Monday Musings – What is a Moral Obligation?

The words “moral obligation” have been bandied about a lot in the news lately, especially in regard to the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. If you Google moral obligation, a significant amount of hits are articles and commentary on Penn State, their staff, and the scandal. Most of it centers around how administrative staff at Penn State did not fulfill their “moral obligation” in reporting the suspected child abuse by Sandusky, specifically Joe Paterno, until recently Penn State’s Nittany Lions football team Head Coach, and Mike McQueary, an Assistant Coach.  The NY Times posted a question on one of their blogs that asks, “Do leaders, like Joe Paterno, generally have a moral obligation to take action in situations that do not necessarily fall under their specific authority?” A good question, but tough to answer. The more I’ve listened to the different people such as Gov. Tom Corbett, the NY Times, Obama, and the public throw out the words  “moral obligation,” the more I’ve begun to wonder…what exactly is a “moral obligation?”

I attempted to look up definitions of moral obligation and found that most sources, including scholarly journals and articles, did not have a clear-cut definition. Many were philosophical debates on the idea of moral obligations and whether or not morality should or does even exist!  Then it ventures into the dangerous realm of moral relativism which is the philosophical theory that that morality is relative, that different moral truths hold for different people. It denies the existence of moral absolutes, or morals that hold true for all people, in all places, at all times. So, again, I ask, what is a “moral obligation?”

Moral obligation has a number of philosophical meanings and definitions, but for an overall sense of cohesiveness, we must agree on at least one definition, don’t you think? From the articles that I researched, generally speaking, when someone says of an act that is a “moral obligation,” they refer to a belief that the act is one prescribed by their values. It is a duty (obligation), which one owes, and which one ought to perform, but is not legally bound to fulfill.  Susan Wolf pointed out that we need to set aside a small subset of the morally desirable actions as ‘obligatory’ for pragmatic reasons. There are too many morally desirable actions, and we can’t expect everyone to satisfy them all. That would make morality too demanding. So it is useful for society to be able to point to a subset of the most important actions and say, “you must at least do those!” It is the binding force of this ‘must’ which distinguishes moral obligation from the weaker sense of moral desirability.

The crucial question now arises: how are we to draw this distinction? What makes some morally desirable actions obligatory, and not others? One might initially think to appeal to the ‘weightiness’ of the moral reasons. But that won’t do because we can have trivial moral obligations, such as we are obligated to not steal a paperclip. Since our aim is to draw a distinction which will help promote more moral behavior in practice, the obvious basis for this distinction is to identify that class of actions which, if recognized as ‘moral requirements’, will have the morally best consequences. There is certainly some fact of the matter about which such classes would have the best results, and so we have a principled basis for determining (in the metaphysical sense; whether we can know these facts is another question!) which actions are morally obligatory.

Taking all of this into consideration, it appears to me that a common moral value that seems to hold bearing across all of society is that child abuse is wrong. It has been proven and upheld by the law that it is wrong. Oftentimes, moral values and laws go hand-in-hand and it is morals that help create laws (i.e., murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, etc.). I agree that child abuse is horrific and detrimental to the child and to society as a whole. A person who commits a child abuse crime should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The murkier area is when one discusses reporting child abuse. In a previous post, I discussed what defines a mandated reporter in the state of Pennsylvania. According to all intents and purposes, Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary fulfilled their legal obligations in reporting their suspicions of alleged child abuse by Jerry Sandusky. The grand jury investigation did not file criminal charges against Joe Paterno, saying that he did nothing illegal and fulfilled his requirements in reporting the alleged child abuse. Yet, apparently, that’s not good enough, according to the general public. Now the cry is that he did not fulfill his “moral obligation.”

FoxNews shared in an article that former Penn State running back and Pittsburgh Steelers player Franco Harris, who served as an honorary member of Second Mile, Sandusky’s charity for at-risk youth, said the jump on Paterno over his moral obligation suggests a holier-than-thou attitude by the public.

“There was a grand jury investigation, and at the end of that investigation, they found that Joe Paterno cooperated fully with them and had good testimony and there was no charges against Joe Paterno,” Harris said.

“And then, all of the sudden, something came out about a moral obligation, and everybody jumped on that. And everybody said it should be a moral procedure. It should be a moral procedure. And like that is subject to people’s own train of thought with that. So, I thought that was unfair and I think it is unfair how people were treating Joe with this issue because Joe is highly moral person and great moral character,” Harris said.

Harris also said the press is to blame for focusing more attention on Paterno than the children who are the alleged victims in the case. As a result, he said, not just Paterno but no one on the board of trustees has shown leadership.

Did Joe Paterno not fulfill his so-called moral obligation because he didn’t continue to pursue the investigation against Sandusky? Because he didn’t go out of his way to “shout from the rooftops” his complaints of child abuse and Sandusky? I posed the question to several people about moral obligations and whether, if they were in Joe Paterno’s shoes, would have done more than what he did. Interesting to note, when a person is backed into a corner and asked a definitive question about moral obligations, they hem and haw and start spouting about it depends on the situation, depends on this, depends on that. Not one person could give me a definitive answer that they would have stepped in and done more to make sure Sandusky was being properly investigated. And I’m sure that a majority of the public would find themselves in the same hemming and hawing if they were asked to pin down an answer. It’s easy to point fingers and judge when it’s not ourselves involved in the situation.

We all have a moral obligation to report suspected child abuse, not just the leaders and authority. But how far should that moral obligation extend? At what point do we say enough is enough and let the proper authorities handle the situation? Where is the line drawn in the sand? Is it our moral obligation to strip Penn State and Joe Paterno of the legacy he created and the incredibly powerful things he has done for NCAA football and education because he didn’t fulfill what our idea is of a moral obligation?

Or have we gone too far?

~ Kat

One thought on “Monday Musings – What is a Moral Obligation?

  1. Hi Kat. Did you make this image of the signposts above the tree roots? I teach moral philosophy, and just love this image! Would love to put it at the top of my on-line teaching page! Good luck with your blog.


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