Special Obligations Don't Exist, but they're Useful Heuristics

posted before 2019-09-15

Utilitarianism implies our obligation is to maximize net well-being.  We should be willing to donate to whatever charities do the most good; these charities may not necessarily help those in our local community.  What then of social, local, special obligations? Doesn’t a parent have a special obligation to their child? Ought we to follow through with our social contracts?  If your organization dumps thousands of dollars worth of training into you with the expectation you would work there for X years, shouldn’t you strive to fulfill your side of the bargain?

I venture that special obligations don’t actually exist. In other words, there is no special disutility to violating a special obligation beyond the effect this has on net well-being.

That being said, the notion of special obligations are extremely useful in navigating the world ethically.  “I don’t know what the real good is, but I know that coordination via social contracts is generally part of it, and since I don’t have an overwhelmingly good reason to violate this particular social contract, I’m going to fulfill it” is an example of proper reasoning about special obligations.

The fact that this is not obvious to every ethicist leads me to think that some people are not really trying to make consequentialist-utilitarianism work; they don’t attempt to prove it by first assuming it’s true, actually trying to make it work, and then seeing how well it describes our intuitions.  Instead, they maintain their doubt about utilitarianism, barely try to make it work, and then complain when it does not match their ethical intuitions!