If I am obligated to serve a meal to a friend, then I do something both bad and wrong if I fail to serve the meal. That simple proposition, stated unreflectively and uncritically, is a basic building-block of almost any way of understanding how we are to move through this world (discerning the ‘path before us,’ as it were). Set aside whether I know I am obligated to provide that meal or not. If the obligation is upon me, then once I come to know it, it has some purchase on my practical reason: it directs me, as it were, toward a certain course of action even as it rules out others. If I am obligated to serve the meal, then I should do so unless there is some countervailing obligation or reason to which I might appeal in breaking my obligation.
Notice, though, that the above use of ‘obligation’ specifies something positive for me to do—rather than marking the boundary of what I ought not do. While we might speak of ‘negative’ obligations, or burdens on me to not do certain things, I find such uses far less salutary or fruitful for moral reasoning than positive instances. This is especially the case if we begin the task of moral theory from within the actual practice of reasoning morally: we start with trying to identify what we should do in this world, and discover within that search that we have certain responsibilities (obligations) to one another. Those obligations are most prominently positive: I am bound to my neighbor not primarily by the harms I ought not impose on them, but by the goods I ought bestow upon them.
Consider by way of contrast Nicholas Wolterstorff’s ‘principle of correlatives,’ which he develops to articulate the interrelationship of rights and duties (or obligations). As he explains the principle, “John has an obligation toward Mary to refrain from insulting her if and only if Mary has a right against John to John’s refraining from insulting her.” The principle includes positive obligations as well: John is obligated to serve Mary dinner only if Mary has a right to dinner (from John). But I suspect something really hangs on flattening out the difference between positive and negative obligations as he does here.
For one, it doesn’t really help John at all to know he has an obligation to refrain from insulting Mary—unless he is deliberating about insulting Mary. But why should he do that in the first place? He might do so because Mary insulted him, and he thinks there is an obligation to restore his honour by lobbing his best Shakespearean put-down against her. In that case, the negative obligation—don’t do that—might have some real purchase, if in fact he is not justified in doing so.
Additionally, suppose that an individual has a right to life, which is ‘natural.’ On the principle of correlatives, everyone has a duty to not take the person’s life. That’s all well and good, I suppose—except it means the scope of obligations I am currently under by virtue of the claims that other people have against me is massive. That may be fine, since I only have to not do a lot of slaughtering in order to fulfill those obligations. But the concept of obligation seems to have lost real purchase on my practical decision making at that point.
I think my worry is with the parity between negative and positive obligations: with the tacit suggestion that the obligation to refrain from harming someone is of the same species or functions similarly with respect to rights as the obligation to bestow a benefit on someone. ‘Rights’ might correlate to either obligations or prohibitions—but they do not do so in the same way. Or so it seems to me, at least.
Is this too technical and fine-grained? Probably, though there are perhaps some important practical and spiritual benefits to thinking through the question. I’ve suggested previously that obligations are sources of our own well-being and good rather than impositions which prevent us from attaining it. If that is the case, though, then it behooves us to specify what form those obligations take.