3 Sources of Moral Obligation

A duty is an obligation to act in a certain way. When the obligation is based on moral and ethical considerations, it is a moral duty. Often we think about moral duties in terms of rules that restrain us, the “don’ts,” as in don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Such rules comprise the so-called negative dimension of moral duty because they tell us what not to do. Since ethics is concerned with the way we ought to be, however, it also includes an affirmative dimension consisting of things we should do — keep promises, judge others fairly, treat people with respect, kindness and compassion.

Sources of Moral Obligation

Moral obligations can arise from three sources. The first, strangely enough, is law.

1. Law-Based Moral Obligations. Good citizens have a moral as well as a legal obligation to abide by laws; it is part of the assumed social contract of a civilized society. If a law is unjust, however, (such as those that mandated ethnic and religious persecution during the Nazi regime and those that discriminated against a person on the basis of race in South Africa and elsewhere) there may be a moral obligation to disobey it under the specific and demanding doctrine of civil disobedience.

Many, but by no means all, of these moral standards of conduct are so fundamental to healthy social relations that they have been codified into laws. For example, most aspects of the moral duty to not endanger or harm others are embraced in criminal and civil laws prohibiting homicide, assaults, drunk driving, and other dangerous behavior.

Similarly, the ethical duty to be honest is enforceable by laws forbidding perjury, robbery, forgery, fraud, and defamation among others. Nevertheless, in struggling to be an ethical person we need to remember that many forms of dishonesty remain solely within the moral domain.

If we fail to perform or live up to a legal duty, we can be criminally prosecuted or sued. If we fail to live up to a moral duty, the external sanction is blame and condemnation — and, if one has a well developed conscience, feelings of guilt and shame leading to remorse.

2. Agreement-Based Moral Obligations. The second source of moral obligation is agreement. Even if an agreement doesn’t reach the level of an enforceable contract, there is a moral obligation to do the things we agree to do, especially if others are counting on us to do so. When we borrow money promising to pay it back in a week, or tell a friend we will pick her up at the airport, or take a job involving the supervision of other employees, we undertake a moral duty to do what we say we will do and perform dutifully the responsibilities of the positions we accept. This kind of duty is the product of the commitments we make to others and is the basis of the ethical principle requiring us to keep our promises.

The idea that we have a moral obligation to keep our promises seems so basic as to be hardly worth mentioning. But nothing can be taken for granted anymore. As a lawyer, I am troubled by the popularity of a relatively new philosophy that analyzes contractual obligations and other commitments purely in terms of economic impact. According to this line of reasoning, there is an inherent right to breach a promise so long as one is willing to pay for any damages caused. The moral obligation to keep one’s word is treated as an irrelevant sentimentality.

Unfortunately, this is not just an academic theory; it is an operational philosophy in much of the business world. It is also evident in the sports world, where “renegotiating” contracts has become commonplace. Though such conduct clearly involves breaking a promise (and may even be a form of extortion: “Pay me more or I walk”), many athletes and their agents seems to have no moral inhibitions about demanding a better deal. The notion of honor seems to have no place in transactions involving something they evidently value more — money.

While conducting a workshop on corporate values for senior executives of a Fortune 100 company, I suggested that promise-keeping was a central aspect of trustworthiness, that it is an ethical as well as a legal responsibility to keep commitments. The company’s legal counsel objected strenuously. “Hold on!” he said. He explained that whether the company decided to live up to an agreement was a business, not an ethical, decision. It was the company’s right, and perhaps its obligation to the shareholders, to evaluate whether it was in the company’s best interests to breach contracts that have become unwise or unprofitable. He acknowledged that decisions to disavow an agreement should be rare; no one would trust the company otherwise. But still, he said, the choice to keep a promise or not should be based on a simple cost/benefit analysis. Morality is not an issue.

This legalistic, expediency-oriented attitude is a perfect illustration of the dangers, and in my view the fallacy, of trying to separate business and personal ethics. The standards of trustworthiness and honor do not change the moment one enters corporate headquarters.

3. Moral Principle as the Basis of Moral Obligation. The third source of moral obligation is moral principle, a standard of conduct that exists irrespective of laws or agreements. The great German ethicist, Immanuel Kant, expressed the power of moral principle when he said, “Two things fill my mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe: The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Moral principles can be mandated by religious doctrine or derived through rational philosophical reasoning. In some cases, principles such as justice and benevolence simply emerge as the result of an intuitive moral sense. Whatever their source, however, such principles are at the very core of ethics.

If a duty arising from a moral principle conflicts with duties imposed by law or undertaken by agreement, the duty based on principle should prevail. In other words, if abiding by a law or living up to a contract requires dishonest or disrespectful conduct that violates my core moral principles, as an ethical person I must honor the principles even if it means being prosecuted or sued. Such decisions, however, must be made cautiously and with due recognition of the ethical implications of breaking laws and breaching contracts. The moral principles of trustworthiness and citizenship establish a very strong presumption that laws should be obeyed and commitments should be kept.

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