An obligation is a duty or responsibility one is bound to perform or fulfill, either due to moral, legal, or social reasons. It can arise from agreements, laws, or personal and societal norms.
Types of obligations include:
Moral obligations: A moral obligation is a duty you have to someone based upon your sense of right and wrong. You are compelled to do it based on your sense of duty or justice, not legality.
Legal obligations: A legal obligation, which might also be referred to as a contractual obligation, is binding by law and if not met could land you in court!
Social obligations: A social obligation is a commitment you make to others, such as friends and family, that you feel duty-bound to keep.
A person’s sense of obligation is inherently cultural. In different cultural contexts, we have different duties and expectations to one another. This, in turn, is usually based on social, cultural, and religious worldviews and philosophies.
I’ll split the examples into the three categories: moral, legal, and social.
1. Social Obligations
1. Respect for Others
Respect for others is one of our core duties to one another, taught to us by our parents in childhood. This can include respecting each other’s rights to autonomy, self-determination, and dignity. Based on most understandings of natural law, everyone, irrespective of their background, has a right to be treated humanely by others – this is our obligation to each other.
2. Keeping your Word
Most of us believe, in order to maintain the trust that others place in us, that we should keep our word. This could include making sure we attend an event if we RSVP with an acceptance, keep our word to our loved ones, and to our colleagues and boss.
3. Caring for Family
Many of us feel an obligation to care for our families, no matter what. In some societies, this manifests as continuing to live together in multigenerational households, while in others it means being a phone call away to give love and support whenever needed.
4. Care for the Elderly
This example can manifest as a sense that you should help an old lady cross the road, shovel the snow off the steps for your elderly neighbor, or take out his trash on trash day. Society as a whole also feels a sense that they need to care for the elderly. For example, we have social insurance, healthcare, and pension plans for the elderly to help them through their golden years.
Voting in elections is a social obligation in democratic societies. By voting, we are carrying the torch of democracy and doing our bit to ensure that the person who is elected reflects the will of the people. This obligation strengthens democratic processes and is often considered a ‘civic duty‘.
Volunteerism involves offering up your time, resources, and skills for the service of community. It’s about helping others or contributing to the betterment of the community without expecting monetary rewards. Many of us feel a sense of duty to our communities, believing that being a good community member means pitching-in to help one another.
Altruism is similar to volunteerism and comes from the same sense of duty to others. But while volunteering means giving your time, altruism is broader, and may involve any act of prioritizing others’ welfare over self-interest. Altruism strengthens social bonds and empathy.
Philanthropy is a form of altruism which involves supporting charitable causes financially. Some wealthier people feel this sense of social obligation out of recognition that they have more than enough, while others don’t have enough to sustain themselves.
9. Parenting Duties
Perhaps one of the few cultural universals in this list, we all have obligations when we become parents to raise and care for our children until they are grown up and capable of looking after themselves. This duty is taken so seriously by society that, in many ways, it is reflect in law, becoming a legal obligation as well.
10. Environmental Sustainability
As we become more aware of the impacts of climate change on our world, and the disproportionate effect it’s having on the poor, many of us are taking environmental responsibility into our own hands. This might involve a sense of duty to adopt eco-friendly practices, buy from brands that demonstrate genuine commitment to environmentally-friendly practices, and minimizing waste however we can. This manifests as a multigenerational obligation.
11. Equal Treatment
Many of us feel a duty to treat all with equality. This responsibility resists discrimination based on race, gender, age, or other characteristics. Equal treatment ensures fairness and justice within society and shows awareness of the golden rule: treat others as you would want others to treat you.
12. Basic Education
Most societies have decided that we’re all duty-bound to go to school up until a certain age. This may sound like we’re obliged out of selfishness, seeing as it opens doors of opportunity for us, but it’s also for the good of society as a whole. We need an educated society so that they can participate in democratic processes, take up the jobs we need filled, and know our rights and duties to one another.
13. Support to the Underprivileged
Supporting the underprivileged is a social obligation that we feel both individually and as a society as a whole. It might involve donating to causes that matter most to us, advocacy, or fundraisers. On a governmental level, it might be reflected in the broader social safety net. This obligation aims to reduce societal disparities and promote social balance.
14. Informing authorities
The obligation to report important activities to authorities contributes to societal security and justice. Reporting ensures that offenders are held accountable. We might feel it’s our duty to report something we’ve seen that needs to be stopped, from shop lifting through to car crashes if we’re first at the scene.
15. Advocacy for rights
Those who advocate for human rights often perceive it to be a social obligation. It can involve campaigning for justice, liberty, and dignity of all people through a range of vehicles such as attending protests and writing letters to our members of parliament. This social responsibility contributes to a more equitable and humane society.
16. Respect for Public Property
The reason we don’t go around damaging, misusing, and exploiting public property is that we have a sense of duty to each other to respect things that belong to the public. This can include making sure we leave public parks in the same way we found them (the ‘no trace’ movement) through to picking up trash on the sidewalk.
2. Legal Obligations
1. Complying with Laws
A legal obligation inherent in every society is the duty to follow established laws. These laws serve as guidelines for acceptable behavior and provide measures for transgressions. Consequences for violation can include penalties, fines, or potentially jail time.
3. Tax Obligations
As citizens, we’re legally required to pay taxes. This obligation sustains governmental functions and public services such as public transportation, education, and health. Accurate reporting of income and timely tax payment are legally mandated.
3. Jury Duty
Jury duty is a legal obligation in many democratic societies that facilitates our judicial system. Every adult citizen may be called upon to serve as an impartial judge in a legal dispute. It is a duty that underpins the fair administration of justice.
4. Compulsory Education
In many countries, there is a legal obligation for children to receive a basic level of education, often until a certain age. Such laws strive to ensure the foundation of a well-informed, effective, and productive society. Parents or guardians who neglect this duty can face legal repercussions.
5. Contractual Obligations
When you sign a contract, you are legally bound to fulfill the outlined terms. Contracts can range from simple transactions, like buying a product, to complex agreements, such as employment contracts. Breaching a contractual obligation can result in legal actions.
6. Reporting Crimes
Citizens have a legal obligation to report knowledge of certain serious crimes. Failure to report such acts can be considered a crime in itself. This duty aids law enforcement and helps maintain societal order.
7. Child Support
In cases of divorce or separation with children involved, non-custodial parents have a legal obligation to contribute to the financial support of their own children. This is typically regulated by a court order, ensuring that the child’s needs are met. Non-compliance can result in severe legal penalties.
8. Driving Rules
Adhering to traffic regulations is a legal obligation. Violation of rules such as speed limits, signals, and alcohol limits can result in fines, license suspension, or jail terms. Such obligations aim to ensure road safety and reduce accidents.
9. Business Licensing
Operating a business involves fulfilling specific licensing obligations. This includes acquiring and maintaining the necessary permits and licenses to legally conduct business activities. Non-compliance can lead to business closure, fines, or legal action.
10,. Data Protection
Companies that deal with personal data have a legal obligation to protect that data. This includes safeguards against illegal collection or distribution and measures for cybersecurity. These obligations ensure individual privacy and protect from identity theft and fraud.
11. Registrar Duties
In many jurisdictions, there’s a legal obligation for events like births, deaths, marriages and divorces to be registered. This helps the government keep track of its population for planning purposes and ensures the person’s place in society for rights and benefits.
12. Residence Reporting
Immigrants or foreigners residing in a country on a visa may be legally obliged to report their residence. This keeps authorities informed about their whereabouts and aids in immigration control. Failure to fulfill this obligation can lead to visa cancellation or legal trouble.
13. Professional Conduct
Certain professions, like law and medicine, have a unique set of legal obligations. These duties encompass maintaining client confidentiality, meeting ethical standards, and providing competent service. Failure to do so can result in losing the license to practice.
14. Bankruptcy Declarations
When an individual or entity is unable to pay off debts, they have a legal obligation to declare bankruptcy. This impacts their credit for some duration but allows a structured plan for regaining their financial stability. Undeclared bankruptcy can have severe legal implications.
15. Military Service
In some countries, conscription, or mandatory military service, is a legal obligation. Citizens, usually within a certain age range, are required to serve in the national military for a specified period. It reinforces defense preparedness and promotes national unity.
16. Compliance with Official Summons
When you receive an official summons for court or to report to an official government body, you are legally obliged to respond. Failure to do so can result in arrest or fines. This obligation ensures the smooth functioning of judicial processes and inquiries.
3. Moral Obligations
A commitment to truthfulness forms the foundation of moral integrity. Obligations to honesty may include telling the truth, even when inconvenient, refraining from deception, and maintaining trustworthiness. Honesty strengthens relationships and fosters an atmosphere of openness and transparency.
The duty to uphold justice is crucial to maintaining societal harmony. This obligation is about ensuring fairness in all dealings, standing up against inequality, and fighting for equal rights. Distributive justice, procedural justice, and restorative justice underpin this moral obligation.
3. Respect for Life
Preserving and honoring life is a fundamentally perceived moral duty. This means respecting all forms of life, safeguarding human dignity, and opposing violence. This obligation manifests as pacifism, humanitarian action, and a commitment to non-violence.
The moral obligation to show courage, particularly in challenging times, holds some significance. Standing up against wrongdoing, defending the vulnerable, and valuing principles over personal comfort exemplifies courage. This duty to courage shapes us into resilient and principled individuals.
Many of us are raised to believe it is the right thing to do to express our appreciation and gratitude for the things we’ve received in this life. Gratitude enhances our relationships and feeds generosity. This includes thanking others for their kindness, acknowledging their efforts, and returning favors when possible. Nurturing gratitude deepens our understanding of relationships and mutual interdependence.
In many religious traditions, such as Christianity, we are called to forgive those who wrong us. This can be a path to personal and relational healing. This means letting go of resentment, anger and desires for retaliation. It allows us to release our pain and move forward, individually and collectively.
Many of us feel a duty to take responsibility for our actions. This moral code urges us to stand by our decisions, acknowledge our mistakes, and strive for improvement. Accepting responsibility reflects our maturity and commitment to ethical conduct.
8. Protection of the Innocent
Protecting the innocent and vulnerable forms a critical aspect of our moral obligations. This includes safeguarding children and marginalized communities from exploitation and harm. Upholding this duty reflects empathy, compassion, and a commitment to justice.
9. Respect for Others’ Rights
The moral obligation to respect others’ rights incorporates a broad spectrum of human rights. In civil society, all people should enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial. These shared rights, when upheld, foster societal harmony and mutual respect.
10. Sustainable Living
In current times, sustainable living emerges as a notable moral obligation. We have a responsibility to consume wisely, reduce waste, and preserve resources for future generations. Fulfilling this duty reflects a commitment to environmental stewardship and intergenerational justice.
Practicing kindness is considered a moral obligation towards fellow beings. Unconditional acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion imbue society with warmth and empathy. This duty extends beyond humans, encouraging us to be kind to all living creatures.
Humility involves acknowledging one’s limitations, accepting criticism, and resisting arrogance. Many people, including myself, see this as a trait of a morally upstanding person. This duty to be humble reinforces the understanding that we not all-knowing and must remain open to learning.
Integrity involves maintaining a consistent character that aligns with your moral code. Displaying integrity means keeping promises, fulfilling commitments, and abiding by ethical norms. Upholding this sense of duty to others builds trust and reinforces societal values.
Being loyal is seen as a moral obligation in regard to interpersonal relationships. To be loyal means to stand by your people even in challenging circumstances. This could involve maintaining trust in friendships, remaining faithful in romantic relationships, or even staying true to your employer by not selling their secrets or proprietary knowledge.
Tolerance includes accepting differing viewpoints, lifestyles, and choices that may be at odds with your own beliefs. In practice, this might involve respecting someone else’s religious or political beliefs, showing understanding towards cultural differences, or providing space for people to express their identities freely.
We have a range of obligations, from interpersonal ones between you and loved ones, to duties we have to our community and humanity more broadly.
But what’s interesting is that these obligations surely overlap – many interpersonal duties are so important that we codify them in law. Similarly, the same duties might originate from our moral frameworks and personal philosophies, thereby also fitting into the category of ‘moral obligation’.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]