Objectionable Obligations

Can someone be bound by a moral obligation and yet at the same time have a moral complaint about being so bound? That is, there is something that they ought, all things considered, to do, for moral reasons. And yet, we and they feel that they have a moral complaint about being the one who is bound to do it: it is unfair that they, and not others, should bear the burden of having to do or attend to whatever this obligation requires. This is what I shall call an “objectionable obligation.” Do such obligations exist? Is this idea even coherent? And if it is, what follows from this fact? These are the questions I shall address in this talk. I shall try to show that in many commonplace situations, our intuitive reaction is that someone has both a moral obligation and a moral complaint about it. For instance, systemic discrimination, properly understood, involves not just a collective failure to attend to our non-objectionable obligations to subordinated groups, but also the imposition on subordinated groups of objectionable obligations. However, moral theories such as consequentialism and contractualism seem to leave no conceptual space for such obligations. If I am right that we need to be able to recognize such obligations, this casts doubt on these theories —and on any theory that aspires to moral completeness, purporting to provide a single procedure for determining what we owe to others that captures all morally relevant considerations.