Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where Do Obligations Come From?

This is an amazing article. A must read if you want to truly understand the social contract that makes up all our relationships, communities, and governance.

Where Do Obligations Come From?
Last week a Chesterfield circuit court ruled Romito has no obligation to pay dues to the homeowners' association in the tony Bexley neighborhood. Romito bought his property two decades ago, when membership in the association was voluntary. Last year the Bexley Association made membership and dues mandatory. To force Romito to pay dues now, ruled Judge Herbert C. Gill, would be "simply unjust."

Why? Well, the lovely thing about homeowners' associations is that they entail voluntary social contracts. People who join them freely and explicitly consent to live by a set of rules governing the community. When a member flouts the rules, he also violates a universal moral law: the law against breaking promises.

As C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, people seem to have an innate grasp of certain moral notions: "Everyone has heard people quarrelling . . . . They say things like this: 'How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?' -- 'That's my seat, I was there first' -- 'Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm' -- 'Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine' -- 'Come on, you promised' . . . .Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are . . . .Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature."

The binding quality of promises seems to be one of those moral notions upon which we can all agree, so much so that the concept of a non-binding promise seems oxymoronic. (Of course legitimate reasons exist for breaking promises sometimes, and everyone can think of hypothetical situations to illustrate them, but those exceptions do not invalidate the general rule.)

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