Featured Philosop-her: Erin Taylor

I am very pleased to welcome Erin Taylor as the first Featured (Political) Philosop-her.   Erin Taylor is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University.  She specializes in ethics and political philosophy, with particular interests in the nature of moral conflict and the structure of ethical theory.  In recent work, she defends the claim that non-consequentialist moral theories can consistently allow the possibility that one person’s genuine moral duties can conflict with another’s. Other current research engages with ethical issues in reproductive technology, the nature of the ought-implies-can principle, and the structure of moral obligation.

Her post follows.


On Rejecting Voluntarism, Willingly and Knowingly

I have always thought that political obligation, if it existed, must be some species of “associative duty,” a duty we have in virtue of some socially-recognized role or relationship. In the case of political obligation, the socially-recognized role would be that of citizen. This is straightforward enough. The problem is that it is really difficult to give a good account of associative duties. The comprehensive accounts represented in the literature can be categorized according to the types of justification they appeal to.  “Voluntarist” accounts justify associative duties as analogs of promissory obligations; we acquire associative duties when we voluntarily enter into a social role to which these duties are attached.

Much has been written about both the obvious appeal and likely shortcomings of voluntarist accounts.  In the literature, the appeal of voluntarist accounts has largely been their ability to avoid what is sometimes referred to as the “voluntarist objection,” viz. that there is something morally problematic about the institutional allocation of moral requirements to those who have not consented or volunteered (in some way) to undertake such requirements. The rhetorical tools employed to make this objection have proven too persuasive to many to ignore. These usually take the form of compelling counter-examples that purport to show that non-voluntary associative duties are unacceptable. And it is hard to argue otherwise in the extreme cases adduced, such as military impressment or social clubs that habitually foist on innocent bystanders perplexing and unwanted requirements to do bizarre or trivial things. The point of these examples is to show that, unless a social institution merely mediates a pre-existing moral duty (like beneficence), associative duties must be voluntarily undertaken in order to be legitimate and binding. This is why voluntarist accounts are modeled on promissory obligation, explaining voluntarily-chosen associative duties as a species of this type of requirement. Just as promissory obligations do not exhaust our moral requirements, voluntarist accounts are not taken by their strongest proponents to be exhaustive of the ways that associative duties are justified.  It will be possible to have non-voluntary associative duties if these are necessary to discharge other non-institutional moral duties. Thus, voluntarist accounts work best to explain associative duties that flow either from some chosen occupation (such as doctor, lawyer, professor, police officer, plumber, etc.), or some voluntarily chosen membership in a social group (neighborhood association, PTA, Little League, religious congregation, and so forth). They “fill in the gap,” so to speak, when we want to affirm the legitimacy of institutionally-generated moral requirements but cannot explain them as a result of some pre-institutional general moral duty. The traditional appeal of voluntarist accounts is that they explain these associative duties in a way that does not run afoul of the voluntarist objection.

But voluntarism itself cannot meet the voluntarist objection.  So if we think that the voluntarist objection is dispositive where applicable (as voluntarists do), then voluntarist accounts will not work even in their aforementioned “gap-filling” role. Consider actual (voluntarily chosen) occupational or social roles. There, the analogy to legitimate promissory obligation begins to create a problem. The problem is not that most chosen occupations or social roles are not signed-on for in some temporally discreet, explicit announcement.  Rather, the problem is that if we construe associative duties as the result of a kind of promise to undertake them, this promise would itself be defeated.  This is because two defeaters of promissory obligation apply straightforwardly to many of the associative duties generated by “chosen” occupational and social roles.

The first defeater is familiar from recent blog posts: people often do not know enough about what the obligations attached to a social role will be at the time it is chosen. Whether or not this ignorance is sufficient to render decisions to undertake them irrational, it is probably sufficient to defeat a promissory obligation to undertake them. This ignorance can take three different forms. First, the duties attached to roles are often not fully known to the occupant ahead of time. Often, both the weight and minutiae of a role’s attendant duties become clear only after a person has entered into it. This is part of normal moral development. Only by becoming a friend, spouse, or parent do we begin to understand what these roles really demand. It is a rare individual who acquires these details a priori or by testimony alone. Second, even those duties that are fully known are often subject to change. This often happens when circumstances change that have a profound effect on a voluntarily chosen role or occupation. Sometimes the changes in the duties attached to it can be life-altering or life-threatening. During the “pax antibiotic,” for example, newly minted doctors entered the profession with expectations of relative safety from infectious disease. This expectation was betrayed by higher risks after the advent of, e.g., AIDS and SARS. And third, social or occupational roles are often transformative. They have the power to change in fundamental ways the basic commitments and moral outlook of those who occupy them. As noted in earlier posts to this blog, this phenomenon is the most apparent in the case of motherhood. Widely documented by social scientists, the phenomenon of “transformative motherhood” plays a role, for example, in voiding some surrogacy contracts. This shows that, independently of whether or not it is irrational to choose to occupy a social role, it is difficult to meet the threshold of informed consent governing promissory obligation.

The second defeater is that occupants of these roles have no power to determine what sorts of things count as entering into or abstaining from these roles, or to determine the contours of the rights and duties that attach to them. So, while certain associations are considered to be voluntary, even these are structured along trajectories outside of the control of role-bearers. We cannot control what kinds of behaviors count as entering into the roles of friend or lover, for example. (And the lack of control in such cases often causes considerable consternation.)  The entire shape and character of our lives is permeated by social rules of various kinds, rules that we had no part in constituting. And this would be true even if none of our associations were foisted upon us in the way that the voluntarist objection alerts us to. This is especially worrisome for a voluntarist if it is relatively difficult or costly to abstain from entering into such roles, or if the types of roles open to an individual is otherwise restricted.  To be sure, a voluntarist may be able to offer separate “fixes” for some of the above concerns. But taken together, I believe the balance of reasons points us away from voluntarism.

The lesson of these defeaters is not that occupational and social roles are morally illegitimate. I suggest that we learn an alternative lesson: associative duties are not proper analogs of promissory obligation. Of course we will always have the option to reduce associative duties to some other explanation (such as promissory obligation), with the consequence of delegitimizing those that resist reduction. But doing so here would be especially foolish. First of all, the moral ground of promissory obligation is no less opaque than that of associative duties. Second, the core and canonical cases of associative duties are often more certain and central to everyday moral life than promissory obligation. Third, resting a theory of associative duties on an analogy to promising substitutes what ought to be a comparatively fundamental theoretical construct with a comparatively derivative one. Theories of promising (and our intuitions about promissory obligation) are heavily influenced by specialization in related fields, most notably theories of contract in law. But not all theories of contract will recognize promissory obligation as their primary philosophical basis, and even those that do will be tailored to the specific requirements of a good legal – rather than moral – theory.

There may be a perfectly good reason to require protection from having certain kinds of moral duties imposed on us, such as the random requirements described as attaching to fictional and far-fetched social groups. But we can honor the kernal of truth in voluntarism without being voluntarists. The underlying motivation of voluntarism is a protection of our autonomy and self-determination. Chosen social or occupational roles can expand and enrich our autonomy.  The expanded opportunities they afford may be even more important than the canonical cases of promising. Where promising often involves an exchange of performances that enhance the parties’ instrumental efficacy, voluntaristic associations afford people an opportunity to carve out a portion of their own social world. To the extent that there are associations that retain elements of voluntarism, they allow a person to create, at least in some way, the social world in which they live. Since the social world in which we live so deeply affects our sense of self and identity, voluntaristic associations can allow us some measure of control over these core elements of who we are. Voluntaristic associations allow us, at least in some non-trivial way, actively and consciously to participate in our own making. They are therefore essential aspects of self-determination. But that is very different from asserting that associations generate no obligations unless they are a species of promissory obligation.

5 responses

  1. Hi Erin,
    Now I am no fan of voluntarism. It always struck me as crazy, though mostly because of special duties to family. Because of that I haven’t looked into the literature on it too much. So what I am about to suggest on the behalf of the voluntarists might have been something suggested and rebutted before, but I would be interested in hearing about that anyway.

    With regards to your first defeater, I think there is a response to the plea of ignorance. So suppose I promise to sit on a committee. Then I go back to administration a few months and make the case that I shouldn’t have to go to all these meetings or read all these documents, or talk to all these people who are not philosophers. I didn’t know what it would be like to do this job. I think the response I would get is, ‘Well you promised to do this job, and this is what is involved.’ Now I might try to say that I didn’t promise to do these things, I only promised to do the things I thought went along with the job, like free brown bag lunches. This would be extremely implausible. Promising is a public act using words whose meaning is determined publicly. I am not an authority over what I promised to anymore than I am an authority over the meanings of the words I use.

    Citing content externalism might seem a bit facile so let me put what I think is a similar point in a way that ties it to the function of promises. We assume that people are ignorant of a lot of things. We just don’t know what they are ignorant of. Finding out what each person is ignorant of would be an incredibly time consuming process, since there is bound to be a lot of variation. When we seek and receive promises from people we should not be expected to search out their blindspots. We might do a quick investigation to find out whether the promisee has some easy to discover properties that make it very likely he doesn’t know what he is getting into (like his age, or the culture from which he originated, etc.) but beyond that there is no expectation of searching for what the person doesn’t know. That suggests, to me anyway, that there is an implicit ‘come way may’ feature of the promise. I promise you that I will hold the bridge against the Nazis until relieved and that promise implicitly contains a ‘whatever they send against us’ clause. I can’t get out of it later by claiming that I was unaware they had tanks in the area.

    Getting out of it brings me to another thing a person might say after finding they are expected to do things they did not anticipate. They might say that they are not morally responsible for their failure to do what their voluntarily entered into role required, and that they are not morally responsible because they were ignorant of the demands when they made the promise. This seems to me to make decent sense (though I think ignorance fails to cancel out moral responsibility in some cases), but notice that it doesn’t immediately have anything to do with whether the person had the duties in question. They voluntarily signed up for duties they failed to fulfill, but they might not deserve blame for it. The plea of ignorance here, even if appropriate, leaves the obligation untouched.

    Is this off base?

    • Hi Patrick,

      I do not think you are off base at all. In my AJP article “A New Conventionalist Theory of Promising” I give a general argument that, if correct, is meant to explain some of the intuitions you adduce here.

      I should have made much more clear what my target was in this post. I was giving reasons to doubt the kind of voluntarism used to impugn political obligation and other non-voluntary associative obligations. The view of promissory obligation required to underwrite that project is not the same as the view of promissory obligation that I in fact endorse.

  2. Thanks for this post, it was really helpful.

    I am concerned it attacks a straw-man however. Who argues that voluntarism in socially chosen roles, like professional ones, requires that the agent understand all of the relevant duties beforehand, or construct all of the relevant duties from the ground up her or himself? It’s true that I never completely completely understand all of my obligations prior to committing to something, but this shouldn’t be thought to somehow undermine the voluntariness of the decision. For example, when I sign up for military duty, I understand that service in the military might require extreme physical exertion, and even dying. Does it matter that I did not realize it might also require scrubbing potatoes or cleaning bathrooms? Or when I agree to be someone’s friend or lover, it may be that there are certain social expectations that go along with this that I can’t alter, and I may not even be able to find anyone that is willing to enter into my preferred type of non-standard friendship or love affair. This doesn’t, it seems to me, make the relationships I do engage in somehow non-voluntary. It means I can’t have everything my way all of the time.

    All associative duties are incompletely understood and socially constructed to some extent. This to me doesn’t seem to undermine a careful voluntarism, especially one applied to roles that are usually chosen (such as friendships and professional roles), even if it does show why a hardcore voluntarism doesn’t make sense.

    I guess I’m wondering if there’s a way out of this voluntarism/non-voluntarism dilemma that doesn’t rely on our intuitions about whether most of our decisions seem voluntary, or whether most seem rather more non-voluntary. If this debate is just one about the percentage of the time we experience our decisions as voluntary or non-voluntary, there is little reason for thinking its a problem that philosophy can say much about.

  3. Hi Rob,

    I certainly think that social roles whose attached duties aren’t completely understood ahead of time can be voluntary in a morally relevant sense.

    My target in the post was the sort of voluntarism used to impugn things like political obligation. My point was this sort of voluntarism is very strong, implausibly so, because it will be committed to counting as “non-voluntary” (and therefore illegitimate), even those social roles that we pre-theoretically think are voluntary (as you pointed out).

    I think there is a way to avoid the voluntarism/non-voluntarism dilemma altogether. In my paper, “All Together Now: Conventionalism and Everyday Moral Life” (it’s up on my Phil Papers site) I sketch out a way to do so. It does not require that we think of the voluntariness of voluntary associations as anything like a promise, especially if the view of promising is heavily influenced by theories of contract in law.

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