The Ethics of Human Rights (87): General and Special Moral Obligations

People have two kinds of moral obligations:

  • Some of our duties are duties to all people. We have those duties simply because people are human beings. These are general moral duties that apply regardless of specific relationships.
  • Other duties are duties that we owe to a subset of people. These are special obligations we have to those with whom we have some sort of special relationship.

An example of the former are the duties generated by human rights or the duty not to lie; an example of the latter are our duties as parents, friends and citizens.

Both types of duties have a basis in moral intuition. Most of us believe that we should try to save a child drowning before our eyes, any drowning child, whatever our relationship or lack of relationship with it. But most of us would also allow a parent to save his own child first if it was drowning together with an unknown child and if he had to make a choice. Some special obligations are the same as general obligations, just with an added urgency (as in the case of the drowning child). Other special obligations are totally different from general obligations (we have a duty to raise our children, but we don’t have a similar duty towards the children of others, not even a less urgent duty).

This is all boilerplate. What’s interesting to me is the double nature of human rights duties. These are obviously general duties, but I do believe that in some cases we should prioritize the rights of those with whom we have a special relationship. Human rights create special duties in the sense of general duties that are more urgent in the case of some people. The right to life of our drowning children does indeed create a more urgent obligation than the right to life of the millions of extremely poor and starving children elsewhere in the world. Part of the explanation is that we often can do more to save our own child. We are normally close by, we know the risks and we know exactly what to do when things go wrong. The same isn’t always true in the case of distant strangers. Can implies ought. But that doesn’t really capture the essence of our special obligation, I think. It’s the relationship that generates the special duty, not just the fact that we can offer more immediate and effective help. After all, as Peter Singer has pointed out, immediate and effective help is sometimes also an option for distant strangers.

The problem is that special obligations tend to take over. There’s a lot of in-group bias and the rights of those close to us receive an overdose of attention, sometimes to the detriment of the rights of strangers (“strangers” not always in the literal sense of the word, because most fellow-citizens are literally strangers and yet they often enjoy more rights than foreign strangers). A lot of people only see special obligations and ignore general obligations.

Hence, it’s understandable and commendable that the focus in human rights talk is on the impersonal and general obligations that they yield. This focus, however, should not obscure the very real special obligations that also result from human rights. A lot of immediate good can be done when we admit that human rights create special obligations. There’s often a very tricky balancing act to perform here, but few of us admit it. Many tend to favor special obligations, while others react by speaking only of general obligations. Very rarely do we see people working through the difficulties of when to decide in favor of one or the other type of duty; for example, the difficulties of knowing when it is right to save your own child when you can save hundreds of distant children with the same amount of effort. When do we simply follow in-group bias, and when do we have a good reason to favor the in-group members? When are we real humanitarians and when are we heartlessly blind to the justified demands of those who are close to us? I think we should admit that the choice between partiality and impartiality is often a difficult one, and that those of us who systematically favor one or the other point of view are wrong most of the time.

More on partiality/impartiality here. More posts in this series are here.

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