05 September 2011

The . . . Obligational Stance?

The Obligational Stance?

I blogged about what I called "The Ethical Stance". I'm having second thoughts about the name. Already it's been a tad misleading. It's supposed to be in the same general topic area as ethics, and I hope it will lead to some interesting meta-ethics, but it's not supposed to itself be ethics. Rather, it's about perceiving obligations qua obligations.

I did try other names before "The Ethical Stance":

  • "The moral stance" - even worse
  • "The obligatory stance" - Suggests something very different.
  • "The obliging stance" - Again, suggests something very different.
  • "The obliged stance" - And again.

So I went back and tried harder and came up with "The Obligational Stance" which applies to "Obligational Entities"1

"Obligational" has two existing definitions, neither of which exactly fit. But they are not grossly misleading and they are not so common as to create a significant false impression.

  • "relating or constituting or qualified to create a legal or financial obligation" - the
  • Synonym for "obligatory" - but there's a perfectly good word for "obligatory".

I'm keeping "ethos" and "ethic", though.

New chart

NameAssociatedPart ofWhat to applySomething that a
platonic typeP. typethe stance tononbroken one does
Physical stanceN/AN/Aany physical thingexists
Design stancedesignrequirement?artifacts and lifeperforms function X
Intentional Stancemindsetbeliefintentional entitiesknows X / wants X
Obligational stanceethosethicobligational entitiessees obligation X

An example

Consider a father, a normal, decent guy, during the height of the Cabbage Patch Doll craze in the 80's, who has promised his child a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas thinking it would cost maybe $20. Christmas draws near and he finds that a doll is going to cost - I don't remember exactly what the prices were, but something utterly out of line. Let's say $300.

Being not crazy, he doesn't dip into the emergency fund to buy the doll. Instead he buys his child a more sensible gift and resigns himself to explaining that, promise or no, there will be no cabbage patch doll.

Is that father unethical? I don't think so. Speaking just for myself, I'd think worse of him if he did the opposite.

But did he break an obligation? Of course. The father is (being a normal decent guy as we said) a healthy obligational entity. His promise creates, in his own eyes, an obligation. And he sees it as an obligation, as something that ordinarily should be done. That all follows from "he's normal".

A subtle point: The obligational stance doesn't say "an obligation should be done". It says that it appears to an obligational entity that the apparent obligations that it sees should be done. The "should" is in the entity, not the stance. If it were otherwise, I'd be in the position of deriving an "ought" from an "is".

That's why I'm keeping the terminology "ethos" and "ethic". Viewed from the POV of an obligational entity, they do say "ought", but we can view them from outside.

Back to the parent without the doll. Let's use him to exorcise another potential red herring, the idea that "by definition, obligational entity keep obligations".

Being a healthy obligational entity didn't make him keep the obligation. He weighed it against other desiderata and chose not to keep it. Nor would that act, in the normal course of events, "break" him as an obligational entity. Being (as we said) normal and decent, he wouldn't start ignoring all his other obligations, or all his promises to his child. It won't even make him fail to see the broken obligation; he may try to make it up to the child in some way.

Easy to accidentally call obligations objective

It's easy for me to slip up and talk about obligations as if they were objective things in the world. I find myself writing things like "the obligations that it sees" and "the promise created an obligation". When I slip like that, I mislead. Obligations are only visible when viewed thru the POV of an obligational entity, just like beliefs are only visible when viewed thru the POV of an intentional entity.

Another red herring exorcised

All my talk about the father and his promise may have created another misleading impression: That these obligations are obligations-by-self.

The obligational stance contemplates no restrictions on the agent or patient of obligations. An obligational entity can see itself as owed something, and it can see obligations between others.


1 Or "Obligational Systems" when I feel the need to emphasize that we're systems if you look closely enough. Dennett always talks of systems, but I think that mixing "ethicXX" and "system" in the same sentence risks creating the impression that the systems I'm talking about are ethoi ("ethical systems") to tell people what they should do, which is very false.

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