Sophia Moreau: "Morality and Institutional Role Obligations"

Event date
2 March 2023
Event time
15:00 - 16:30
Oxford week
HT 7
Goodhart Seminar Room University College

Sophia Moreau (Toronto)

Notes & Changes

Abstract: Many of our moral obligations are bound up in complex ways with the institutional roles that we occupy –for instance, as fathers, daughters, hosts and guests, teachers, colleagues, and in some communities, elders. Within discussions of normative ethics, such obligations are sometimes not explicitly separated out from the kinds of obligations that we owe to friends or that derive from personal projects and attachments. This way of conceptualizing them obscures the role of social institutions in determining both the scope and the normative force of these moral obligations.  


One of the aims of this paper is to draw attention to the institutional dimension of role obligations and to urge that, as moral philosophers, we need to do more work to explore it and to analyze how institutions make a difference both to the content and to the normative force of certain genuine moral obligations.  I shall suggest that we need a number of different explanations, because different role obligations are generated in different ways.  I shall argue against exclusively instrumentalist analyses and also against the claim that what makes institutional role obligations binding on us is the value of being bound, as an end in itself. 


A second aim of the paper is to expose the burdens placed upon people whose institutional obligations involve a considerable sacrifice of self and freedom –burdens that I think have been obscured by traditional discussions of partiality and their focus on the institutions of friendship and promising, which offer people much more scope to shape their own obligations than do most institutional roles. 


The paper’s final aim is to lay out one of the main philosophical challenges confronting philosophers trying to make sense of institutional role obligations, which concerns how to identify a plausible set of constraints on which institutional obligations can constitute moral obligations, while nevertheless leaving space for genuine moral obligations that are extremely burdensome.

Sophia Moreau, Professor of Law and Philosophy at the University of Toronto, delivers the eighth paper of Hilary Term 2023: "Morality and Institutional Role Obligations". The seminar will start at 3:00pm in the Goodhart Seminar Room of University College (Logic Lane). 

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