The Ethic of Obligation
Updated: Jan 8
The effect economic conditions have upon the formation of families and their durability has been covered in painstaking detail. But what hasn’t been covered nearly as much is the impact of thought. To clarify, what we experience throughout our lives, usually in the form of abuse, drugs, sex, etc. and the consequent mental conditions thereupon created have been delved into by psychologists and sociologists. I would like to delve deeper however and see how our philosophical, and ideological constructs determine the future course of our lives as seen through how we view obligations/duties and those social formations, such as the family, which are viewed as extensions of obligations.
At first glance the idea that the average individual may have a developed philosophical understanding of the world seems strange. The breakdown of what philosophy actually is will broaden our perspectives.
The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.
Now, most individuals do not study philosophy as an academic discipline. But, look at the other definitional terms: the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.These are ideas which in one way or another preoccupy the lives of most people on the planet. “What am I doing here?,” and "What’s the purpose of my life?” are fundamentally philosophical questions. For the reason that most people are incapable of expressing themselves philosophically, the process whereby these thoughts are reconciled by the individual are not often credited to philosophy. However, whether it goes under religion, or self-help, the problems dealt with are all very similar. To an extent we all have philosophy within us, and to an extent we are all philosophers. Where we differ is in the mode of expression. When attempting to make the connection between contemporary phenomena and their direct causes the problem inevitably arises of sources, similar to the chicken or the egg conundrum. Are we the products of our environment or do we create our own environment? The answer is "yes", and "yes". We’ve all encountered individuals with super intelligence, and strength which defy rationales based upon environmental causes, and we’ve all seen brothers and sisters show differences in similar aptitudes which defy the notion of individual traits being genetic in origin. Yet, situate these individuals within a social context in which just to survive and feed your family theft and dishonesty is required. Now place these same individuals into a context very different where these vices are actually discouraged and what you’ll see is a struggle to forsake these same vices. Regardless of genetic endowments we are a product of our experiences. We map our minds based upon what we do and say, and our resulting thoughts are a product these interactions. An option which is foreign is unlikely to be engaged in because of its foreignness. Look at this way. Most of us drive our cars to work every day; at times this can be a hassle due to the volume of traffic. There may come a time when traffic can become so bad that you show up to work consistently late, thus threatening your job. The solutions which usually come up involve alternative driving, such as coming into work earlier, or different routes. Our mind creates alternatives based upon pre-existing experiences. Ideas on the outer edge of the mind such as bicycling to work or public transportation are usually rejected due to their being unfamiliar. Now we understand why it’s so difficult for people to change and the influence thought has on how we live our lives.
To understand how this idea translates to contemporary society and how it affects issues more imperative than transportation, such as the family we need to delve deeper into political philosophy. First, if you believe that politics exists as a self-sufficient activity autonomous from other modes of thought and disciplines then that preconceived bias needs to be thrown away. Politics as a discipline affects all aspects of human existence and involves itself in every aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, the western notion of separate realms for separate ideas has colored our thinking for much too long. When government decides not to involve itself in some aspect or other of the national community, it is making a decision every bit as politically and value-driven as the government that makes the choice in the affirmative. There is no decision made which is value free, whether it comes to tax rates, education, or even which medical procedures to allow or not allow. All choices reflect a worldview and system of values. The difference between ostensibly democratic and totalitarian governments is simply one of priorities. To rationalize one set of priorities over another the regime’s respective theorists create theoretical structures which serve the purpose of myth and mobilization.
Contemporary America being the product of a system of thought going back to the 17th century, which was designed to liberate humanity from traditional authority and institutions defining one's freedom as being as autonomous as possible from traditional institutions, has become the end rationale of the enlightenment and the laboratory for its ideas. We live in a society which looks down upon ideals such as obligation, duty, and sacrifice, viewing them as being impediments to freedom, an activity engaged in out of some mystical good, and if not derived from God, then from some vague notion of right. Like any value, if these ideals can’t be translated into realistic ideas which people can relate to in real life, then all meaning becomes lost in abstraction and through the act of creation individuals attempt to find meaning in any way possible. Hence, we have the history of violence and bloodshed that has permeated so many societies since the French Revolution: the Soviet Union, Communist China, Nazi Germany, all sharing an affinity for abstract freedom, a freedom absent of content yet deadly because of its pursuit. While the violence experienced by American citizens hasn’t come from the government, our dedication to an abstract view of freedom has cost us in other more deadly ways, such as through incarceration rates, suicides, murders, and drug and opioid epidemics. The freedom which we grew up believing in and seeing as our heritage and reality has turned into a poison pill, having no basis in reality. Americans have turned away from society, God, and their nation; this disconnect has become too real for too many.
Is it any wonder that most American view obligations as being impediments of freedom? The main component of American abstract freedom is the lack of restraint by the State. Freedom of Speech is viewed as a freedom from governmental restraint on speech. When freedom is disconnected from values and morality it becomes a purely empty mechanical freedom, pure anarchy dominates the realm of thought. Regarding the aspects of existence which Americans view as obligations, as in marriage, family, military service, while an attempt is made to value them out of necessity, they are viewed as impediments to freedom because they serve as a restraint on outward activity and movement, much like the freedom of speech conception being a freedom solely due to the lack of outward restraint. The materialist roots of this line of thought should be readily apparent. It’s not the content of speech, something derived in thought that matters but the act itself regardless of content. How many times have we heard it said “I may not agree with what you’re saying but I’d defend to the death your right to say it” , a nothing statement, trying to make a crucial value judgement out of something which lacks any value whatsoever. It' is a dedication to a shell of a value, putting worth in the act regardless of the meaning behind it, similar to the materialist putting worth in the material and not the spirit, trying to place value in something lacking it. The failure of those institutions which are built upon the concept of obligation, marriage and the family especially are rooted in how we conceive of the obligations connected to those institutions.
Think of it this way. Would anyone be willing to give their life for a cause which is considered a burden? Soldiers, instead of dying in battle would run or surrender; politicians would accept bribes instead of acting ethical if the system they thought they represented was without merit. The pattern is beginning to take shape and form. What plagues us is thought; the way we perceive the world is coloring how we interact within it. All too often the solutions to social problems offered in the public policy arena resemble more often the act of trying to fit a square into triangularly-shaped hole. If the belief is held that the giving of oneself to an idea impedes freedom, then the act of sacrifice becomes worthless. Husbands and wives stay together for the children, or financial reasons; politicians and soldiers look upon their professions as jobs, not as higher callings. The reality of American strength, past and present is due to conditions which created an economically prosperous country. The reality of American social and moral decline is the manifestation of philosophical problems present but always under the surface until recently.
Since the negative view of obligation is connected to the classical liberal tradition, its opposite has to be derived from the anti-classical liberal tradition. The movement which began under Hegel concluded with fascism. This movement, which rejected a view of life which compartmentalized everything and denied the reality of spirit, while elevating matter to what is real, oftentimes subordinated the former to the latter. Fascism views obligation, sacrifice, and duty not as impediments which limit freedom, but as ideas, which when put in action liberate individuals from matter through being part of something immortal. Often times an individual’s true purpose and calling is found through giving oneself to another or to an idea.
Marriage is just such an institution. The controversy surrounding homosexual unions debate on what marriage actually is and for what purpose it applies has intensified. The Bible, tradition, children, all possible aspects of the institution have come into play. While all these different aspects have their places, they share one fatal flaw. They originate outside of the individual and impose themselves on himself/herself. In this case they reinforce the notion of marriage being an impediment, which limits freedom. As we age, freedom takes on different shapes and forms. As children freedom can be defined as the absence of limits. Because of the child’s lack of knowledge every activity engaged in has a sense of wonder and adventure about it. The child never knows what may happen or who they might meet. A day out at a sporting event is exciting in itself, with the opposing records of the teams not having any relevance. However, as we age and our knowledge increases proportionately, limits begin to form on our thoughts. We go to work and know exactly what our 8 hour day will consist of. Before buying tickets a sporting event, the budget must be analyzed to determine if it’s affordable. Then, more often than not, a cost-benefit ratio is performed based upon the teams records and who’s pitching that night. As we age, the nature of existence changes; routine and receptiveness begin to define existence.
It's entirely possible that upon entering marriage this same mindset will prevail, as the sacrifices involved can take the appearance of impediments to freedom. In contemporary America, where the divorce rate is over 50%, and many more marriages are kept together for financial reasons or for the sake of the children, the failure of this view of life becomes apparent. A change is needed but change cannot happen purely from without. Marriage and obligations must be viewed by individuals as something liberating. As we age, obligation has to be transformed into an ethic to our whole existence and coming to define us.
At a foundational level a view of the self has to begin with the acknowledgement that the individual is incomplete. We come into the world with a unique personality, wants, and drives. As we grow older, these energies develop into talents and skills which become particularized as careers and hobbies. Despite whatever success we may have in our chosen fields, it never seems enough, as the desire to extend ourselves beyond our immediate surroundings seems to grow more and more intense as we age. The adventurism of youth is replaced by the limits of adulthood as the knowledge of our surroundings creates a life of routine and repetition. The contradiction between the desire for freedom and the need to establish a life for oneself through an occupation only resolves itself through obligations; a duty which is non-existent in childhood as the fulfillment of obligations is only completed by the threat of external compulsion. This compulsion being absent in adulthood, individuals are faced with differing choices, whether to fulfill obligations as a result of dedication to an abstract affiliation to an external ideal, or as the fulfillment of an inner need, a personal quest. The former we’ve already discussed; the latter is the partner of a journey through life which culminates in human freedom.
The idea that as individuals our natures are incomplete never dawns on us as a specific revelation. It’s acknowledged by most that humans are social and political creatures, that for the sake of emotional health, interaction with others is essential. Nobody can specifically state why this is other than through observation and a feeling of inner necessity. Through this interaction with others and being party of a community we gain the feeling of wholeness. We can extrapolate from this by looking at the human body, which is composed of parts which have drastically different functions and needs, but which acting on their own cannot subsist. It’s only through being part of a whole working in tandem with other parts of the body that they can perform their specific function to full capacity. The loss of any one body part, such as a limb or an organ doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual would perish. However, the individual would continue his life in a diminished capacity. It’s only through each body part working through the individual that the individual functions at full capacity.
For the individual so for society. The world we inhabit is composed of a vast amount of occupations, talents, and likes, all of which differ in orientation, but none of which can exist autonomously from the others. There is no such thing as an independent person in society. The person who is theoretically independent can only exist as a being who’s dead inside. The lack of independence is not a negative; it’s what opens our horizons and through the dependence on others we become part of a collective unity called a community. A unit that will continue beyond our corporeal existence and through our participation in it will ensure our survival in a shape or form for as long as the community continues to exist.
The highest form of obligation, duty, and sacrifice manifests itself in marriage. Men and women, two very different beings physically and emotionally, have an inexplicable drive to come together and form unions where the two become one. The saying “you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them” is life, albeit in a very simplified form. The original excitement engendered by the establishment of a relationship often turns sour as the individuals involved are forced to change their lives to suit the needs of the other. The unity which was established at the beginning between the two is then sundered as they go through a period of adjustment. The reestablishment of this unity occurs when the parties involved come to recognize themselves in the other individual and this combining of the two is recognized as making themselves better people. The cycle of the relationship can best be described as a diamond like formation, where at the bottom the two are one, then at the middle they come apart, only to become one again at the top. Once the diamond is complete the revelation of what has happened becomes more apparent through the raising of children and then grandchildren. The social need becomes particularized through marriage and the family. The apparent loss of the self in actuality becomes recognized as an expansion of the self as the male and female natures become one through the act of marriage. Obligation in actuality is the reconciliation of contradictions which exist because we live in societies and need others to make ourselves whole. It’s the coming together of opposites.
Surrounding the debates around an issue such as marriage, we become bombarded by issues of abstract freedom, human rights, equality, fairness, and tradition, all of which exist as theoretical constructs and have no way of being implemented in a realistic fashion. What’s missing is simple logic. The need for society to continue to function for the benefit of those who inhabit it can only work if human nature is recognized as being diverse and at times contradictory. When people become compartmentalized though and the diversity is looked upon as self-subsistent categories, then that diversity leads to decay. Only through the recognition of the liberating aspect of obligation can human differences be overcome and reconciled not through sublimation but through synthesis.