Sunday, August 9, 2020

Why Associative Theories of Obligation and Rights Aren't the Whole Story

What we might call associative theories of rights and obligations hold that our rights against one another and our obligations to one another arise in virtue of our interacting with one another, belonging to the same organization or group, or otherwise being part of a collective. 

Pretty much everyone agrees that certain associations give rise to additional obligations. But some hold that rights and obligations only arise in virtue of such associations. Call these pure associative theories. For instance, certain versions of Aristotelianism hold that what we owe things to each other in virtue of being part of a common polity. Associative theories are rather unpopular among philosophers today and you'll rarely see them defended in print, but it does appear that many laypeople in the past, and even many today, subscribe to such views.

Such theories face a powerful counterexample, though. Consider:

Imagine there is a distant planet filled with alien much like us, with the same kind of rational and emotive faculties, same degree of personal autonomy, same capacities, and so on. Human beings don't interact with these aliens in any way. You're the only person who knows about them, and they don't know we exist. 

You have a Doomsday Device. If you push the big red button on the device, you will instantly kill everyone on that distant planet. 

It seems clear that you ought not press the device; indeed, if you did, you would immediately be the worst person ever to have lived. 

But pure associative theories would have to say that since you are not in association with these aliens, you owe them nothing. An Aristotelian might argue that pushing the button is wrong for some other reason, such as that it fails to contribute to your own flourishing. But this is the wrong kind of reason.