My Way: The Ethics of Financial Contributions (Guest Post for Applied Ethics April by N.G. Laskowski and Kenneth Silver)

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!

30 Replies to “My Way: The Ethics of Financial Contributions (Guest Post for Applied Ethics April by N.G. Laskowski and Kenneth Silver)

  1. Fun post! I don’t understand why the in laws aren’t giving a gift. Gift giving is one way to reaffirm or establish a mutually beneficial relationship going forward–i.e., one way to generate “good will”–without a defined quid pro quo typical of an arm’s length market transaction. (This is why giving gifts to politicians should be frowned upon; it is one way to corrupt them.) The gift nature of the donation in your example nicely explains the felt sense of entitlement. The in-laws are entitled to *something* in virtue of giving the gift, given that a function of gifts is to generate good will. The sense of impropriety in demanding to play Sinatra can be explained by reference to the impropriety of converting the gift into a quid pro quo exchange. Put differently, the in laws want to have their cake (generating good will by giving the gift) and eat it too (immediately cashing in on that good will). The same impropriety exists if I were to give you a birthday present, and then immediately ask you for a favor. I think it’s a gift.

  2. Thanks for your comment Erik! I keep being tempted by the idea that these are gifts, but I think there are some issues. The key trouble is that we have this deep intuition that the demand made is in a sense justified. The in-laws are entitled to make it, we think, so the source of the inappropriateness isn’t that they demand what they demand, as it would be if it were a gift.

    I think the quid quo pro point is doing some work, but I’m not sure how much. After all, if I give you gift card for $50, and you don’t even say thank you…perhaps it is in poor taste for me to demand that you thank me (and you can’t feel thankful in response to demands anyway), but you do owe me a thanks.

    I would grant though that there is definitely a nearby case of bad conduct where something is given qua gift and then retroactively converted into something with entitlements. At its most nefarious, I may give you gifts purely to deepen our relationship for the purpose of emotionally extorting you on the basis of that deepened relationship.

  3. Cool post! Here’s an objection:

    You write “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.”

    Why not think, instead, that (i) standing and (ii) whether they ought to ask, always go together? Here are two cases:

    Case 1: A and B are themselves quite poor, but B’s family is loaded. B’s family offers to pay for a $250,00 destination wedding, and very politely ask that you play just one song, sometime throughout the day – their own wedding song from 30 years ago.

    Given natural assumptions about the case, it seems like they have standing and it’s perfectly fine to ask.

    Case 2: A and B are poor, as are their families. They have a budget for a $2,000 wedding (it will be a boring wedding, no doubt) and B’s family offers $50 and asks to DJ the entire reception and pick the colors of the wedding.

    No standing. And they ought not ask.

    Your case seems to be a case in the middle. But why not think that the answer to your case is: well, they either have standing and can ask, or don’t have standing and ought not ask, and it’s just vague. That is, it’s just a borderline case (somewhere between my two cases above).

  4. Thanks for the comment Matt! I’m not sure I’m convinced that in Case 1 that it really is perfectly fine for the family to ask. Granted, it’s not a big ask, and, granted, it’s stipulated that they did so politely. But still…imagine the kind of pressure generated by the magnitude of their contribution to the wedding. Even if A and B like the requested song, it’s a lot of pressure.

    Two more things: It might make the case worse for us if it is stipulated in Case 1 that A and B aren’t poor after all, but nevertheless B’s family has largely paid for the wedding. That may decrease at least the financial pressure (though the pressure from the need to preserve the health of their relationship will remain).
    Second, I think a lot of work is being done by their asking ‘politely,’ because that can be read a few ways. One natural way to ask politely is to offer a suggestion and a reason, but make it clear that that reason can easily be defeated by other considerations. “We would love to hear ‘My Way’ because it was our wedding song, and your young love reminds us of our own, but of course you play what you want and if you don’t like it don’t feel obliged!” I’m actually not sure how to feel about that kind of defeasible request, rather than a straightforward demand, so I’ll have to think about it.

  5. Hi! Like Erik above I think it’s a gift. I’d like to ask for the reason that you think it isn’t, apart from appeal to intuition. I don’t share the sense that the demand made is in a sense justified.

  6. N.G. and Ken,

    Very interesting.
    Thanks!

    I would just say that you might want to consider whether it would be helpful to sever considerations of “demands” and “entitlement” from cases like these. Even if what we think is going on is beyond a mere request (and I’m skeptical that this isn’t merely a request that garners more normative weight to one’s appropriate moral deliberation), these cases certainly don’t involve claims or claim rights. We would probably be well served by severing considerations of directionality (whether A owes a duty to B) from considerations of claim-rights (whether B has a claim against A that they can demand as their due).

    It seems this category where we have directed duties without claims is pretty broad. I might well owe it to a former student to write a letter of recommendation after she requests that I do so, or owe it to a friend to help her move if she has helped me move in the past–even though neither has a claim against me. And I might well owe it to my future in-laws to play Sinatra, even though they don’t have a claim right against me (That’s my moral intuition anyways)

    As to the broader question of whether one could be morally restricted from requesting (or some other form of moral second personal exchange) someone else to PHI even if one has a standing to request PHI, that seems to be a rather ubiquitous feature of the moral domain. Maggie Little has a host of cases on that phenomenon in considerations of bodily autonomy and intimacy. We might think that requesting reciprocity of aid from friends in much more dire straits would be inappropriate. The aid we rendered them gives us standing, but external circumstances give moral reasons against exercising that moral authority. Once again, this isn’t that surprising (I think at least, although I admit to being rather on the fringes here. Some have even argued that you can have standing to demand one PHI and it nonetheless be inappropriate to do so. A commanding officer, for instance, in standard circumstances at least , is morally restricted from commanding a soldier to stand watch on their wedding night, even if the commanding officer has the constitutive authority to give that order.

    Although only one data point of intuitions, mine do not take this to be a case of that phenomenon, it is –after all–lots of people’s special day.

  7. Thanks for the objection, Matt!

    Short answer to your question of why we ought not to think that (1) standing and (ii) whether the in-laws ought to ask always go together: Because they don’t, which is brought out by our case!

    Slightly, longer, slightly less glib answer: You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t share your intuition about your Case 2. B’s family does have standing to make requests, in virtue of their (not-negligible-to-them contribution) but ought not to demand that those requests are fulfilled. Admittedly, my intuition that B’s family has standing is less strong in this case than my intuition that the in-laws in our original wedding case have standing. And my intuition that B’s family has standing in another version of your case, where B’s family gives even less money (say, $1), is even less strong still. But in yet another version of your case, where B’s family contributes nothing, my intuition that they have standing goes away. So, just thinking out loud here, I’m still inclined to think that (i) and (ii) don’t always go hand in hand. Cases like your Case 2 might make it seem like they do, but that’s only becuase our judgments about these things are influenced by the amounts that contributors contribute, and in your case, the contribution isn’t significant.

    What do you think?

  8. Something about duties of gratitude have always rubbed me the wrong way. To be clear, I appreciate it when others are grateful and “my best self” is a grateful one. But I find something vaguely disturbing about the idea that someone can make it the case that I’m morally obligated to do something just because they feel like helping me. Given this apprehension, I find it attractive to think of gratitude as an imperfect duty — Barbara Herman, especially in her “Being Helped and Being Grateful: Imperfect Duties, the Ethics of Possession, and the Unity of Morality”, and I seem to be on the same page here.

    If gratitude is an imperfect duty, then you have some liberty in how you discharge the duty. But the Sinatra quota conflicts with that liberty; it erroneously treats gratitude as a perfect duty which is discharged only by 3x blue eyes. That explains why the request is inappropriate. The nature of duties of gratitude entails that you can choose how to express your gratitude.

  9. Kenneth:

    Ya, what you were talking through with your last comment (about how we can complicate the case by tinkering with how the request plays out) is interesting!

    Nick:

    I see. Perhaps the initial disagreement comes down to what we mean by ‘standing’. From the way you are thinking about it, standing seems to be had pretty easily.

    Case 3: Suppose A and B are very wealthy and pay for their entire (1 million +) wedding. I’m invited, show up, hand the groom a nickel and tell him to play I Believe in a Thing Called Love for their first dance. Do I have standing? Sounds like you would say yes, but barely any. Is that right?

    If standing is thought of like that, then I think I agree with you that standing and whether one ought to ask, can come apart.

    But one might think that there is really this other notion around – call it whatever you want, standing* or whatever: where I do not have standing* in Case 3 in giving a nickel, where the family has standing* in Case 1, and where the family does not having standing* in Case 1. Question: does the family in your original case have standing*? My thought, still, is that it is vague.

  10. In reply to Anca’s comment above:

    Here’s one way to try to tease apart financial contributions from gifts: It seems like in the case of the former, the giver has some claim concerning how the money is spend, whereas not in the latter (beyond that it is spent). For example, if I give you a $50 gift card to BestBuy, then perhaps you ought to use it and not just throw it away. But I certainly wouldn’t have a claim to demand or maybe even request that you use it to purchase a particular thing or kind of thing (say, country music CD’s). For a financial contribution though, I think the giver is entitled to more than that the money is used; it has to be used somehow productively given the stated aims of the recipient. If I give to a candidate, and then they use that money to engage in a large-scale rebranding scheme whereby they totally change their platform, I think I have been wronged in a way, despite their productively using my contribution.

  11. ugh sorry another typo. meant to say:

    But one might think that there is really this other notion around – call it whatever you want, standing* or whatever: where I do not have standing* in Case 3 in giving a nickel, where the family has standing* in Case 1, and where the family does not having standing* in Case 2.

  12. Thanks Kenneth! When I think about the wedding case in light of the distinction between financial contributions and gifts I’m even more inclined to see the in-laws’ act as gifting. Imagine bride and groom say “no” rather than “yes” at the crucial moment (and once all the money from in-laws is spent). Is the in-laws’ complaint in this case that their gift was wasted, or that their contribution was misused?

  13. Hi Marcus,

    Thanks for the reply. Thanks especially for pointing us to Maggie Little. You also mention that some have made arguments in the ethics of conflict literature that bear on our discussion. Are there particular philosophers you have in mind?

    I don’t think Kenneth and I are wedded (sorry!) to thinking about these scenarios in terms of demands or entitment, so we’re receptive to the idea that we shouldn’t. (Though, I will point out that toward the end of your post you do slide into talking in terms of demands!). Which way of thinking about the cases do you find more perspicuous? Just in terms of standing and obligation, as you do in some of your post? Do you have other notions in mind?

  14. Nathan,

    I think you’re right re: duties of gratitude as imperfect duties. In fact, a prominent idea in the literature on gifts is that that is the kind of obligation they generate – which puts more pressure on us to show how these cases are distinct from gifts. It’s definitely bad to make demands on how gratitude will be expressed or to act as if I will only understand gratitude expressed a certain way. (This is how I think some cases work for sure.)

    One thing to say is that I’m not entirely sure that the demands made are demands for expressions of gratitude. It’s not like the in-laws are saying, “Thank us by playing our song!” It’s closer to, “We gave you money for a good wedding, so please respect our view of what it would take to make a good wedding.” That is, I think something critical going on in these contribution cases is that what is being demanded is a respect for the end of the giver or their views on ends shared between the giver and the receiver.

  15. Thanks, Nathan! Thanks also for the literature recs.

    This might take us a bit off track, but what you say here is intriguing: “I find something vaguely disturbing about the idea that someone can make it the case that I’m morally obligated to do something just because they feel like helping me.”

    I wonder which part of such cases you find disturbing. Compare: Someone falls in a well accidentally. You and only you can save them easily (and without cost, since you’re not even wearing your fancy suit today!). They’ve made it the case that you’re morally obligated. Nothing disturbing here.

    Compare again: Someone who can’t swim jumps in a well from the intention of making it such that you have an obligation to help them. Definitely disturbing! But also disturbing, it seems to me, in a _different_ way from cases in which you are helped but not from any kind of intention to make you obligated. One common element in the disturbing cases is an intention on the part of the person in need and the helper. Though I suspect that’s not what explains the disturbingness but I’m not sure what else might.

    Also, more relevantly to the main thread at hand, I wonder: Do you think the nature of duties of gratitude are such that the couple has _full_ discretion over how they express their gratitude? That doesn’t seem right to me. It would be in some way unresponsive for the couple to ignore the in-laws’ request for 3x Sinatra songs entirely and just say ‘thanks for the scratch!’. This makes me a bit, but only a bit, suspicious of your proposed explanation of the case.

  16. Very interesting! You end with the suggestion that they are entitled to, but obligated to not, request the songs. I would explore other options for understanding the negative part.

    We can agree that they ought not ask, but why think they are obligated to not ask? I would favor thinking it would be indecent or graceless or jerky to ask and they ought not to act in those ways. Cheshire Calhoun and Susan Wolf have interesting stuff on decency that you might know about and I suppose the theories of jerks and assholes might apply too.

    You say they should not request because that will not embody “due regard”. I’d like to hear more about this other-regarding base for the ought not request conclusion. Due regard for what or whom? Is it regard for the couple and somehow related to the value of the relationship? And does ‘due’ imply obligation or could we substitute ‘apt regard’?

    It seems it might also be bad to ask because that would be graceless and jerky and hence exhibit vice. So their might be self-regarding, so to speak, considerations that support the conclusion that they ought not request.

  17. Matt:

    My reaction to your Case 3 is that you don’t have standing because you haven’t made a contribution to the wedding, and you haven’t made a contribution because the rich couple have already paid for it!

    Nevertheless, I am thinking of standing how you think I’m thinking about it. We can imagine that the rich couple can afford all but five cents of the costs of the wedding. You then give them five cents. You’ve now contributed. My judgment is that you have standing, albeit to a very small degree. It certainly doesn’t entitle them to very much!

    This isn’t directly responsive to the issues you raise, but your posts have also got me thinking about what is doing the entitling exactly. I don’t think it’s just the mere fact that you’re helping people out financially. I suspect that, and I’m not sure exactly how to think about this, it also has something to do with the burden the contributor bears in making their contribution. Imagine that it isn’t you making the five cent contribution, but our friend who has come on hard times and is now living on the street. It seems to me that our friend is entitled to much more in making their contribution than you.

  18. Hey Nick,

    I should note that wasn’t a slip of talking about demands.
    It was an intentional move about an even more robust contention.
    EVEN in cases in which talk of demands are appropriate, even in cases in which one has a full-fledged Hohfeldian claim right, it seems reasonable to say that one can have standing to demand that one PHI and nonetheless think to make use of that standing would be inappropriate. I mean as soon as you endow people with authority, you seemed pushed to that conclusion. Because a commanding officer CAN make demands, even if the future in-laws can’t. Apologies for not being clearer.

    I think there’s lots of ways of cashing it out.
    I think it depends upon what angle you want to come at it from
    You could talk of requests and what the normative uptake of a request is, but that’s more of a speech act analysis. That’s not my particular expertise, but I think one could say a lot about that
    (What’s the difference in between demanding as one’s due, insisting as a third party, requesting as a member of the moral community, and a enjoinder for consideration as a benefactor?)
    I would cash it out in terms of directional duties but that’s just me.

    You can talk about standing, but there you need to be able to respond to Raz’s 2010 objection in Ethics and say what that means. So I would prefer to look at in terms of normative authority. But that’s probably just a preference. The authority move brings with it a response to that objection. In either case I think to get at the heart of the phenomenon, you need to say more about what difference does the enjoinder for consideration as a benefactor make? Even if it were inappropriate to do so, what moral difference does the request make? (Or however you want to characterize the exchange)

  19. Thanks, Bradford! All of the literature recommendations we’re getting is super helpful. Thanks for your recommendations, too. Here’s a few replies to the points your raise.

    “I would explore other options for understanding the negative part. We can agree that they ought not ask, but why think they are obligated to not ask? I would favor thinking it would be indecent or graceless or jerky to ask and they ought not to act in those ways.”

    I’m not sure I’m seeing the difference between it being the case that the in-laws ought not to ask and it being the case that the in-laws have an obligation to not ask. Would you mind saying a bit more about this? In the mean time, I’ll just talk in your preferred terms.

    Suppose we agree with you that the in-laws ought not to ask. I then read the rest of your comment in the following way: You’re suggesting an alternative theory to our preferred theory of why it’s the case that the in-laws ought not to ask. You’re suggesting that it might have something to do with jerkiness, etc. We suggest that it has more to do with lack of regard. In particular, lack of regard for the couple as autonomous persons with ends of their own.

    The suggested alternative theory is interesting but I’m not sure it captures what is going on in the wedding case fully, because I don’t think the in-laws are being e.g. jerks. That’s not because I have anything resembling a theory of jerks. But rather because what the in-laws are doing doesn’t seem to resemble more paradigmatic cases of jerkiness. Compare a case in which you buy me a cocktail at a fancy bar, and when we get to the cheap dive bar next, I insist that you make up for the cocktail by requesting that you buy me at least three beers! What a jerk I would be! I don’t think what the in-laws are doing resembles such cases closely. In the wedding case, there seems to be something important about the decisions being the couple’s to make. That’s part of what pushes us to think about it in terms of regard for persons with ends.

    But I definitely want to think more about the case in these alternative ways you suggest.

  20. I first wanted to build a bit on Bradford’s comment.

    Feinberg many decades ago posed a thought experiment concerning whether you should or must give a match to someone who asked for it (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2379643). He says you ought to, but there is certainly have no obligation to. The idea here is that there is something distinctive about civility or something like that apart from normal kinds of moral obligations. He has no right to your match, but you should still give him one.

    You can imagine the wedding case in slightly different ways where the to-be-married seem like the ones worthy of criticism. Say my parents offered to pay for my wedding, and made a request that I play a couple of songs they like. Say also that they would be so offended were I to say no that they likely wouldn’t pay for the wedding.

    This is effectively the same situation, only the dialogue–how it is approached–is different. They do not insist, but only request. But my response to their request will similarly determine their willingness to fund. They are making a reasonable request, like asking for a match, one I should honor lest I be so self-absorbed to think that a couple minutes of “crooning” for the benefit of my parents is something I simply should not have to endure.

    While this example might go to Feinberg’s distinction, I think a lot of this boils down to familial norms that aren’t really that generalizable.

  21. Hi Nick,

    Thanks. I think there are lots of cases in which we ought, for moral reasons, to not do things but in which we have no obligation. If my son is walking down the street ripping leaves off trees, as I was prone to do as a kid myself, I might tell him not to do it and I am thinking he ought not do it, and for broadly moral reasons. Roughly: destroying living things for some small hard to articulate reason (avoid boredom? Enjoy the feeling of changing things by force?) is morally bad because it either expresses an inapt attitude towards living things or fails to express an apt attitude towards living things. Is my son in this case under a moral obligation to have the apt attitude towards leaves on trees? Does he owe it to the tree to be nicer? Should members of the moral community be indignant on the tree’s behalf? I sure don’t think so.

    I could say more but it would depend on half baked and contentious ideas about the concept of moral obligation.

    Generalizing from the leaf case I think we often act as we morally ought not because we fail to aptly respond to values of various sorts. And these failures only sometimes involve failures to act as we are obligated to act. Other “ought not without obligation to refrain” cases might include Scrooge from the x-mas charrole – Calhoun discusses his morally permissible but indecent treatment of his workers. The literature on suberogation discusses lots of cases too.

    So my first thought was that the parents might fail to express or embody the apt attitude towards (“appreciation of”) the couple and the value of their relationship. (Like my son failing to express the apt attitude to the value of the living tree) Marriage ceremonies are centrally about symbolic recognition or expressed appreciation/celebration of the value of said relationships, and it is hard to see how their request could express with such recognition/appreciation/celebration. This suggests we could explain why they morally ought not make the request – it would fail to express apt appreciation of this value – without bringing in obligations.

    Maybe you think parents have an obligation to express appreciation of the value of the relationship? I think this might be right but I assume it is a special obligation so, perhaps, you could explain that with an account of parental obligation?

    Another thought: in some traditional societies parents are not expected to fully respect their kids autonomy on various decisions until they get married and maybe move to their own house. In this sort of case it seems that the marriage ceremony symbolically represents recognition of the competence of the kids getting married to lead their own lives. In that case, the request might really clash with that symbolic recognition?

    On the possible third, self-regarding, moral reason to not request the songs, I was thinking of Eric Schwitzgebel’s theory of jerks which is just fun but I have not taught in a while! I think the basic idea is that jerks lack empathic concern for others? I was thinking that it would be jerky to ask for the songs because it would predictably irk the kids and for that reason an empathic sage would not make the ask. The sage might refrain from asking in order to avoid being a jerk like that.

    Just some on the fly thoughts. Interesting case!

  22. I think these might be suberogatory — bad, but not impermissible. These actions are contrasted, usually, with the supererogatory. What if the children said ‘no’? Would that be bad but permissible as well?

  23. Thanks, Matthew!

    I see better now what Bradford might have had in mind. Bradford was suggesting that the future in-laws are entitled to request the songs but ought not, where ‘ought not’ is best understood as ‘ought-not-relative-to-civility’ or something, rather than our suggestion that ‘ought not’ is best understood as ‘ought-not-relative-to-morality’.

    Maybe. But I’m still inclined to think that the future in-laws ought not relative to morality. Perhaps that’s in part because of the way I’m understanding the purpose of marriage ceremonies. But I also think that my judgment might be colored by my feeling that the future in-laws are putting a kind of pressure on the couple that I think is misplaced morally. You can maybe get yourself into this frame of mind by imagining a version of the case where the couple are vegans and the future in-laws request that meat is served at the wedding.

    Another way of understanding your Feinbergian point is this: The couple _should morally_ grant the request for Sinatra songs but it’s not the case that _must morally_. But I’m not quite sure I fully understand such a situation.

    (This response of mine doesn’t take into account Bradford’s recent follow up post, which I’m just seeing now)

  24. Thanks again, Brad!

    In response to Matthew, I suggested two ways of understanding some of your comments. First way: We keep in mind that there are different flavors of ‘ought’, e.g. ought relative to ettiquette, relative to morality, etc. Second way: We keep in mind that the modal flavor of morality can be weak (‘should’) or strong (‘must’). I attributed the first reading to you. But it now seems to me like you have the second one in mind. Moreover, it seems to me like you want to say that the following is possible: That the future in-laws should morally not make any requests but it’s not the case that they must not morally make them. I hope I’ve got all of that (at least roughly!) right.

    Because I find it difficult to make complete sense of such scenarios, (scenarios where ‘should’ and ‘must’ come apart like so) I’m tempted to say that the kid in your case really must not morally rip leaves and that the future in-laws really must not morally make requests. You ask rhetorically whether the kid owes it to the tree to be nicer. Maybe he does! That sounds more intelligible to me than sentences like ‘the future in-laws should morally not make requests but it’s not the case that they must not morally make them’. But that’s not an argument, so I’ll definitely give all of this some more thought.

    Your point about keeping in mind the different cultural norms about marriages is well taken.

    I (or maybe Kenneth) will also say something about the suberogatory in another post, since Julia also brings it up.

  25. Thanks Julia, I had had this intuition that the children’s non-compliance might be suberogatory as well. That seems to go well with the idea that the in-laws have standing to make a demand even though the children are not under an obligation to comply with it.

  26. Well, now I’m not sure as I think about it. If they have standing to demand, then it feels like this creates an obligation. Instead, for it to be suberogatory, I suppose we would say that the parents have certain preferences, and given their contribution it is a bad thing for those preferences to not be met appropriately if possible, but the children are under no obligation to meet those preferences.

    Oh, I just realized that you meant that it was a suberogatory act of the in-laws. I am really tempted by this too. It is hard to see how they can have standing to make certain demands but also be obligated not to. Then again, I can have a right to some good that I should not exercise. If this involves being obligated not to exercise it, then this feels in the family of conflicting obligations – I am obligated to not do something that I am permitted to do.

  27. Hi Nick,

    Interesting responses! I’d be hesitate to swap around “morally obligated” and “morally must” as you do to run the response.

    One reason: Calhoun argues that decency is a matter of doing what a minimally good moral agent would do and she plausibly (I think) holds that the standard of moral decency requires more that fulfilling moral obligations. Presumably in many contexts we would say people morally must do the decent thing so understood – but it wouldn’t be obligatory.

    Second example: people who heroically save others often say they don’t deserve praise because they were just doing what they had to do morally speaking. But in many cases we are still tempted to praise them because they did something supererogatory. This seems like another case in which people feel they must do the decent thing that goes beyond the call of duty and the bounds of obligation.

  28. Hi Brad,

    Thanks for the follow up. I want to put a bit of pressure on your suggestion that phrases like ‘morally obligated’ don’t pattern closely with ‘morally must’. If these didn’t pattern closely, then I would expect 1c to sound at least as great as 1a-b:

    1a. ‘Our friends morally should attend Steve’s wedding. Steve’s family morally must attend Steve’s wedding’
    1b. ‘Our friends morally should attend Steve’s wedding. Steve’s family is morally obligated to attend Steve’s wedding’
    1c. ‘Our friends are morally obligated to attend Steve’s wedding. Steve’s family morally must attend Steve’s wedding.’

    While 1c sounds okay, it doesn’t sound as good as 1a-b.

  29. 1. I understand that you substituted Sinatra for a vegan reception example. What would have happened if a guest had needed protein so as not to faint, and there was no vegan protein on the buffet? Obviously, the preservation of vital signs is paramount. There will be no fainting with Sinatra, unless the setting is the Rialto Theatre, Sinatra is 19, and the audience 100% female. There would be a moral imperative to provide the proper foodstuff for a guest with special needs.
    2. In a society where people can pursue life, liberty, and happiness, don’t both sides, married couple and in-laws, have the equal rights to make requests? I don’t see where one side has the moral high ground over the other. Isn’t this where a Kingdom of Ends model might allow for negotiations suitable to all parties?
    3. At an Orthodox Jewish wedding, the couple gets sequestered for a period of time after the knot is tied. Could the Sinatra be played during that time, or during the couple’s wedding photography time, away from the in-laws? The in-laws could be enjoying some schnapps next to the DJ and his speakers.
    Cordially, Jeff Margolis.

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