprocity are licensed, because, well, then it wouldn’t be charity. Though your in-laws provide the financial aid that you and your partner need to throw the wedding, their contribution really does seem to entitle them in some kind of way.
More interesting is how the wedding case might relate to cases of shared projects or gifts. A monetary investment made as the financial contribution to a shared project certainly licenses making requests or demands. Suppose you and your friends pool your money together for a flat rental on vacation, and you request that the rental is accessible to you as someone with a walking impairment. That’s a perfectly reasonable request because you went in on the flat together.
Gifts, on the other hand, need not involve the giver and the recipient sharing any ends (at least, not related to the use of the gift itself). Unlike acts of pure charity, however, some have argued that gifts do ground certain general obligations, such as for expressions of gratitude. Your friend doesn’t expect anything in return when they buy you a drink, and you’re not obligated to buy them one, but you surely owe them at least a quick ‘thanks!’ or some equivalent acknowledgement.
It seems to us that the wedding case is not subsumable to either shared projects or gifts. Unlike shared projects, it seems to be a distinctive feature of the wedding case that you and your partner’s aims do not align fully with the aims of your in-laws – again, it’s you and your partner’s big day. Unlike with gift giving, the in-laws in the wedding case do reasonably expect some kind of reciprocity beyond gratitude. Compare this to being given a hundred dollar gift card for Airbnb. No one in their right mind would expect you to use it on their favorite flat in Rome.
Here is another way to think about the wedding case: your in-laws certainly aren’t respecting the fact that you and your partner may not want to hear Sinatra’s crooning. Worse, they are failing to appreciate the pressure that they have put you under to accept your demand given the generousness of their contribution. So, when your in-laws make these demands, they exhibit certain failures of regard. Nevertheless, they are invested in your marriage.
What this shows is that while your in-laws have standing to make demands, they ought to exercise those rights while demonstrating proper regard. We suggest that your financially-beneficent in-laws show you and your partner regard only if their expectations in making their contribution are constrained by the ends you and your partner share. That is, your in-laws can appropriately request only that which the two of you want. The problem, at least in part, is that your in-laws’ expectations haven’t been so constrained.
In fact, we think a stronger thesis might even be true. Plausibly, you and your partner are excited to arrange the details of the wedding without interference from family. But if you have this desire to arrange the wedding on your own, then any requests will be inappropriate. So, in some cases, though the beneficiary has standing to make certain requests, no requests are appropriate to make.
We submit that the wedding case brings out an interestingly facile class of entitlements—a class that we think deserves more serious and sustained attention. We’re excited to hear what PeaSoupers have to say about it. Do readers share our sense that the in-laws are entitled? That they’re entitled but obligated not to act on their entitlements? Is there some other way to think about the case that we’re missing? Tell us what you think in the comments!