Primary disclaimer: If you are not interested in philosophy, this will probably not be of interest.
Secondary disclaimer: This will probably not be of interest to those interested in philosophy.
One of my topics for in-class discussion this week—even if I was the only one engaged in the discussion—was the ethics of rights. Of course, as part of this, one must discuss the relationship between rights and obligations or duties.
So, I was thinking yesterday of a particular sort of situation in which normally an obligation and a right go hand-in-hand. As a rule, if someone lends me money, I have an obligation to repay them and they have a right to be repaid. I take that to be a pretty straightforward case of my obligation creating a right for the lender. Or, if you don't want to think of it being my obligation that creates the right, we might want to say that our agreement and the situation into which we have entered together have created both the obligation and the right. In either case, though, it seems that the right ultimately flows from the borrowing and the borrower as the initiator of the borrowing. Contrast the situation of giving someone an unasked for gift; there it seems that there is no obligation or duty.
But does borrowing always create this right to repayment? Consider the following situation:
Marvin and Meredith are friends, perhaps they are siblings. In any case they are more than mere acquaintances, but there relationship is not so close that either one can expect the financial support of the other as any sort of right.
Marvin is going through a rough patch. In fact, Marvin is going through a rougher patch in the midst of a number of rough patches. After all, we are in an ongoing recession. Though he would rather not, he asks Meredith for a loan of a medium-sized amount, enough that Meredith will feel it but not so much that it will seriously affect his life.
Meredith is aware of Marvin's financial situation and because of his general affection for Marvin is willing to give the money to him. He knows that Marvin will likely be unable to pay the money back in any time in the near future and would gladly offer the money as a gift, though he also knows that Marvin will only accept it as a loan.
Thus, Meredith gives the money to Marvin. Marvin promises to repay, but Meredith doesn't expect repayment and does not intend ever to request repayment. He writes the loan off, as it were.
The questions: Does Marvin have a moral obligation to repay? Does Meredith have a right to repayment?
My intuition says that Marvin does have an obligation to repay when he is able but that Meredith has no corresponding right to that repayment whether Marvin can or cannot repay. Does that seem right?