Marital Responsibilities

Marriage seems at first to be a counterexample to the VP and a clear case in which the associated role-related moral responsibilities are voluntarily assumed . But when we look more closely we see evidence to the contrary. When we try to describe marriage merely in terms of a contract, we encounter difficulties; provisions, penalties, terms and many other aspects of a contract are either completely absent or not strictly defined. While it is true that a marriage often looks like, can be acted out as, and can be terminated like, a contract, what must be acknowledged are the mutual dependencies that characterize marriages, whether they are officially recognized by means of marriage licenses or not.

Of course, Goodin says, one should not overlook that, usually, such relations are voluntarily assumed but this more accurately points to how special obligations arise in marriage, and not what their specific content is. Many of the responsibilities which cohabiting partners have towards one another seem to reflect more the fact that they have placed themselves in one another's power emotionally, financially, and physically. Cohabiting spouses, whether they have been legally married or not, have made themselves vulnerable to each other by extending trust to their partners, and it is this mutual vulnerability that accounts for the moral responsibilities and special obligations between spousal partners, rather than any explicit contractual agreements they may have made.

The marriage ceremony and the marriage license, the exchanging of matrimonial vows, only ratify and publicize an interpersonal relationship characterized by intimacy and trust between two persons in which each is made vulnerable in numerous ways to the actions and decisions of their partner. Cohabiting spouses have strong moral responsibilities to care for one another due to these pre-existing relationships of dependency and vulnerability whether or not they have explicitly agreed to abide by a marriage contract or performed a public ceremony of some kind in which they have explicitly exchanged marriage vows.

In a marriage, or other close intimate relationship, the parties to the relationship are mutually vulnerable to one another in many specific ways, and each is depending on the other not to betray their trust. In this sense, marriage partners are specially vulnerable to one another in ways in which they are not vulnerable to other people with whom they have no intimate relationship. To have a relationship based on trust and intimacy is to give another person a certain kind of power over you, a power that they can deploy responsibly or not. Not all aspects of this kind of moral responsibility can be delegated to others; it is often important that one's own partner be the one who cares and not anyone else.

Using parental responsibilities and marital responsibilities as paradigm cases, Goodin attempts to generalize the VP to other kinds of interpersonal relationships: "What seems true for children in particular also seems true for other kin, neighbors, countrymen, and contractors. To some greater or lesser extent, they are all dependent on you to do something for them; and your varying responsibilities toward each of them seem roughly proportional to the degree to which they are, in fact, dependent upon you (and you alone) to perform certain services" (33-34).The moral intuitions upon which this argument rests are strengthened considerably by the qualification inserted parenthetically, that the bearers of the responsibility in question is uniquely able to assume and discharge the responsibility in question towards the beneficiary. This is not always the case, and we must broaden Goodin's account to include shared and collective responsibilities of various kinds. But, as Goodin points out, "[w]hat the vulnerability model emphasizes is not just their special need, however, but also your special ability to help. That is the crucial factor in imposing the duty upon you in particular" (34).

I will take up this suggestion in greater detail at a later stage in the argument, and discuss the forms of power, knowledge, special competences or skills, resources, and positional considerations, which need to be taken into account in order to account for the ascription of special moral responsibilities to particular agents. But for the moment suffice it to note that the existence of a special responsibilities of care generated by a relationship of vulnerability depends both upon the characteristics of the subjects or bearers of those responsibilities as well as those of the beneficiaries or objects of those responsibilities, the C and D arguments in the vulnerability and corrigibility relationships.

In some other kinds of familial relationships we find that individuals have entered roles which they might not have, or at least only partially, chosen. Where this is the case, the inherent responsibilities of that role being voluntarily assumed might be a slightly inaccurate characterization. As was indicated above, where such roles have been self-assumed, it seems that the voluntary nature of assuming such responsibilities answers the specific question as to why we have certain responsibilities to family members, but not, necessarily what these responsibilities include. In such cases, Goodin asserts the vulnerability model as superior in terms of both explaining why we have such responsibilities and what they those responsibilities are and entail. One of the bits of evidence for this assertion is that actions in accordance with self-assumed contractual obligations have the character of narrow reciprocity. Debts are incurred and discharged after which, the parties stand again in the same relation as before the debt was incurred (89). But such a characterization for the special moral relationships that exist among family members, he notes, seems to be "out of place in family relationships" (90). But let's test this by looking at some other familial relationships.

Filial Responsibilities

One might have a filial responsibility derived from one's role as adult child to care for one's aged and infirm parents, and to do things for them like help them do their shopping. Such filial responsibilities create moral obligations which exist whether or not the agent has explicitly made a promise to the parent to, say, take her shopping on a particular day. These sorts of special responsibilities, filial obligations, are associated with the role occupied by the agent, being someone’s adult child, and one does not choose to enter this role.

An adult child with an aged and vulnerable mother may, of course, also explicitly promise to take their morther shopping on such and such a day. Here in the act of making a promise one has both explicitly acknowledged one's special moral responsibility, which pre‑existed the act of promising, and creates a right on the part of the parent under which she can demand that you fulfill what you have promised to do. The act of promising, in this case, also functions as an ascription of responsibility to a particular agent at a particular time, and this might be needed, for instance, in cases where there is more than one child who shares a filial responsibility towards the parent. The voluntaristic aspect in such cases concerns only the ascription of responsibility (i.e. volunteering to assume a shared responsibility on a particular occasion), and the creation of a correlative right. However, the content of the responsibility itself, the filial obligation to render assistance and care to aged parent who is in need of it, derives not from the promise, but from the vulnerability of the parent and the child's capacity to satisfy her needs, and perhaps also in this case from the notion of gratitude and reciprocity, (one can legitimately question whether an adult who was abused by his parent as a child owes that parent any special filial obligations).

The moral claim of the parent on the child's assistance pre‑exists the act of promising, so that act does not create the obligation, but only acknowledges and specifies it. If I make a promise to my mother to take her shopping, then if I fail to do so, I have both wronged her and have acted wrongly. However, I may still act wrongly if I fail to do this for her, even though I have not explicitly promised her that I would. I may act wrongly towards her if I understand that she is vulnerable to being stranded in her apartment because she is fearful of going out alone, and that she has no one else to turn to who will escort her to the department store. Under such circumstances, the adult child of an aged and infirm parent would have a filial responsibility towards her mother, even when she does not explicitly consent to it. The act of explicitly making a promise discursively legitimizes the underlying moral responsibility, but it does not create it.