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Moral Obligation

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I need to develop a personal philosophy relating to this topic. "What is moral obligation? What is the extent of our moral obligation to other people and other living things?" I need a description of the principle issues within this topic. What are some issues people may have with my topic? Name some historical views that support the theory of the above topic.

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"What is moral obligation?

Legal Definition:

MORAL OBLIGATION - A duty which one owes, and which he ought to perform, but which he is not legally bound to fulfil.

These obligations are of two kinds 1st. Those founded on a natural right; as, the obligation to be charitable, which can never be enforced by law. 2d. Those which are supported by a good or valuable antecedent consideration

source: http://www.lectlaw.com/def2/m142.htm

By moral obligation we understand some sort of necessity, imposed on the will, of doing what is good and avoiding what is evil. The necessity, of which there is question here, is not the physical coercion exercised on man by an external and stronger physical force. If two strong men seize me by the arms and drag me whither I would not go, I act under necessity or compulsion, but this is not the necessity of moral obligation. The will, which is the seat of moral obligation, is incapable of being physically coerced in that manner. It cannot be forced to will what it does not will. It is indeed possible to conceive that the will is necessitated to action by the antecedent conditions. The doctrine of those who deny free will is easily intelligible although we deny that it is true. The will is indeed necessitated by its own nature to tend towards the good in general; we cannot wish for what is evil unless it presents itself to us under the appearance of good.

The necessity, then, which constitutes the essence of moral obligation must be of the kind which an end that must be attained lays upon us of adopting the necessary means towards obtaining that end. If I am bound to cross the ocean and I am unable to fly, I must go on board ship. That is the only means at my disposal for attaining the end which I am bound to obtain. Moral obligation is a necessity of this kind. It is the necessity that I am under, of employing the necessary means towards the obtaining of an end which is also necessary. The necessity, then, which moral obligation lays upon us is the necessity, not of the determinism of nature, nor of the physical coercion of an external and stronger force, but it is of the same general character as the necessity that we are under of employing the necessary means in order to attain an end which must be obtained.

source: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11189a.htm

What is the extent of our moral obligation to other people and other living things?"

An easy way to resolve this question to consider the distinction between charity and duty. There are some acts which most of us regard as duties toward others. Parents should take care of their children, people should keep promises, honor contacts and so on. These are considered by most to be duties. There are other acts which we might choose to do for others and people might even approve of our doing so and honor us for the acts, but they generally would not condemn us for not doing these acts. One category of such acts are what we normally call charity. Given money, goods or time to help others whom we have no obligation to help. We may have a duty to help our own children, but if we give $500 to help starving children in some place struck by famine that is charity. We do "have" to do it morally, but we choose to.

There seem to be clear moral obligations to those close to us rooted in some sort of moral contract where we voluntarily enter into relationship with people with a more or less understood set of mutual expectations. The voluntary nature of these relationships seem to carry with them moral obligations.

In PRACTICAL ETHICS Peter Singer has argued that we have a moral obligation to help those suffering from famine. This moral obligation is rooted in the concept of beneficence, an alleged moral principle. Singer formulates that obligation in the following manner: "if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it."

James Rachels, in his paper "Morality, Parents, and Children" makes a similar argument directed primarily at parents, arguing that they have a responsibility to provide for the needs of every child in the world prior to providing for their own children's luxuries. Rachels does allow that one may provide for one's own child's necessities before incurring any moral obligation to help any other child with his or her necessities.

Like Singer, Rachels roots his argument in the principle of beneficence -- namely that if we can do some good for another in need without doing any comparable harm to ourselves, then we ought to do it.

Two very nice sources on this topic. Do read the full articles in these links:



Principle issues within this topic:

Some of the key issues are:

1) Affirmative Action:

Affirmative Action is a moral and political question which seems to divide Americans more than it unites them. On the one side are those who regard it as a type of program designed to rectify racism and reverse the effects of both past and present discrimination; on the other side are those who simply see it as another form of discrimination, giving one group extra advantages based upon nothing but their skin color.

source: http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/phil/blphil_eth_aa.htm

2) Capital Punishment:

Capital punishment is often defended on the grounds that society has a moral obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. Murderers threaten this safety and welfare. Only by putting murderers to death can society ensure that convicted killers do not kill again.

Second, those favoring capital punishment contend that society should support those practices that will bring about the greatest balance of good over evil, and capital punishment is one such practice. Capital punishment benefits society because it may deter violent crime. While it is difficult to produce direct evidence to support this claim since, by definition, those who are deterred by the death penalty do not commit murders, common sense tells us that if people know that they will die if they perform a certain act, they will be unwilling to perform that act.

The case against capital punishment is often made on the basis that society has a moral obligation to protect human life, not take it. The taking of human life is permissible only if it is a necessary condition to achieving the greatest balance of good over evil for everyone involved. Given the value we place on life and our obligation to minimize suffering and pain whenever possible, if a less severe alternative to the death penalty exists which would accomplish the same goal, we are duty-bound to reject the death penalty in ...

Solution Summary

I need to develop a personal philosophy relating to this topic. "What is moral obligation? What is the extent of our moral obligation to other people and other living things?" I need a description of the principle issues within this topic. What are some issues people may have with my topic? Name some historical views that support the theory of the above topic.

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