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Can my moral obligations conflict with yours? It is well known that if they are absolute my own obligations cannot conflict.

Stuart Hampshire joins this group claiming "there must always be moral conflicts which cannot, given the nature of morality, be resolved by any constant and generally acknowledged method of reasoning."4 Apparently concerned to forestall a likely objection, he hastens to add that he is "not arguing for moral relativism"... Many have agreed with Fred Feldman that "absolutism is the view that there is one criterion of morality valid for all people at all times, . . . it is the view that there is a single ultimate moral standard."'9 This is a strong statement, yet it captures the sort of absolutism associated with Kant and the utilitarians which Hampshire rejects. Consequently, if this is what is meant by ethical absolutism, and if by denying absolutism one is defending ethical relativism, then it seems clear that Hampshire is defending relativism of some sort, despite his claims to the contrary.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/2381890?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

So, supposing I do not give myself permission for an event, does that mean I do not give you permission to bring that event about?

Independent of whether or not you know I do.

I would like to know of any ethics in which I can oblige myself not to bring something about, but not you.

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    "It is well known that if they are absolute my own obligations cannot conflict"??? Just the opposite. It is well-known that absolutist conceptions of moral duty typically lead to moral dilemmas, and the weaseling traditionally used to avoid such conflicts by postulating a hierarchy of values where a single one always takes precedence is very unconvincing. So already your own moral obligations may very well conflict with each other in some situations.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 0:42
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    There are many different and incompatible absolute moral systems in existence, some of them notoriously inconsistent (for example in the old testament God both forbids and prescribes killing people). Questions about morals should specify what system they are about.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 3:25
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    Clearly if your state allows death penalty but you are against it for moral reasons, there is a conflict between you and those that support death penalty.
    – kutschkem
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 8:04
  • What about being on opposite sides in a war? Even the categorical imperative can allow for different interests there.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 14:13
  • Could you say more abt what you mean by moral obligations "conflicting" here? E.g.: under a common theory, if a parent, I have (prima facie) obligations to feed my children. So: (0) it is not permissible for me not to feed my children. What'd be an example of another's obligations conflicting w/ that? (1) If Jones is not obliged to feed Jones's children, does that "conflict" w/ my ob. (0)? (2) If I claim Jones is not obliged to feed my (AS's) children, does that? (3) If I claim Jones is obliged not to allow that my children go unfed? Is this a matter of action-types, or tokens, or...? Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 19:22

4 Answers 4

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Any moral obligation is a conviction: something that one has become convinced of. The nature of a conviction is that it must be passed from person to person. One must first be convinced, and once convinced one will naturally wish to convince others for their own benefit. If the moral obligations of Person A conflict with the moral obligations of Person B, then A and B will naturally attempt to convince each other, in an effort to gain a common worldview.

'Give permission' is an odd turn of phrase. Why does Person B need permission from Person A (or vice-versa) to take actions and bring about events? This invokes an unspoken power structure that ought to be specified. But generally speaking, forcing someone to comply with one's own moral obligations is a different practice from inculcating the conviction to comply within them. In other words, if Person A convinces Person B to comply with a moral obligation, all is well and good (ethically speaking). But if Person A forces Person B to comply with a moral obligation (against B's will), then A has failed in the sociological/soteriological task of passing on the conviction, which raise a number of ethical issues.

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  • Dixistis "Any moral obligation is a conviction: something that one has become convinced of.... One must first be convinced, and once convinced one will naturally wish to convince others for their own benefit..." I don't think this is true; or, if true, it is in need of support. Can't people have obligations even though they are not convinced they do? If I'm a parent then (at least, according to a common theory) I'm usually obliged not to let my children starve. Suppose I'm not "convinced" of my obligations; does that mean I have no obligation to feed my children? Or just that I'm ignoring it? Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 20:48
  • @AlabamaScholiast: If other people feel that you have a moral obligation to feed your children, they will try to convince you to share that sense of obligation (through social conditioning, guilt, or if necessary punishment). If they cannot convince you, they might take your children from you (because they have a moral conviction that children should be fed). Being convinced that you are obliged to do something does not imply that you like doing it; many moral convictions are PITAs. But unless you have a strong moral conviction that your children should not be fed, I don't see the problem. Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 18:37
  • @AlabamaScholiast: as often as not, we go along with other people's moral convictions because we just don't care either way. Most people who espouse religious belief go to services on their respective holy days not because they are particularly devout, but because it's conventional: going to services is what's expected of people who espouse that faith, and the social friction of not attending outweighs the comforts of staying home. Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 18:41
  • "If other people feel that you have a moral obligation to feed your children, they will try to convince you to share that sense of obligation ..." Maybe they will; but I don't see how that answers my question. If (a) they don't try to convince, or (b) do try but fail, then the question is still whether or not I have the obligation nevertheless. If you're claiming I don't, that seems like an extraordinary claim in need of argument. If you're claiming I do have it, even though I don't have the conviction, then the obligation cannot be identical with the conviction, can it? Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 20:13
  • @AlabamaScholiast: that's because you're thinking of moral obligation in individualist terms, which (philosophically speaking), makes no sense and leans towards nihilism. But that's a developmental stage; no one gets it until they get it. If one doesn't mind being seen by the world as a deadbeat dad, having one's children taken away, and maybe being compelled to explain publicly in court why one has no moral obligation, then one in fact has no moral obligation. But rejecting moral obligations has social consequences. If only life were so easy... Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 23:43
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It is indeed the case that the literature on moral dilemmas claims that, if there are irresolvable conflicts in morality for an individual moral agent, then "absolute morality" does not cover them.

Stuart Hampshire joins this group claiming "there must always be moral conflicts which cannot, given the nature of morality, be resolved by any constant and generally acknowledged method of reasoning."4 Apparently concerned to forestall a likely objection, he hastens to add that he is "not arguing for moral relativism"... Many have agreed with Fred Feldman that "absolutism is the view that there is one criterion of morality valid for all people at all times, . . . it is the view that there is a single ultimate moral standard."'9 This is a strong statement, yet it captures the sort of absolutism associated with Kant and the utilitarians which Hampshire rejects. Consequently, if this is what is meant by ethical absolutism, and if by denying absolutism one is defending ethical relativism, then it seems clear that Hampshire is defending relativism of some sort, despite his claims to the contrary.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/2381890?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Is what is the case for individual moral agents (I am obliged to pull the lever) binding for all moral agents (I should permit you to pull the lever)? This is going to be more moot: just because a moral prescription holds for everyone may not mean that moral agents can never conflict. That's the nature of the beast.

In e.g. Kant, who believes in property rights, my right - and your corresponding duty - to enjoy my property is not shared in by you. However, if every right entails an absolute duty from everyone else, then as my duty (to pull the lever) is also my right, so you have a duty to allow.

TL;DR

Not if my everyone has a duty corresponding to my every one of my rights.

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Can my moral obligations conflict with yours?

In short, yes.

Now, there are various ways to approach this.

The first explanation is the logical positivist claim that moral claims have no propositional value, so we only ever express some preference or emotional state. On this account the problem is sorted, yes, you can disagree, but you are neither ever right nor wrong.

If we believe that moral claims are truth-functional, then the situation is different.

Namely, if a moral obligation contradicts one another logically, then it implies that they cannot be both true at the same time:

  • It is right to steal, so I steal.
  • It is wrong to steal, so I don't steal.

Therefore, if "moral claims do contradict each other" is an absolute statement, then it implies moral relativism in "all moral claims are false". If not, then it means that "some moral claims are false", so there is at least one moral claim which is objectively true (right).

If one thinks the former claim, that moral relativism is true, then one cannot rationally believe any moral judgement. It is because, in order to rationally believe anything, the proposition must first be justified or supported. Any such moral relativist starts from the position that no moral proposition is true before he/she believes it, so he/she has no justification for accepting it*.

The latter claim is simply moral realism; that there are objectively existent values and moral claims that we simply discover via reason.

I would like to know of any ethics in which I can oblige myself not to bring something about, but not you.

For example, Emotivism.

*- I personally believe that this position is quite hilarious, namely to believe in something that one already knows to be false.

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Modulo some specific assumptions, you can resolve this question pretty easily. Now in philosophy, we never just specify our assumptions, but we go on to question those, and so on. Even so, here's the resolution:

  1. Person A ought to B.
  2. Person C ought to D.
  3. Ought-implies-can [this is the specific assumption that does the job*].
  4. Therefore, if persons A and C ought to do B and D, then it is possible for B and D to both be done.
  5. If B and D conflict, they can't both be done.
  6. Therefore, B and D don't conflict. QED

*Well, to be extra-technical, I think you might also need to specify having interpersonal agglomeration in place.

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  • yes this is the best and prettiest answer, thanks. unfortunately, I cannot accept the answer as I am too hyperactive to keep my account
    – user56770
    Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 16:07
  • Thank you. I know I did my best, then. :) Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 16:26

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