“Morality is about other people.” I put that sentence in quotes because it is an idea I’ve been considering for a while without being sure it is correct. I think it is though. I also like the way it sounds. More seriously, though, if morality is about other people, then our obligations to other people and their obligations to us plays a very central role to morality.
When are we obligated to meet the needs of others? When do we have the right to expect others to meet our needs? What happens when we suffer confusion about either of these situations? Answers to these questions lie at the very heart of so many of our relationship problems. Inconsistencies between obligation and perceived expectation (e.g. you do not think you are obligated to do something but someone else does or you think someone else expects something from you and they do not) are often the most destructive forms of interactional patterns between people. Likewise, clear understandings, consistent communications, and reasonable negotiations of obligations and expectations is essential to having the most satisfying relationships.
Why are obligations so fraught with confusion and trouble? Simple: they are often unstated, and are instead created by circumstance—roles, the nature of a relationship, time, social pressure, gender, age, and other forms of power differences. Here’s a simple example. A client recently chafed at feeling obligated to be at work earlier than his boss everyday or nearly every day, even though there wasn’t any practical reason for him to come in early and his boss hadn’t told him to come in early. After exploring the reasons the client felt obligated to come in early, he realized he had decided he wanted to impress his boss to make it more likely to get a promotion, and based on what he could tell, coming in early consistently was an important part of impressing his boss about his diligence and responsibility. Note that the client’s “obligation” is self-created, is not based on any promise made, and no one clearly stated an expectation that he come in early, yet he felt obligated to do so. Ergo, confusion.
Let’s take a look at the reverse of the unstated obligation: commitment. A commitment is an assertion of a willingness to be bound by an obligation, to hold yourself to an obligation, to promise to meet some kind of need. When we make a commitment (a stated obligation), we have control over what we are committed to do and we can limit the extent of our obligation. Maybe more important, when we make a commitment, especially when it is not just a commitment to ourselves but is communicated to someone else, the person who makes the commitment and the person to whom the commitment is made are both much less likely to make mistakes about the nature of the obligation that flows from the commitment. Commitment and obligation are not synonymous. A commitment is a promise, freely made. An obligation can be created by a promise, but can also exist even when no promise has been made. This is why obligations are much more confusing and cause moral dilemmas. There isn’t much of a moral dilemma when we make a promise. “Keep your promises” is about all that needs to be said there. But, can we say “keep your obligations?” What does that even mean? I almost made myself laugh reading it after writing it because it doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t make sense because obligations are so often fuzzy, ambiguous and they change based on the situation or evolve over time.
So, if there is no simple guiding principle for obligations, like there is for promises, how can we navigate obligations to reduce the kinds of problems that stem from confusion about them? We have to pay attention. Pay attention to the kinds of roles, situations, and relationships we allow, invite and create in our lives to make sure we can accept and embrace the kinds of obligations they create. Conversely, we need to refrain from allowing or creating situations, roles, and relationships that give rise to obligations to or from others we do not want in our lives. We also need to pay attention to whether we have relationships and circumstances in which others perceive obligations that we do not think we have or want.
Like so many other aspects of relationship health, a very good place to start with obligations is with yourself. Start by asking yourself, “what kinds of obligations do I choose to have in my life, obligations I would be okay with meeting, and obligations I would want others to meet for me?” You do this already anyway, but most of the time don’t think about it much if at all. I am just suggesting you make it intentional, conscious, deliberate, a choice, action rather than reaction. For each kind of obligation you want in your life, decide what kinds of relationships you want to have that will create those obligations. This could include family relationships, friendships, romantic partnerships, work relationships, and community involvements. Of course, all of these kinds of relationships already exist in your life. I am not suggesting you start over. Still, you can right now begin to examine all of those relationships and situations to see which ones you want to keep, to change, or to remove, while also examining which kinds of obligations you feel good about, which ones you don’t and whether others expect you to meet obligations you didn’t agree to meet, and whether you want to make new commitments that you haven’t yet made. The idea is obligation by self-determination, beginning with yourself.
As I said in my blog post, “Defiant Morality,” I will do my best to stay away from telling you what I think you should or should not do in any situation. I want you to own your obligations, not have them decided by me or anyone else. This is a commitment I have made for this project, for myself, for you. Instead, I will suggest questions for you to consider as you begin to build your own set of principles for obligations you want or don’t want in your life and relationships. Here’s an example of a simple decision-tree for obligations that I often use with clients when family members or friends are in crisis and they aren’t sure whether to get involved (and which I have used myself with my own family numerous times). 1) Did you contribute to the creation of the problem? 2) Are you taking ownership of someone else’s problem? 3) Will the manner in which you are thinking of helping them cause harm to you (beyond a sacrifice you are willing to make)? 4) Does providing the help actually hurt the other person (e.g. enable them to continue self-destructive behavior)? If your answers to all of these questions are no, then you are not obligated to help, but it seems like it might be a good idea to help, if you can. If you answer questions 2, 3, or 4 with a yes, you might be embarking on a co-dependency, an enmeshment, and enabling the other person to continue their issues at your expense. If you answered yes to question number 1 but are not willing to help, you should probably have a good reason if you want to do the right thing.
The idea here is to fit your obligations into a moral framework that is actually an outward extension of your inner moral self. If you look back at my posts on Defiant Morality and Defining Morality, I hope you will begin to see that this discussion of obligations is a natural outgrowth of those discussions. The obligations you agree to meet for others, and the obligations you expect others to meet for you, should ideally be consistent with how you see yourself, how you define yourself, and how you want others to see you. If you make this desire for internal and external moral consistency part of your conscious awareness as much as possible, you can avoid falling into the traps of resentment and disappointment, even betrayal, when obligations are confusing or inconsistent with what you want for yourself and in your relationships with others. If morality is about other people, then your obligations to other people should match up with your expectations for yourself as a moral person. In order to do this, you must know your moral self and then use that knowledge to build morally robust and meaningful relationships and circumstances in your life. Self-determined moral obligations to and from others as an extension of a morally defined self will help you set the course of a life with consistency between internal and external moral principles. Consistency between your inner sense of right, and your application of that sense to outer obligations is also the only way to avoid hypocrisy (do as I say, not as I do).
I recognize that much of this discussion on obligation is fairly general and theoretical. My defense: I have to start somewhere and the topic of moral obligation is vast, vague, challenging and too important to skim lightly through it. I hope to continue to explore specific examples and ideas about when, how and why moral obligations between people get confused, the consequences of that confusion, and possible suggestions for ways to prevent, avoid, and resolve that confusion, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the relationship that gave rise to the confusion. So, along these I plan to write blog posts on many related topics, including Power, Control, Exploitation, Influence, Fairness, Uncertainty, Isolation, and Synergy (when in relationships the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). I will also spell out some thoughts on how our willingness to meet certain kinds of obligations can hurt not just ourselves but others as well. With each of these topics related to moral obligation, I hope to examine and illustrate how a consistent internal and external moral framework that you create for yourself, will help you make the best of the very tricky job of benefitting from the obligations you create, and that others ask you to meet, all with an eye toward satisfaction with yourself, your life, and your relationships.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.