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.