Friday, January 29, 2010

Violating duties to yourself is hard

I'm not big on duty, but I think that people who are would consider this a generally plausible principle:

Conditional Release: If A has a duty to B, B can conditionally release A from that duty by choosing that A act otherwise, rather than fulfill the duty. Then if A acts otherwise and does not fulfill the duty, A has not violated the duty.

Now what happens in the case of a self-regarding duty, where you are both A and B? Then you can choose to act otherwise rather than fulfilling the duty, and when you do it, you haven't violated any duties. So it's pretty hard to violate duties to yourself.

Maybe there are some duties for which Conditional Release doesn't hold. Maybe I have a duty not to kill you, and you can't release me from it. Then you could still get a duty not to commit suicide. And if you can violate duties without making any choices, perhaps by falling asleep at an unfortunate time or forgetting about them, this won't get you off the hook for those duties.

6 comments:

Justin said...

I'm inclined to disagree, though I'm not sure what account I should give. Perhaps that's because I haven't thought much about duties. Still, two lines of thought suggest themselves:

On the one hand, you might say that people have a self-regarding duty not to release others from some duties. If I can release someone from their duty to treat me decently, I still typically have a self-regarding duty not to do so. Similarly, perhaps if I have self-regarding duties, I have a duty not to release myself from them. And a regress threatens, and I suspect it's a vicious regress: you'd have to actively do something or other to release yourself from your self-regarding duties.

The other approach, which I think I prefer would be to package some of the conditions of the higher order duty into the conditions of A releasing B from a duty. If promise you that I'll do something, and you say "I know you promised, but you don't have to do that," you can fail to release me from that promise. That's trivial in the case where you're not sincere, or I'm coercing you, but I think it can also more subtly fail in other cases.

At the extreme case, this collapses into the position that A can never release B from a duty except where the duty is already cancelled whether or not A releases B. That's an obviously undesirable consequence, but I think it might be avoidable.

Doug Portmore said...

Not all duties are duties owed to some individual or group. Imperfect duties are not owed to anyone. Take the duty of beneficence. As I see it, this is an imperfect duty. It requires that one make "the happiness of others a serious, major, continually relevant, life-shaping end" (HILL 2002, p. 206). But this duty to adopt the happiness of others as such an end is not owed to anyone. Thus, your principle of Conditional Release doesn't apply. And I think that most of those who think that there are self-regarding duties, such as a duty to develop one's talents, think that these duties are also imperfect duties. Thus, they are not owed to anyone, not even oneself. And, thus, they are duties to which the principle of Conditional Release doesn't apply.

Michael Drake said...

As you describe it, the principle of conditional release presupposes the existence of a relationship between discrete agents. So conceptually it's not clear that the principle would apply to self-regarding duties, which are not of a sort that can be owed by one agent to another.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Justin, if some people have a self-regarding duty not to release others from some duties, then they'd be violating the second-order duty when they did the releasing, but not the first order-duty. Right? I don't see that there's anything quite like regress here, because first-order duties and second-order duties can each stand on their own.

I'm not entirely sure how the second approach works, but I don't think insincerity or coercion involve the right kind of choosing, so I'd want to deal with them that way.

Thanks, Doug, I don't know a whole lot about this area. But even if imperfect duties aren't owed to an individual, is there some plausibility to saying that people can release you from them? If somebody says to me, "Look, don't worry about developing my talents, worry about that guy's talents instead" I'd think that his choice ought to make some impact on what I do from then on. Of course, I don't know what looks plausible to people who believe in those kinds of duties.

Michael, I don't see anything in the formulation that says A and B have to be separate agents. And I don't know why we'd want to add such a qualification, except if we have some kind of brute intuition that you can't let yourself out of self-regarding duties.

Doug Portmore said...

Hi Neil,

You ask, "But even if imperfect duties aren't owed to an individual, is there some plausibility to saying that people can release you from them?" I don't think so. At least, we shouldn't think so if imperfect duties are duties to adopt certain ends. So if I have an imperfect duty of beneficence and this requires me to make "the happiness of others a serious, major, continually relevant, life-shaping end" (HILL 2002, p. 206), then I don't see how you or anyone else could release me from this duty. Of course, if you tell me not to worry about your happiness and that you're more concerned with, say, your wife's happiness, then this may be relevant to whether I (qua someone who has made the happiness of others a serious, major, continually relevant, life-shaping end) chooses to help you or your wife, but it doesn't in any way release me from my duty to have the happiness of others as an ultimate end. The same goes for the duty to develop my talents. If this duty requires me to adopt the development of my talents as a serious, major, continually relevant, life-shaping end, then I don't see how there's anything that I can do that can release from this duty. Of course, I could have this end and focus more on developing some of my talents as opposed to others, but this in no way releases me from the duty to have developing my talents as a serious, major, continually relevant, life-shaping end. It's just that I have some say in how I pursue this end, which I'm required to have.

Justin said...

The first post was a bit fast...My thought was that the regress threatens because you can imaging some reflective soul releasing himself from his second order duty to not release himself from his first order duty, but thereby violating his third order duty not to arbitrarily release himself from his second order duty.

In any case, this line of thought leads to the strange sounding claim that you wrong yourself not by violating your first order duty, but by violating your second order duty to yourself not to release yourself from your first order duty.