Saturday, April 09, 2011

Rights and obligations

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?


Jeffrey said...

Very Interesting. I feel that it is still within Meredith's rights to demand a repayment if he so chooses, but I'm not sure if he has a 'right' to the money in an ethical sense, if that makes sense to you.

Tyler Hower said...

I'm not sure that I do understand, partly because I don't know how we would separate the question of rights from ethics/morality. (The question of legal rights isn't really on the table.) If you mean that he has a right to say that he wants the money, then I agree with you, but that is not a very interesting right.
But, if you are saying that he has a right to make a demand, then it sounds like you are saying that he does have a right to the money, since a demand seems like a claim to a right, but then that would be that he has a moral right to the money. In any case, the question of whether he has the right shouldn't rely on whether he chooses to claim the right or not. Presumably rights are independent of anyone's actually claiming them.

DK said...

I do think it is possible to cede a right, after which it cannot be asserted, which I what I think Meredith has done here.

Which would be different than simply not exercising a right at a particular time.

Tyler Hower said...

Dana, do you think that Marvin has the obligation, in that case? I think something close to ceding the right must be going on, though I don't think we should quite say that, in this situation, he ever has had the right.

DK said...

Yes, until and unless he and Meredith come to a new agreement. For the obligation to be removed requires some action on Marvin's part even if it were only agreeing to a proposal from Meredith that there be no repayment.

Tyler Hower said...

Part of me suspects that the obligation (or its shadow) remains even then.

Tom Mullen said...

Meredith waives or loses her right, once she represents to marvin, 'don't worry about paying me back' it turns into a gift. And this excuses Marvin's obligation, moral or otherwise - unless Marvin says, "whoa nelly - NO I will pay it back within a year". This turns into a moral imperative (regardless what meredith truly thinks) But because he wrote it off, he clearly does not honor any moral obligation but surely he is not being immoral or unethical.

-UFO enthusiast TRM

Tyler Hower said...

Meredith is a male. In fact, Marvin and Meredith were two of my great uncles. But I did use only masculine pronouns for both of them.
I agree that he has no right, but his lack of a moral right has no effect, I think, on Marvin's obligation to repay. I think that the obligation remains whether the right disappears or not, since obligations, I think, are things we take upon ourselves via our actions and cannot be discharged even by those to whom the are owed, though their disavowal does remove the right from he who gave up his claim.
I am confused about what you could mean about Meredith "honoring any moral obligation", since Meredith didn't have any obligation in the first place

Tom Mullen said...

Meaning Meredith honoring Marvin's moral obligation.

Meredith + Male = Midwest :)

Tom Mullen said...

and that "he is not being immoral or unethical" applies to Marvin. Sorry for the poor sentence construction. "But because he wrote it off, he clearly does not honor any moral obligation but surely he is not being immoral or unethical" should read:

Because Marvin wrote the loan off, (as well as Meredith) though he did not honor his obligation, Marvin is neither immoral or unethical.

Tyler Hower said...

"Meredith" like "Leslie" and "Courtney" was always a man's name until fairly recently.

But, to the substantive issue, I don't know it means for a person to honor another person's moral obligation. Only an individual can honor his own obligation.

Tyler Hower said...

I still think the obligation remains, precisely because it an ethical obligation that has to do with what Marvin has done and that no action of Meredith's can discharge.

Tom Mullen said...

Let me ask it this way:

If we establish morality AND ethics from a christian prespective, the Bible and the scriptures - isn't it true that Jesus said to some extent always discharge a debt - that you should not expect payment on what you gave - so while Meredith follows what is the moral thing to do, isn't it consistent that it should always be considered a gift and therefore Marvin has no ethical obligation to return the money he has recieved?

Tyler Hower said...

First, I am not sure which distinction you are drawing between ethics and morality, because people do draw a distinction but they do it in a number of different and inconsistent ways.

Second, there are important reasons for not trying to draw a complete ethical system from the Bible, some of them epistemological but the most important being the Euthyphro Problem. That is why the serious parts of the Christian tradition have thought that there has to be a lot more to grounding an ethics than just the various prescriptions in the Bible and why they have thought that we can tell which of those are ethical and which of them are not.

Third, you are right, Jesus does tell us to forgive others' debts. But that doesn't touch the question I am asking at all. I am giving you that the debt is forgiven and so the right to have it repaid is gone. Does the forgiveness of the debt remove the obligation to repay it? That is what I think it doesn't do. Your forgiveness does not, I think, by itself do anything to my obligation, if I can, to make my debt right.

But, I think we've just hit the moment of disagreement, so there's not much point in continuing.

HsR said...

I have to say I disagree with your assessment. Rights and obligations don't originate from a single person, the originate from and are concretely tied to a relationship. As such, the loaner who writes off the debt in his own mind is not actually changing the objective ethics of the situation. What matters is agreement between the two individuals (which doesn't necessarily have to be explicit).

If I say I will only take money from you on the condition that I be obligated to repay you at some future date, and you agree to those terms formally and give the money to me, then we have both just created a pair of obligations and rights: I am obliged to pay (O-1) and you have the right to be paid (R-1), and you are obliged to be paid (O-2) and I have the right to pay (R-2).

Now, while you as the loaner can absolve me of O-1 and can give up your R-1, only I can absolve you of O-2 and give up my R-2.

Tyler Hower said...

I guess all I would say about that, is that intention matters to the relationship, as well. If we were talking about a contract, then the formal relationship might be all that mattered. But, if the loaner has no intention to call for or accept repayment, then that is relevant to the relationship and to the rights and obligations.
In any case, I don't think I was assuming that rights or obligations originate from single persons in this situation—though they certainly can: I can give an obligation to myself and my actions can create rights in others—but facts about people involved in relationships are certainly relevant to the relationship. It isn't as if we have individuals and then the relationship; we have individuals in the relationship. And their psychological states, including their intentions, must certainly matter.