Scientia Salon

Everyone has moral obligations (And we’re talking about them way too much)


by Daniel A. Kaufman

“The most disturbing aspect of ‘morality’ seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation… There is something quite facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to ‘believe’ in something, like to assuage our private guilt in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that… But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to with ‘morality.’ Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.” —Joan Didion [1]

Applied Ethics has been largely a blessing to philosophy, having reinvigorated a philosophical discipline that had somewhat run aground on metatheory, while also providing philosophy with a new basis on which to demonstrate its relevance, within an increasingly inhospitable Academy.

But there also have been some rather substantial downsides. We are increasingly inclined to examine every dimension of human life and activity through a stiff moral lens — applied ethics rarely takes up the softer, more nuanced normative concepts that one finds in, say, virtue theory, favoring instead the hard, black and white language of obligation — and more often than not, the lens is either Utilitarian or Kantian, which means that the approach is maximally black and white, un-nuanced, and abstract. These are not the subtle morals of a W.D. Ross, in which prima facie duties jockey for position, in an ever-shifting context that makes different demands, in different circumstances, in which even overridden duties continue to exert an influence, and where practical reason and judgment are constantly engaged [2]. No, this is the morality of pleasure/pain units and categorical imperatives and of easy charges of immorality and great opportunities for moral posturing.

It is thus that a number of our most eminent moralists have turned every schoolkid’s lunch into a moral disaster; every hard-earned dime spent on entertainment into an unconscionable disregard for the poor; every cent devoted to the education of one’s children into an outrageous deprivation of a more deserving stranger. Not too long ago, one would have simply dismissed such people as jerks and told them to shut up, but today, we give them chairs at Princeton and cushy gigs at NYU, and praise them as the consciences of our civilization. (One could devote a paper in itself to the level of moral insecurity that must obtain for an entire culture to lionize these sorts of nags and scolds, in the way we have done.)

This ubiquitous and crude moral attention has created in many quarters an unpleasant, morally hectoring atmosphere, which, I believe, is more likely to turn people off of their duties than to encourage their embrace. The late Bernard Williams, the greatest moral philosopher since the Second World War, concurred and said, regarding this brand of moralizing:

“Some … writers aim to increase a sense of indeterminate guilt in their readers. Peter Singer is an example, and in his book Practical Ethics, he is evidently more interested in producing that effect than he is in the theoretical basis for it, which gets very cursory treatment. As moral persuasion, this kind of tactic is likely to be counterproductive and to lead to a defensive and resentful contraction of concern. This can be seen in research and, at the present time, all around us.” [3]

This counterproductiveness is due, in part, to the fact that few people really like “moral saints,” whom Susan Wolff described as those whose single-minded pursuit of moral virtue and conformity to moral obligation dominate and “crowd out the nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.” [4] In part it is because we are all aware that no one really is a moral saint and because most of us find being lectured by hypocrites irritating. And in part it is due to the fact that most of us understand that in real life — as opposed to artificial thought experiments — we are confronted with many types of obligations and many varieties of value, all of which have their appropriate place and time, the identification of which is difficult and resistant to formulaic treatment, which is why it requires a lifetime to get right.

I say all of this by way of an introduction to my discussion of Dan Tippens’ piece, because what he is doing is decidedly not in this vein. Well, 99% not. Dan’s essay is thoughtful, his motivations for writing it are personal and heartfelt, and the essay is completely lacking in anything resembling moral hectoring or posturing. It is, in many ways, an ideal example of the genre. And it is for this reason that the sense in which it is 1% like the sort of Applied Ethics I’ve just described stands out so much.

That 1% is the part in which we view far too many things, too often, through a moral lens. I love Dan’s essay, and I love the place from which it comes in his heart. I just wish that it wasn’t an essay on moral obligation and duty. Let me be very clear on this point. My objection is not to our conceiving of and interacting with our loved ones, at the end of their lives, through what we might broadly call, an ethical framework, which can include everything from the virtues to the humane sentiments. No, my criticism here is to the application of the much narrower framework of moral obligation and duty, which is the typical province of Applied Ethics and is the subject of Dan’s essay.

In the context of our interactions with the terminally ill, the moral framework is clunky and ill-fitting. Dan suggests that terminally ill people, even when in hospice, retain their “societal duties,” by which he means things like “the obligation to work against global warming and growing inequality.” These examples are taken from Oliver Sacks’ recent article in the New York Times, on the subject of his own terminal illness, but Sacks, sensibly, mentions such obligations, only to set them aside, comfortable in the knowledge that his role in such things is over — “No time for anything inessential” is how he (rightly) thinks of them — and they are in the capable hands of the next generation [5]. Dan, however, uses them to show that the taskmaster of obligation never relents, even when a person is on his way to the grave.

“Perhaps … terminal patients have a moral obligation to improve the retention rates of hospice volunteers,” Dan speculates, reflecting a more than fair concern for the tremendously difficult, often miserable job that those who care for the terminally ill take on. Surely, we would hope that patients in such care would be appreciative and generous to those who care for them. But terrible pain and the fear of imminent death are almost unimaginable burdens for those who are not themselves experiencing them and undoubtedly, those who are most likely to stumble with regard to how they treat their caregivers are the ones suffering the greatest levels of such pain and fears. What purpose is served by insisting that they have a “moral duty” to be nice, because otherwise the number of people willing to work hospice may decline? The very suggestion sounds weird and the sort of action that normally would follow, should one fail to obey it, seems sadistic. Dan tries to mitigate this by claiming that while terminally ill people have full moral standing, they are “not fully culpable,” but this does little to assuage the overwhelming sense that the moral frame of reference is, here, terribly misapplied.

A significant part of Dan’s motivation is a concern for the dignity of the dying. Traditionally, this concern is manifested in a number of protocols that govern how caregivers treat those in end-of-life care: making sure that people are not left lying in their own urine and feces; ensuring that staff treat their elderly wards with respect; and protecting against all manner of what is commonly known as “elder abuse.” But Dan’s concern is different. His worry is that the dignity of dying people is undermined, when we no longer hold them morally accountable: “Treating the terminally ill as beings who aren’t capable of robust moral competences is like treating them as young children,” he writes.

Well, yes. Certainly, people who are near the end of their lives continue to carry moral responsibilities, but my issue, here, is with how often we want to invoke such responsibilities and in what contexts. Undoubtedly, a geriatric Bonny and Clyde, on a final tear through town, would be deserving of condemnation, and (perhaps more realistically) we would want to express our disapproval of and discipline the nursing home tenant who insists on being “fresh” with female residents and members of staff. But this is not the sort of thing that Dan has in mind. Rather, his concern is with a failure to include the terminally ill in “moral activities,” because doing so somehow diminishes their standing or status, and it is to this that I object.

For one thing, I am wary of the concept of “dignity” at play here. It strikes me as largely a matter of appearances and would seem to involve not a small amount of play-acting. Depending on how “terminal” a person we are talking about, the fact is that they really are done with respect to the sorts of activities we’ve been discussing. Global warming, inequality, and even the paucity of hospice workers are systemic, pervasive, long-term problems, and the idea that the average person, with a few months left to live, is going to have any sort of substantial effect on any of them is a fiction. If the concern, then, is with whether there is some appearance of involvement in causes, then one could easily argue that great flurries of moral activity at the end of life are entirely counterproductive. After all, who is less dignified, in this sense of appearances — the person who is comfortable with their age and condition and who gracefully passes on the “cause-torch” to those who will follow him, or the person who continues to push and push, despite its practical uselessness, all in some effort to portray moral vigor? Indeed, I would argue that there is some similarity between the sort of thing that Dan is describing and the elderly person who refuses to age gracefully — to cede the territory of beauty and sexual attractiveness to those who are his juniors — which is anything but dignified.

But this really is the least of my problems with Dan’s desire to “moralize” the terminally ill. My biggest issue is that the focus on obligation and duty actually diminishes our interactions with our loved ones, in their final weeks and months, because it renders this final, precious portion of life less personal, less intimate, and ultimately, less significant. Some philosophers may think that the moral framework represents the highest, noblest level at which human beings interact with one another, but this only represents the extent to which even (or perhaps, especially) very smart people can fall under the grip of a theory, to the exclusion of common experience and common sense.

To confront something through the moral frame of reference is to do so at a distance. On most accounts, like those of the Utilitarian and the Kantian, moral obligation and duty are abstract — they are determinable by reason, generalizable as principles, and applicable by way of criteria. Our interactions with others through this framework is consequently procedural and by design, impersonal. The moral point of view, in the duty and obligation game, is that of the Impartial Observer, not of the friend, the lover, the brother, or the son.

For this reason, it should be employed sparingly and with a great attention to context. It may be the case that we ought to be kinder to animals, but if we begin treating this as a categorical moral imperative, to be applied to every fishing trip taken with a son or daughter, every intimate meal eaten with a lover, and every Fourth of July barbecue shared with family and friends, then not only are we going to have to engage in an awful lot of moral condemnation of an awful lot of people, but we are going to miss all of the things about these sorts of activities and experiences that make them the very material out of which our relationships with friends and loved ones are formed.

The same is true — even more so — of our interactions with the terminally ill, who, more often than not, will be our fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, siblings, and friends. The weeks and months we have left with them are precious and should be spent intimately and unaffectedly. They are hardly a time for — as Joan Didion put it in my opening quote — “ad hoc committees and agitprop.” The best parts of Dan Tippens’ essay are found in those places where his feelings for the subject come through — in his reminiscences of his father’s terminal illness and his decision to volunteer as a hospice worker himself — and I find myself thinking about the incredible memoir he might write; one in which he would be free to connect his moral feelings and thoughts with his personal experiences, unfettered by the clunky apparatus of formal moral philosophy.


Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy. His new blog is Apophenia.

[1] Joan Didion, “On Morality,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), pp. 162-163.

[2] W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (1930).

[3] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Routledge, 2006), p. 234, fn. 7.

[4] Susan Wolff, “Moral Saints, “ The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 79, No 8 (1982), p. 421.

[5] Oliver Sacks, “My Own Life,” The New York Times, February 19, 2015.