Obligations vs. duties
Reader comment on: Budgets and Brothers
Submitted by Don Watkins (United States), Jul 19, 2011 23:58
Thanks for taking note of our column, Ira, and for your thoughtful comments. I think, however, that framing the issue in terms of "circles of obligation" clouds the issue because it blurs a crucial distinction: obligations an individual voluntarily accepts in pursuit of his own interests, and unchosen obligations an individual supposedly has that demand him to sacrifice his interests.
I would argue that a person pursuing his self-interest has all sorts of voluntarily-accepted obligations. For instance, I have obligations to treat my wife a certain way, not as some painful duty, but in order to foster a relationship that means a tremendous amount to me. Similarly, I'm contractually obligated to write the best columns I can for my employer.
That is radically different from the idea that there are people I have a self-sacrificial duty to help regardless of their value to me. Once you accept that idea, it doesn't matter whether you happen to think it applies only to certain others. You've conceded the essential issue: the individual is not sovereign, and the needs of his neighbor trump his pursuit of happiness. It's hard to see how you can then defend against the person who says that your "neighbor" ought to include your entire town, or city, or county, or planet. Indeed, isn't that what moralists like Peter Singer (to say nothing of Christian theorists) have argued?
In my view, you can't fight the welfare state by defending the welfare town. You have to fight for the individual's moral and political right to pursue his own self-interest.
Ayn Rand addresses some of these issues at http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/charity.html and http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/sacrifice.html. I encourage anyone interested to take a look.
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