Taxonomy of duties (review of XI.1)

We now proceed to Chapter XI of “Natural Law and Natural Rights.” This chapter is titled “Obligation” and contains nine subsections. Since I like to emphasize duties and responsibilities instead of rights, and since this is my favorite chapter of Professor Finnis’s erudite tome, I will not speed through these pages as I have the previous ones. I will slow down my pace and review each subsection separately, beginning with subsection XI.1. Here, Prof Finnis identifies three ways in which the word “obligation” can be used:

  1. To refer to the general moral idea of duty or ought, i.e. “things, within our power either to do or not to do, which (whatever we desire) we have to do (but not because we are forced to), or must do, which it is our duty to do …, which one morally (or legally) ought to do …” (p. 297, emphasis in the original);
  2. To refer to the more specific idea of keeping one’s promises, both explicit promises and implied ones, i.e. “the ‘binding force’ (ligare, to bind) of promissory or quasi-promissory commitments” (ibid.); and
  3. To refer to the even more specific subset of relational commitments, presumably to one’s family and friends (again, Finnis is maddingly vague), i.e. obligations “deriving from particular roles, arrangements, or relationships” (ibid.).

In other words, the concept of “obligation” encompasses a wide range of diverse moral duties, promissory commitments, and relational responsibilities. (I shall hereafter use the simple word “duty” to refer to all three types of obligation.) Some of these duties are imposed by the dictates of morality or ethics or by one’s conscience. Others are self-imposed via voluntary promises. Still others are “relational” in nature, arising not out of an agreement or contract but out of one’s family relations and friendships. For his part, Prof Finnis will set aside the first and third categories of duties and probe the second category (“promissory obligation”) in the next subsection of Chapter XI, so we will proceed to XI.2 in our next post.

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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