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(credit: Arek Socha/Pixabay)

The mystery of the moral obligation

It may sound like the title of a Sherlock Holmes story, but moral obligations are rather more mysterious than that

Imagine you are offered an interest free loan, with a moral obligation to repay it. That’s it. No formal, contractual obligation, no threat, even implied, of enforcement in case you do not actually pay back the loan. Would you eventually repay it?

This is precisely what happened to Bill Mauer, currently a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert on the technological infrastructures and social relations of exchange and payment — when he had just finished his sophomore year in college. In a recent episode of the (highly recommended) Hidden Brain podcast, he relates how he received a letter from the Hager Scholarship Fund, explaining he was the recipient of an award that would take the place of his student loan. To his young self, “it was like, I will take the money, and I don’t have a student loan anymore.”

Years later, when he had paid off all his other student debt, he remembered the moral obligation to repay this award — “It grabbed me, and pulled me right in.” Such Moral Obligation Scholarships are not a legal binding debt obligation, and the recipient can, entirely legitimately, elect to ignore the donor and college’s request and pay nothing. Yet Mauer chose to repay it, just like he had settled his other debts.

A strange anomaly — or is it?

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No need for a signature in moral obligations (image: Pixabay/Pexels)

Of course, most economists know very well that real human society is more complex, and that unenforceable moral obligations are, just as much as hard contracts, an essential ingredient of our social and indeed economic interchanges. Meeting such an obligation may look as a transaction where we give up something for nothing. But you don’t need to be a behavioural economist to understand concepts like reciprocity and reputation.

Even in nature we see, for example, primates grooming each other — literally “you scratch my back, I scratch yours”. Social scientist Robert Cialdini suggests that, when someone thanks us for something we did for them, we don’t just say “you’re welcome”, but “I know you’d do the same for me”. The message we send to the recipient of our generosity is that we see them as someone who will, one day when we are in need, be ready to help us out. Is this the creation of a moral obligation? Of course, the other person may, when the time comes, turn a deaf ear to us, but chances are that they will recall how we were there for them, and feel morally obliged to reciprocate.

Ah, I hear you say, but why did we grant them the favour in the first place? Were we reciprocating an earlier favour from them? If not, where was our moral obligation to them?

Moral obligations can arise within the moral framework of a society and be the default: we ‘know’ that we really ought to help our close relatives or our friends (without keeping tally), even if they have never helped us in the past. The moral obligation to help is an integral part of how we experience our social relationships. We see it also between colleagues, or between members of clubs and associations, for example.

Reputation matters

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Something fishy about the reputation of the guy on the right? (Image: geralt/pixabay)

Not quite so selfless, it seems. And so, even from an economic perspective, meeting these ‘moral obligations’ is perhaps not so mysterious: it is, ultimately, self-serving. We know we will likely require help at some point, especially from people close to us, so it is a sensible investment to go first and activate reciprocity. In the many groups to which we belong, too, we likewise invest in our reputation.

That even spills over to total strangers. If Bill Maurer had reneged on his moral obligation scholarship, someone would have known, and his reputation would have been dented in the eyes of this stranger. There is also the Pay It Forward phenomenon, where people repay an act of kindness to someone other than the original benefactor. While we obviously don’t all practise it all the time, the fact itself that some people do it some of the time at all is remarkable. It seems reputation is a form of social capital, and every little helps — even our reputation in the eyes of people who have little direct impact on our lives.

Mystery unsolved

A little introspection suggests that I would be reluctant to break my word — even to a dead person (and I suspect I am not alone in this). Neither reciprocity, nor reputational concerns can explain this. So what makes me feel obliged to fulfil such a promise? Perhaps I want to preserve my self-image — but to what purpose? Would I be a worse person if I conscientiously met all my moral obligations to living people, but — entirely rationally — ignored those to dead people, and nobody but me knew? If not, why do I still feel that way? If so, in what way, why would I have that perception, and why could I not change it?

The many question marks indicate that moral obligations seem to escape rational explanations. The mystery remains unresolved.

Originally published at on January 31, 2020.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

Written by

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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