Is "who matters" a question in philosophy? Specifically, I'm asking how to decide when a "special obligation" to someone (e.g. a friend: but can these sorts of obligations be extended almost indefinitely?) is not trumped by any other obligation, moral or otherwise.

it seems that we have obligations to aid and support our friends that go well beyond those we have to help strangers because they are our friends, much like we parents have special duties to aid and support our children because they are our children. ... the question arises as to what the relationship is between such special duties of friendship and other duties, in particular moral duties: can our obligations to our friends sometimes trump our moral duties, or must we always subordinate our personal relationships to morality in order to be properly impartial (as, it might be thought, morality demands)?

Prima facie, I would say I am more obligated to assist in the well being of people I am especially well placed to help (by which I essentially mean who I can help more than I can others, not necessarily - though it isn't irrelevant if well being has a sweet spot - who I can help more than anyone else can) than I am anyone else, and that this subsumes the special obligations of friendship and family (if either exist, and whether or not either can trump our moral obligations).

But is that too glib?

  • I don't understand the question. Can you provide more details, explain what "who matters" means here?
    – Frank
    Jan 23, 2023 at 20:58
  • Is this what you're asking for? plato.stanford.edu/entries/grounds-moral-status
    – Brian Z
    Jan 23, 2023 at 21:10
  • yes @BrianZ if we agree that ethical obligations cannot conflict
    – user64361
    Jan 23, 2023 at 21:14
  • let's take an example: a close friend tells me about their affair. whether or not i keep their secret - assume i didn't promise to - will depend on how much they matter to me compared to the suffering etc. of their partner. is that not an ethical question @BrianZ
    – user64361
    Jan 23, 2023 at 21:26
  • 1
    There's a section on "Friendship and Moral Theory" here: plato.stanford.edu/entries/friendship
    – Brian Z
    Jan 23, 2023 at 21:35

2 Answers 2


how to decide when a "special obligation" to someone is not trumped


One advantage of a theory such as consequentialism is that, given that it regards all of our obligations or duties as derivative from one fundamental duty (the duty to maximize value), we do not need to try to determine which of our duties is strongest in any given instance... Once we allow non-derivative, genuinely special obligations in our moral theory, we are left with the question as to whether we can ever know when a special obligation outweighs another special obligation or a natural duty. Moral philosophers such as Ross give us no answer to this question, and it is plausible to suppose that there is no general rule that we can use for weighing duties against one another. Perhaps the best answer is that, once we know what our obligations are, it is self-evident as to which is the strongest, always remembering that ‘self-evident’ does not mean ‘obvious,’ but, rather, ‘can be known or justifiably believed without any process of reasoning or inference.’ At this point, we are involved in controversies in moral epistemology that are beyond the scope of this piece.

The solution I offered

too glib

seems to run counter to 'special duties' because these duties exist intrinsically, just because you are my friend (not because I am well placed to help you).

If my friend’s well-being is no more intrinsically valuable than the well-being of any other person, then I ought to be impartial, at least in my actions, between promoting the good of my friend and promoting the good of a complete stranger. Thus, the mere fact that someone is my friend (or my mother, or my colleague, or my fellow citizen) does not imply that I have any obligations to such a person that I do not have to any and all persons

Though it may make sense to say some form of consequentialism - without special duties - does fully account for the obligations we have toward friends, despite how strange ("schizophrenic") it sounds to consider them that way

The objective consequentialist can properly acknowledge that sometimes the best states of affairs result not just from undertaking certain behaviors, but from undertaking them with certain motives, including motives that are essentially personal.


Yes this is absolutely a topic for philosophy.

In particular in political philosophy, it is foundational to decide who you owe obedience to. For Confucius that was about filial piety, with duties to parents generalised to the state. Hobbes and Rousseau pictured different social contracts we are bound by, Hobbes picturing an inheritance of obligations that can't be challenged without giving up on an organised state.

Peter Singer has posed a radical challenge to your 'glib' view, in Famine, Affluence, and Morality he made a case that can be summarised as ordinary people are evil, that the moral distinction can't be made between people near and far, related or unrelated. I recommend understanding his views, like through these links, because whether or not he pursuades you, your reasoning will be challenged.

Evolutionarily, Game Theory can help us understand kin-preference, and degree of preference by degree of relatedness. But, we do not have to obey the impulses we have evolved with anymore. People choose to die for ideas, even fighting against their families, illustrating society and culture have put us well beyond selfish-genes alone.

Edited to add: Kant's Categorical Imperative is another example of moral reasoning denying that we have different duties. The conflict of conclusions like that with our moral intuition like different duties to friends and family, helps reveal Hume's point, that a great deal of our morality isn't reasoned: we have intuitions, 'oughts', and then we look for justifications from what 'is', and indeed we cannot simply derive morality from observing the world, we must make choices about how we want to be.

You might like to see this answer: Is there such a thing as sexual morality? & the idea of using 'moral dumbfounding' to investigate our actual processes of moral reasoning, and how they frequently don't match philosophical ideals.

  • In the context of religious drama there are duties, sins of commission, and sins of omission. If duties are imposed to perform acts of charity then the failure to do so is a sin of omission. Saying that ordinary people are evil for failure to benefit others is to judge them as sinners. This story rsc.byu.edu/vol-11-no-1-2010/… describes the ongoing War In Heaven. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he could save them all ... Human agency is a source of drama. May 24, 2023 at 19:12
  • It struck me Paul Bloom's book en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Against_Empathy also makes a case against our intuitions about local & familial priorities. Sean Caroll in his latest Mindscape AMA, said the problem with rationality is that it's easy to use it wrong, & empathy can help guard against that, being his reason to disagree with Bloom. Our emotional lives access the lessons of evolutionary time. &, we cannot make sense of pur lives using only reason...
    – CriglCragl
    May 26, 2023 at 18:07

You must log in to answer this question.