An obligation is a course of action that someone is required to take, whether legal or moral. Obligations are constraints, they limit our freedom. We can choose however, to freely act under obligations. Obligation exists when there is a choice to do what is morally good and what is morally unacceptable. [1]There are also obligations in other normative contexts, such as obligations of etiquette, social obligations, religious and possibly in terms of politics, where obligations are requirements which must be fulfilled. These are generally legal obligations, which can incur a penalty for non-fulfilment, although certain people are obliged to carry out certain actions for other reasons as well, whether as a tradition or for social reasons.

Obligations vary from person to person: for example, a person holding a political office will generally have far more obligations than an average adult citizen, who themselves will have more obligations than a child.[2] Obligations are generally granted in return for an increase in an individual's rights or power. For example, obligations for health and safety in a workplace from employer to employee maybe to ensure the fire exit is not blocked or ensure that the plugs are put in firmly.

Other uses

The term obligate can also be used in a biological context, in reference to species which must occupy a certain niche or behave in a certain way in order to survive. In biology, the opposite of obligate is facultative, meaning that a species is able to behave in a certain way and may do so under certain circumstances, but that it can also survive without having to behave this way. For example, species of salamanders in the family Proteidae are obligate paedomorphs, whereas species belonging to the Ambystomatidae are facultative paedomorphs.

In the Catholic Church, Holy Days of Obligation or Holidays of Obligation, less commonly called Feasts of Precept, are the days on which, as canon 1247 of the Code of Canon Law states, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.

Obligation and morality

An obligation is a contract between us and the thing or person we are obligated to. Should we breach that contract, we are then subject to blame. When we enter in to an obligation, conscious beings generally do not think about the guilt that we would experience is we do not fulfill our obligation, instead we think about how we can go about fulfilling our obligation. Rationalist argue that we respond in this way because we have a reason to fulfill our obligation.[3] The sanction theory is the idea that our obligation is really to the pressures we feel by society and not necessarily to a singular thing or person. In the rationalist argument, this same pressure, adds to the reasons we have to fulfill the obligation, it intensifies our desire to fulfill the obligation. The sanction theory states that there needs to be a sanction, something that gives an obligation power, in order for the obligation to seem like a moral duty.[3]

Sociological view of obligation versus philosophical view of obligation

Sociologists believe that obligations force people to act in ways that society deems acceptable. Every society has their own way of governing, they expect their citizens to behave in a particular manner. Not only do the citizens have to oblige to the societal norms, they want to, in order to assimilate to society.[4] Philosophers on the other hand, argue that rational beings have moral duties, we make a choice to either fulfill these moral duties or disregard them. In essence, we have a moral responsibility to fulfill our obligations. Duty is our response to our obligations. Obligations require an action being done and duty is the carrying out of this action.[5] Sociologists believe that an obligation is an objective force, philosophers however, believe obligations are moral imperatives.[4]

Types of obligations

Written obligations

Written obligations are contracts. They legally bind two people into an agreement. We become responsible for doing our part of the contract. A legal contract consists of an offer, an acceptance of that offer, an intention to bind to one another in a legal agreement and a consideration, something of value to be exchanged.[6]

Political obligation

A political obligation is a requirement for the citizens of a society to follow the laws of that society.[7] There are philosophical issues however, about whether or not a citizen should follow a law simply because it is a law. There are various views about whether or not a political obligation is a moral obligation. John Rawls argues that we do have political obligation because of the principle of fairness. We benefit from the joint effort of our government so in fairness, we should be active and supportive members of this effort.[7] There are people however, such as Robert Nozick, who argue that enjoyment of a community effort does not mean obligation to that effort.[7]

Social obligation

Social obligations refer to the things we as individuals accept because it is collectively accepted.[8] When we agree to a promise or an agreement, we are collectively consenting to the terms of that agreement or promise. We then, are obligated to fulfill that promise or agreement.[8]

See also


  1. Ross, Ralph (1970). Obligation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472087657.
  2. Old Bear, Sacred Journey of the Medicine Wheel (2008), p. 393: "Adults have more obligations and are held to higher standards of accountability than children are".
  3. Owens, David (2012-09-20). Obligation. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199691500.001.0001/acprof-9780199691500-chapter-4. ISBN 9780191744938.
  4. Ogien, Albert (2016-12-01). "Obligation and Impersonality: Wittgenstein and the Nature of the Social". Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 46 (6): 604–623. doi:10.1177/0048393116649970. ISSN 0048-3931.
  5. Korsgaard, Christine (July 1989). "Kant's Analysis of Obligation: The Argument of Foundations". The Monist. 72: 311–340.
  6. "Contracts and agreements | Small Business". www.smallbusiness.wa.gov.au. Retrieved 2019-11-27.
  7. Song, Edward (2012). "Acceptance, Fairness, and Political Obligation". Legal Theory. 18.
  8. Miller, Kaarlo (2006-06-01). "Social obligation as reason for action". Cognitive Systems Research. Cognition, Joint Action and Collective Intentionality. 7 (2): 273–285. doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2005.11.005. ISSN 1389-0417.

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