Moral responsibility in relationships

The comment thread on my previous post raised some questions about the nature of values in a relationship and what it means to owe something to somebody. In this post I intend to explore these issues deeper.

A person can be a value to me merely by virtue of existing (so can things). As an example, a baby is a value to the parent in just this way. A person can be a value to me by virtue of his actions even when those actions are not personal. Sachin Tendulkar is a value to me because of the way he bats. Ayn Rand is a value to me because of the works she wrote. The latter is an example of a person no longer alive. Clearly there must be a difference in what (if anything) I owe Ayn Rand as compared to what I owe my parents. This difference arises from the nature of values I receive in these two cases. The values I receive from a hero or a role model with whom I have no personal interaction are non-exclusive. The production of those values is not directed towards me and my consumption of those values does not cost anything to the producers of those values. In contrast, the values that I receive from my parents or in any inter-personal relationship are exclusive. They are directed towards me. The time and money spent by my parents on me was spent on me. It cost something to them.

Exclusive values can be traded. Non-exclusive values cannot. A personal relationship – in as much as a relationship means something more than the existence of two people – is based on the long-term trade of values. This is not to say that non-exclusive values are not important. Many personal relationships would be impossible without non-exclusive values. But it is the trade of exclusive values that makes a relationship personal.

In the context of values, one owes something (exclusive values) to somebody when one is the recipient of exclusive values under mutually acceptable terms (the mutual agreement is usually implicit).

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One Response

  1. Great post. You should also try and dig into the difference between intrinsic value and instrumental value. You seem to be pointing toward a discussion of mostly instrumental value here but I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about intrinsic value.

    –Justin

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