R. E. Ewin

Provis gives two different statements of his aim in this book. One is to articulate the logic of our obligations in group situations (p. 1), and the other is 'to consider the ethical implications of some well-attested findings about social life' (p. 146). He does take both of these on and is much more successful in dealing with the second than in dealing with the first.

Provis begins his account of the logic of our obligations (on p. 8) by citing Anscombe's 'Modern Moral Philosophy' (Philosophy 33, 1958) as an example of recent moral theory that argues against the emphasis that had (and has) been placed on the idea of obligation, but he does not set out or assess any of the reasons that she gives for her claim; he simply responds by writing (p. 9) 'it is also possible to focus too little on our obligations'. More consideration of what Anscombe says, and what others say on the topic, might have sharpened the argument at this point. Obligations are usually taken to be correlative with rights: if A has an obligation to B, then B has a right against A. If we talk about A's obligations, then, we must be prepared to argue about whether B has a right specifically against A. Kindness, for example, is more than simply fulfilling one's obligations or doing one's duty; it is going beyond that out of concern for the well-being of the sufferer. One shows one's character by how one exercises one's rights, or by how one refrains from exercising one's rights. If Gwendolyn has borrowed money from me, then, clearly, she has an obligation to me. If the due date was today, then she has an obligation to give me the money today. But if Gwendolyn is in dire straits and I can get by without the money, I can exercise my right by simply telling her to forget the debt or, at least, postpone the date on which it will be due. If, on the other hand, having just won a million dollars in the lottery and having no need of the money, I insist that she nevertheless pay up today and suffer the conse- quences that her penury will bring about, I shall simply be exercising my right, she will be fulfilling her obligation, and I shall have shown a rather unpleasant aspect of my character. Obligations are not the be-all and end- all of morality. It is a pity that the idea of decency has received so little attention in moral theory. There is a lot more to being a decent human being than simply fulfilling one's duties and obligations. Of course it is a good thing if we are kind, allowing Gwendolyn to postpone repayment of the debt even if I haven't won the lottery and am a bit short of money myself, but it isn't something that can be demanded of me as an obligation. Trying to cover everything as a matter of obligation muddies the waters of moral argument.

The same basic point can be useful in classifying types of groups, too, providing a somewhat different account from that given by Provis. I can be a Bolton Wanderers supporter (to take one of Provis's examples) all on my own; I can be a corporal only if there is an army. If I don't wear the scarf, go along to games, or have any interest in the results, then I am not really a Bolton Wanderers supporter. If I refuse to stand guard duty, go absent without leave whenever danger threatens and so on, it does not follow that I am not a corporal (though I might not remain one for long); what follows is that I am a corporal who is derelict in his duty. Some institutions are such that the roles are actually defined by duties and obligations, so that the duties and obligations are not simply tacked on afterwards. There can be argument about what duties should be given to particular roles (some- body at the level of corporal might not know enough to be given responsi- bility for working out the whole battle plan), but those arguments will be carried on in terms of the efficiency of different possible ways of achieving the purpose of the institution. And there is room for argument about the worth or propriety of institutions in the light of their purposes: the Mafia might have roles defined in terms of duties and obligations, but they would have a different weight because of the worth of the Mafia. But the point is that there is a significant difference, relevant to obligation, between a bunch of people doing together what they could, had they so wanted, have done alone, and people who are working in a co-operative framework where each has rights and obligations determining his or her function in the over- all endeavour.

Provis also writes of deriving obligations from expectations. Not any old expectation will base an obligation, nor does Provis think that it does. If I make a habit of going out to a discussion group on Wednesday nights and somebody, noticing that, decides one Wednesday night to pick my lock so that she can steal both my earthly possessions, I will not have failed to fulfil any obligation based on her expectation that I shall be out if I have decided to stay home that night. 'Expectation' is a significantly ambiguous word. If, in the days when he was young enough for me to have some control over him, I had said to my son before the arrival of guests 'I expect you to behave yourself', I would not have been pointlessly informing him that I thought it very likely that he would behave himself; I would have been imposing a requirement. Where the expectation is a requirement (a cor- poral is expected to stand guard duty), clearly there is no move at all from the expectation to the obligation: the reference to expectation simply expresses the obligation. But if it is merely a matter of thinking something likely, no obligation will follow. It might not be merely a matter of thinking something likely; I might have gone out of my way to foster the expectation so that I could gain some benefit, but in that case I would clearly have been dishonest. If my children, driven by hope fuelled by memories of past occa- sions and not by my deliberately misleading them, have developed the expectation that I shall take them to the beach on Saturday afternoon, and if I have nothing urgent to do when that time comes, I'll take them to the beach if I am a decent human being. If I am just bloody minded and in a bad mood, I might point out to them that I did nothing to foster their expectation and that they have nothing on which to base a claim against me that I must take them to the beach.

In later sections of the book, Provis is very good in dealing with pro- blems related to this: problems about how people can be misled into think- ing that they have obligations when they have no such thing. In particular, he discusses how they can be misled by their willingness to trust people who are, or appear to be, in authority. This is importantly true of his dis- cussions of Milgram's experiment at various stages throughout the second half of the book. And it is importantly true of his discussions of the ways in which people, seeing somebody as being in authority, can fail to consider what the limits of that authority might be and hence which commands they might be obligated to obey. Provis argues against Rational Choice and Utilitarian accounts of moral reasoning, and in neither view could I agree with him more strongly. In the case of arguments against Rational Choice, he might have been helped by consideration of the work on economic motivation that won Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences (e.g. Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetch, and Richard Thaler: 'Fairness and the Assumptions of Economics', Journal of Business, 1986; 'Fairness as a Constraint on Profit Seeking: Entitlements in the Market', The American Economic Review, 1986). Nevertheless, Provis's account of moral reasoning as pattern recognition (see pp. 23-26 and passim) seems to need more development. The question to be asked is: what makes that pattern that pattern when we recognise it? This might seem an odd ques- tion to ask, but it is an important one: what we need is patterns that are relevantly similar. If, in bygone times, a young woman had mooted the idea of proposing to her slow-moving boyfriend, her mother might have said in a horrified voice 'But it isn't a Leap Year'. And that response might have been significant at that time and place and in those mores. In other cases we clearly would not consider the calendar a relevant consid- eration. If Fred, Paul and Murray killed Sue, Mary and Prudence, in each case on a Tuesday, and each was found guilty of murder, the fact that Ronald killed Perpetua on a Wednesday would not be a strong point for the defence. We need an account of how to sort out what are the relevant elements in the pattern, and the relevant elements might not be properties that we can see with the naked eye: murders can be carried out with guns, knives, garrottes, poison, by pushing somebody off a cliff and so on, with no single observable element that makes the case one of murder. Provis refers (p. 25) in his explanation of the significance of patterns to Wittgenstein's idea of family resemblance, but the idea of family resem- blance to explain what brings diverse things together in a pattern or group, or brings them under one concept, has been convincingly attacked. It might bring things together, but it has a problem in keeping anything out. Take the example of games: teams play football and cricket and vol- leyball, so we have something in common amongst them, but teams also fight fires; a single person might play solitaire or golf, but a single person might read a book; somebody might enjoy playing tennis or volleyball, but somebody else might enjoy singing. There is no one thing common to all games, so Wittgenstein's explanation of what makes things games was that there were overlaps from one activity to another, with the result that solitaire and football might have nothing in common, but they can both be classified as games because of the web of overlapping similarities through the activities between them. But, as the short list of examples above makes clear, they also have similarities to activities other than games, and if one could on the basis of overlapping similarities classify all those things as games, one could also classify fighting fires, reading books and singing as games. And that suggests that family resemblance is not enough. In explaining how to sort out what makes fea- tures relevant to a pattern, Provis might well have considered Julius Kovesi's Moral Notions (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967; also Cybereditions, 2004. See his discussion of family resemblance at p. 22 (1967) or p. 19 (2004)).

But Provis's more empirical work is much stronger and is useful. His concern is mainly with what can lead people to false beliefs that they are obligated to do various things, and especially to obey certain orders or fit in with certain rules. One might disagree with some of his classifications of groups, which goes back to my earlier point about some groups defining roles in terms of duties and obligations that are worked out in terms of the purpose of the group. So I agree with him that being a Bolton Wanderers supporter does not, in itself, involve any obligations. (Taking on the secre- taryship of the supporters' club would involve some obligations.) Being Australian, though, arguably does involve obligations as well as rights, even though Australians do not form the sort of small, face-to-face group that Provis takes to be the home of obligations. Australians are, for a start, related by a legal system that imposes obligations (e.g. to pay all due taxes) which allows us to support the vulnerable, to provide security, and so on in a quite complicated network of rights and obligations. One can, therefore, disagree with Provis about some of his classifications, but I don't intend to try to argue out the particular cases here.

The most interesting thing that Provis does is to call on work in the social sciences to explain various ways in which people can be misled about their obligations or, more generally, what they should do. A quick sum- mary of the work from the social sciences is impossible, so I shall not try to provide one. The herd mentality gets a well-deserved going over; the way in which people form common interest groups or simply notice similarities that they have with others (migrants, e.g., often form groups to support each other in a new country) and often come to think of themselves as bound by obligations to each other, but if their activity falls short of co- operative endeavour they will not actually have obligations to each other. In such cases, people can develop poorly based loyalties that will lead them astray in their actions. As Provis notes, from such beginnings a different structure can grow in which there will be genuine obligations. He deals (especially in connection with Milgram) with the way people can be misled by people who are in authority or appear to be in authority. And, very use- fully, he goes on to suggest various structural ways of trying to avoid those problems. One can only hope that he is successful in achieving change in some of these matters.

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