This is the first in the reading-group series. Contributions welcome (from members of the network or beyond) in the comments. The post itself gives an overview of the article.
Hardimon, Michael O. (1994) Role Obligations. Journal of Philosophy. 91(7): 333-363.
This is a modern classic for anyone working on the ethics of roles, and is often cited in discussions of special obligations and the like. The writing is beautifully clear, and this a good place for us to start if only because one of Hardimon’s ambitions is to bring the topic of roles in from the wings of normative philosophy and onto centre-stage where many of us agree it belongs.
His other main ambition is to get clear on what is and isn’t right about what he calls the ‘standard view’ of role obligations, which he summarizes in three claims (p. 337):
- Role obligations are of two kinds, ‘contractual’ and ‘non-contractual’;
- Contractual role obligations are acquired by signing on for the roles from which they derive;
- Non-contractual role obligations are extremely problematic, if they exist at all.
He takes these in reverse order. His conclusions:
On (3), role obligations can be normatively binding despite being non-contractually entered into and unchosen – just so long as the roles themselves, and the institutions to which they belong, are ‘reflectively acceptable’. On (2), the reason-giving nature of many contractually entered-into roles are better thought of in terms of role-identification by the occupant than by comparison with ordinary acts of promising. And on (1), there is more in common between contractual and non-contractual role obligations than we might suspect once we spot that role occupants are motivated in both cases by role identification.
Hardimon covers a lot of ground in reaching this conclusion, and the journey will be of at least as much interest as the destination to members of this Network. Of note, for example, are:
- His objections to what he calls the Doctrine of Perfect Adequacy, a caricature commonly used to dismiss role-centric ethical thinking (section II)
- His claim that roles animate our moral lives because they bridge the gap between us as individuals and the social institutions we inhabit (e.g. pp. 341-2)
- His suggestion that there is less individual choice involved in voluntarily entered-into roles than one may suppose, because “roles, contractual and noncontractual alike, are institutionally defined clusters of rights and duties” (p. 354)
- His view that the obligations of a friend are importantly distinct from obligations of a family member or employee (section I)
- His description of role identification as potentially transformative, but not necessarily ‘engulfing’ of self (pp. 358-60).
A final point worth remarking on: Hardimon does not adopt the virtue-ethics approach to roles that has become more prevalent since 1994 (see e.g. the Special Issue mentioned in a recent post). Virtue thinking barely figures here, even as something he rejects. With the benefit of 23 years of hindsight, that might be seen as a serious lacuna. A more positive way of seeing it is that Hardimon offers us a lucid alternative candidate to a virtues approach to social roles.