When Obligation is Weak, Enforce

Gene Callahan raises a point against what he calls materialist theories of morality. In this family of theories lies, for example, Hayekian spontaneous order, which predicts a competitive process where “successful” rules are adopted and “unsuccessful” rules discarded. Gene argues that these theories can’t explain why we are obligated to follow certain rules. First, even if this were true, is it really a problem? The reason enforcement exists, is precisely to constrain those who do not feel obligated to follow the rules. Second, why can’t there be subjective reasons to feel obligated to following some set of rules?

The theory of spontaneous order says that societies will adopt different rules (institutions) over time. Some institutions promote characteristics that further productive cooperation within societies, and others promote discoordination or unproductive coooperation (in the form of, for instance, an externalized cost). The latter kind of rules lead to less well-off societies, and the former to welfare gains. Thus, in theory, the better rules will gradually replace the bad and not-as-good rules. Progress is not necessarily linear, but, on average, we expect that the losses, or opportunity cost, associated with unsuccessful institutions will incentivize their abandonment.

Beliefs about how rules originate vary, and the true explanation is no doubt multi-causal. Hayek thought that most rules are implicit, and too abstract to understand explicitly. Once we become capable of understanding an abstract rule, and once we’re able to communicate it, then we can legislate it. The point here is that rule-making is not necessarily legislative. We form rules when we decide on terms to property rights, contracts, how we interact with each other, et cetera. Rules that promote coordination are adopted, because it is beneficial to do so. Again, the process does not have to be conscious, or planned; rather, rules can gain society-wide acceptance spontaneously, or through a process of decentralized decision-making.

Gene’s argument is that this family of theories, evolutionary or materialist morality, cannot explain moral obligation. More accurately, it undermines the rationale for feeling obligated. For example, if murdering someone is not truly immoral, it’s just socially beneficial, one could choose to ignore a rule against murder, because that person could care less about what is socially beneficial. He accuses the approach of explaining morality away. Indeed, rules are really no longer about just and unjust conduct, but about what promotes a more successful society. Gene makes a good point when he accuses materialist theories of “explaining morality away.”

But, doesn’t this criticism beg the question? It assumes that any theory ought to accept as fact that there is indeed a universal aspect to morality that must be explained. What makes the materialist explanation attractive to me is, actually, that it works without having to assume an objective, or universal, element. Because, we know that there is a broad range of moral ambiguities, where the division between right and wrong changes between societies, and even between individuals. This belief informs public reason approaches to liberalism — there are a variety of beliefs, and rules are informed by this heterogeneous set of opinion. Ideally, the rules chosen will minimize external costs, and will be Pareto optimal. Very similar to Hayekian spontaneous order, except a bit more deterministic.

Consider the relatively wide acceptance of slavery in southeast Asia, where middle and upper class families essentially enslave immigrant maids, sent from countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. (See, as a reference, Aihwa Ong’s, “A Bio-Cartography.”) Beatings, sexual exploitation, and wage exploitation are frequent complaints, but local governments have not done much to address the issue. There are clearly many people who do not feel obligated to follow moral rules that some people think are universal. With strong Hayekian overtones, Ong proposes that these issues should be resolved through local NGOs, who can use ‘local knowledge’ to inform their negotiations with local legal systems. The lines of justice are often asymmetric between societies. This undermines the “universalism” of moral claims.

How strong is obligation, anyways? If members of society really felt obligated to follow a set of rules, then enforcement mechanisms would not be as ubiquitous in our world. Rather than people trusting each other, because they all feel a strong obligation to follow some moral code, we have contracts that stipulate consequences, which are enforced via power. We have a justice system that actively seeks rule breakers (people who did not feel morally obligated). Society has institutions, being the product of human action, that create trust. These institutions arise, and are later reformed, through human action, and their path is contingent on many factors which are only historically relevant. Property rights, for example, evolve as people manipulate them in their particular circumstances, to make them convenient — Coase called this buying and selling property rights.

No doubt, obligation has always been empirically relevant. Consider religion. My theory is that part of religion’s survival is the fact that it created a culture of obligation. It could use the concepts of a God, an afterlife, reward and punishment, to enforce the rules it imposed on its followers. It was this enforcement mechanism that incentivized members to follow the rules. And, since religions usually promote good rules — at least, as far as civil society goes —, they survived. But, as a member you are also taught obedience, and that there are truly just and unjust actions. This is a culture that permeates modern societies, so it makes sense that philosophers interpret it as an important aspect of morality.

But, reality tends to be multi-dimensional, and humans are good at focusing on only one side. That’s why we have academic institutions: to establish and regulate communication between people who see the world from different angles. In any case, perhaps those who focus on obligation are missing the relevance of enforcement mechanisms. Maybe they have also lost focus of how moral rules have changed over time, and how this change has been informed by contingent — not universal — factors. Maybe an inability to give an objective justification for moral obligation is a strength, rather than a weakness, because it allows us to focus on more important aspects of rule-emergence.

Is morality, in the sense of what is just, an illusion? I think that many cultural factors that create a sense of obligation are largely illusory. I don’t like to steal, because I believe in karma. It’s an abstract emotion that informs my decisions, because it has been instilled in my nature by my parents and other social influences. But, if you asked me whether I believed in a mystical force that tracks our actions and punishes us for doing wrong, I’d answer “no.” Karma is an illusion.  We create stories that justify our decisions, beliefs, and opinions. We try to base them in our interpretations of reality, but interpretations can be wrong (or, more accurately, incomplete).

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean the concepts of just and unjust are meaningless. It means that we decide what these categories are, and because of the heterogeneity of opinion, what is just and unjust is debated. This explains the broad area of moral ambiguity that characterizes the world. Over time, we come to resolve these debates, and we can agree to a common set of rules. These rules expand to encompass larger divisions of labor over time, and this process can be explained as Hayekian order. We construct institutions to facilitate the evolution of other institutions (rules), and these will be informed by various opinions on justice.

Some of these institutions have promoted self-regulation through concepts of obligation: religion, nationalism, community spirit, et cetera. These institutions make sense within the “materialist” framework. They survive because they come with a set of good rules, and good rules tend to be adopted over bad rules. No objective justification is necessary. All the justifications are man-made; subjective.

There is a curiosity worth pointing out: most people implicitly agree with me, because they accept the logic when applied to other cases. Consider nationalism. A growing number of, mostly educated, people have rejected nationalism as an illusion. It’s a culture promoted by a state, that justifies certain non-universal moral claims (e.g. the right to territorial expansion). Now we question the state’s legitimacy. In the U.S., there are people who feel obligated — in some way — to the U.S. government, and there are others who don’t. People in Spain don’t feel obligated to the U.S., at all. Clearly, nationalist moral claims are non-universal, and they are historically contingent. Indeed, nationalist claims usually fade away, because realities — our means, ends, and constraints — change.

Is the inability to justify moral obligation a weakness for materialist moral theories? Not necessarily, because it allows us to explain other facets of moral rules that are ignored if you focus narrowly on obligation. Most rules, to be effective, must be enforced, and this implies that the strength of obligation is not that strong at all. The sentiment of obligation could very well be an illusion.

One thought on “When Obligation is Weak, Enforce

  1. genecallahan

    If you really thought this, you ought to keep quiet about it: spreading this news will result in social chaos.


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