On Not Being Obligated

The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason. –T.S. Eliot

If you’re looking for a negative case for the LD topic and have a spare dollar, I’d recommend this song.  The lyrics are a retelling of Aesop’s fable of the snake and the farmer in stunningly beautiful, as I recall, 13th century Spanish.  The story itself has many variations.  I rather like the more modern ending of the snake telling its savior/victim “You knew what I was when you picked me up,” but the original moral of not taking pity on the scoundrel or giving charity to the ungrateful is a rather taut counterpoint to the breadth of Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need.  The affirmative might well claim that people aren’t vipers.  The negative might well then counter that the affirmative apparently hasn’t met very many people.

It seems to me that this resolution skews towards the negative in the confusion of people involved in the resolution.  The phrase “in need” is amazingly dodgy, and the individuals can negate any moral obligation by simply denying that anybody is in need.  Awkward side-note: Maslow listed sex as basic physiological need, which I fully suspect will result in some smart-ass teenager on the negative claiming that the affirmative is morally obligated to assist them in having sex.  (The affirmative should offer to look up an escort service in a phone book should this situation occur.)  But the part that really tilts the scale in my opinion is the word “obligation,” particularly without suggestion of where the generally unbounded obligation originated.

The problem with the unknown source of obligation is that the charge stops being an individual charge to the self to assist somebody in need, but rather a charge against some other individual for not assisting somebody in need — especially if you’re that somebody.  Rather than seeing the individual as an individual, they’re seen as a means of assisting the person in need.  This was Judas’ reaction when Mary washed Jesus’ feet.  And this is also a violation of deontological ethics a la Kant, and no properly moral obligation ever arose from being unethical.

But looking beyond that, the overview of my larger concern is that when we take on an obligation or a duty to assist people in need, the temptation rises to treat people in need not so much as people, but rather as a means of discharging our obligation of assisting.  This undercuts Kant’s structure of deontological ethics, and precludes the creation of a moral obligation from an unethical tendency.

Detailing this out a bit, in God in the Dock C. S. Lewis looked at the authoritarian subtleties of people who felt it was their moral obligation to help people they considered to be “in need”:

Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.  It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

In modern times, however, canny capitalists have managed to combine the cupidity of the robber baron with the moral busybody.  Consider the financial industry as iconified by Goldman Sachs, as reported in Daily Finance, November 9, 2009:

Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs (GS), has put an unusual spin on the bank’s activities. He says his firm is doing “God’s work.” This may seem like an audacious statement coming from a man whose company has been harshly criticized for planning to give many of its employees multi-million pay packages just a bit more than a year after the collapse of the credit markets… Blankfein told The Times of London, “We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. We have a social purpose.”

Put another way, Lloyd seems to think that he is assisting those in need.  The howls of protest he hears merely indicates the depth of the need to a man with a conscience as chlorine-cleaned as Lloyd’s.  But the protesters would probably contend that Lloyd’s ignorance of them as people, as human beings, demonstrates a clear violation of deontological ethics and a negation of the resolution because what constituted “assist” is a point of conflict even if need is successfully recognized.

But Lloyd does suggest something else.  He suggests that the moral obligation has been condensed from a social norm (of conspicuously giving to charities, social institutions and beggars) into a personal, internalized duty (made all the easier with payroll deductions, autopay credit cards, and web sites set up to receive your money).  But there’s a pernicious underside to this as Erich Fromm points out in Escape From Freedom.  Fromm writes:

However, the sense of “duty” as we find it pervading the life of modern man… is intensely colored by hostility against the self. “Conscience” is a slave driver, put into man by himself.  It drives him to act according to wishes and aims which he believes to be his own, while they are actually the internalization of external and social demands.  It drives him with harshness and cruelty, forbidding him pleasure and happiness, making his whole life the atonement for some mysterious sin…

So here Fromm theorizes that even an internalized obligation is still based in social norms of the variety that unethically place such obligations on people, treating them as a means of fulfilling those obligations — but that the internalization of the obligation is even worse because it causes individuals to dehumanize themselves while trying to discharge this duty.  Fromm continues:

[S]uch humility goes together with a contempt for others, and that self-righteousness has actually replaced love and mercy. Genuine humility and a genuine sense of duty towards one’s fellow men could not do this; but self-humiliation and self-negating “conscience” are only one side of an hostility, the other side of which is contempt for and hatred against others.

So what Fromm is concluding here is, as I’d stated in the overview, that when we’re conditioned to be obligated to help people in need, we’re not motivated by the fact that they’re people, but rather by our desire to discharge our obligation with not only no particular care for the actual people involved, but rather a loathing for the way they become connected to our sense of duty to assist them.  Not only is the individual’s ability to assist people in need a corruptive mark of the individual’s power over them, but fostering an obligation makes the individual feel shackled to and hateful towards people in need.  But this should be totally unsurprising: the individual started by self-dehumanization via their sense of duty, how can we expect them to refrain from dehumanizing anybody else?

The net result is that any prescribed obligation that people are feeling at this point is not a moral obligation, given that Lloyd Blankfein seems to think that he’s a pretty good guy, and the negative wants you to stop and think about what you’re doing before you arbitrarily do what you’ve been conditioned to think is the right thing.

I’ve gotten to this point without talking about where else obligations come from.  Richard Niebhur looks at three perspectives in The Responsible Self which may help with understanding this.  He (basically) says that people can look at things deontologically (“Who are you?”) or teleologically (“Where are you going?”) or responsibly (“What’s going on?”).  People who take on duties with a deontological perspective hope that having those obligations will alter who they are, generally in a good way.  People who take on obligations with a teleological perspective — and I think Lloyd is in this category — believe that carrying out their duties will result in a better future.  For example, a person might assist somebody in need because they want to be the sort of person who assists people in need.  Or a person might assist somebody in need because they think they can get that person out of need, back on their feet, and back to being a productive member of society who will discover Cold Fusion or something.  But the responsible person suspends the sense of obligation, save their obligation to reality, which requires asking “What’s going on?” before determining a plan of action.  And that’s why I’m generally opposed to de facto obligations, such as the one suggested by the resolution.  Because when you stop to ask “What’s going on?” you can realize that Hey, that’s a snake! and then not pick it up and live long enough to maybe do some good elsewhere in the future.

To round out the debate case, I’d recommend valuing Responsibility — citing Niebhur, with the root of the word being “response” and not being based on a prescribed duty but rather on an obligation to respond to the world as it is — and a criterion of Realism (the real reason I keep bringing up Lloyd), and focus the responses on denying the affirmative to cast moral judgments on other people and thus using them as a means to forward a blinding and enslaving obligation.  Be flexible, of course — all you really have to do is carve away at the affirmative’s ability to uphold their value to show that they really don’t know what they’re talking about, and this case is well-suited to that purpose.

And that is why, while I believe individuals should assist people in need, it is wrong to claim that individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need.