I've been thinking about what we mean by obligation, and I've come up with the following:

What is an obligation?

It is clear that obligation cannot be anything to do with being coerced by someone else into doing something. Next, we should note that obligation is not absolute. By that, I mean that it is possible for the same person in the same situation to have different obligations. For example, one nation may obligate someone to pay a fine for committing a given crime, and a different nation may obligate someone to work in community service for some time for committing the same crime. These are different obligations as a result of the same crime.

If so, it seems that obligation is determined by a given set of rules. If one set of rules dictates that in a given situation one must do something, then that person is obligated in that situation to do that thing according to that set of rules, while if another set of rules dictates that in this situation he must do something else, then that person is simultaneously obligated in that situation to that other thing according to the second set of rules. This is true even if the two obligations are contradictory.

Hence, in summary, we arrive at the following definition:

‘Obligation’ refers to being required to do something by a given set of rules.

Here I will adduce some examples to demonstrate my proposed definition.

  • If somebody speeds and is told to pay a fine by the police, then he is obligated due to the set of rules that constitute the law in that country to pay the fine.
  • If somebody promises to do something, then he is obligated due to the set of rules that constitute our understanding of morality to keep his word.

Is my understanding of obligation correct?

  • Obligations are social constructs, so they depend on the society.
    – Barmar
    Apr 15 at 6:40
  • @Barmar Are you saying that the word 'obligation' means different things for different societies? Apr 15 at 17:30
  • Kind of. What I meant was that societies define how obligations are created and how and when they're enforced. The obligation created by a promise to a friend is different from an obligation in a law.
    – Barmar
    Apr 15 at 17:32
  • Your definition works for legal obligations, but not exactly for moral ones. In many cases, it is disputable that there is a set of specifiable rules of moral conduct, see moral particularism, yet people still feel strongly that they are obligated to act thus and so in a given situation by their conscience. Also, rule-based legalistic interpretation of moral obligations encourages pretexts, excuses and weaseling, which are conduct unbecoming even though it is hard to spell out rules that would make it so.
    – Conifold
    Apr 16 at 8:06

1 Answer 1


Well, in fact all these things are a matter of consensus, of power to apply and of personal ethics. Your logic is generally correct, but here are some exceptions :

In 1 : if I leave the country without paying the bill, the obligation cannot be enforced. So is it an obligation then?

In 2 : if I promise to get revenge, then it may be more moral not to keep my promise.

Things related to ethics cannot be hard-coded into definitions.

  • For 1: I don't think the ability to enforce an obligation affects whether it remains an obligation or not. For 2: I would agree partially to your points and say that whatever the ultimately correct ethical thing to do is what you are obligated to do. What do you think? Apr 14 at 19:22

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