A Puzzle of Enforceability: Why do Moral Duties Differ in their Enforceability?

Journal of Moral Philosophy 19 (3):1-25 (2021)
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When someone is poised to fail to fulfil a moral duty, we can respond in a variety of ways. We might remind them of their duty, or seek to persuade them through argument. Or we might intervene forcibly to ensure that they act in accordance with their duty. Some duties appear to be such that the duty-bearer can be liable to forcible interference when this is necessary to ensure that they comply with them. We’ll call duties that carry such liabilities enforcement-apt. Not all duties seem to be enforcement-apt. Some, for example, accept that a person in a monogamous marriage has a moral duty to refrain from infidelity, but deny that a spouse can be compelled to comply with their duty to be faithful without transgressing her rights. More controversially, some think that our duties to assist others in severe need are not enforcement-apt. What could explain the contrast between duties that are enforcement-apt while and those that are not? We’ll call this the puzzle of enforceability and our paper considers three broad strategies for responding to it. The first strategy takes the form of identifying some substantive feature or features that are necessary and/or sufficient for a duty to possess some enforcement status. We consider a range of candidate explanations of this sort but find that none are plausible. The second strategy rejects the idea that there are genuinely enforcement-inapt duties and instead seeks to explain why there can nonetheless be marked differences amongst duties concerning how they can be enforced and who can enforce them. We find that this strategy too is largely unsuccessful. The third strategy offered seeks an explanation of differences in enforcement status by appeal to the broader social costs of enforcing certain kinds of duties. We find that this approach holds some promise but note that it requires adopting a controversial set of moral commitments. We conclude by considering our options in the absence of a solution to our puzzle.



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Christian Barry
Australian National University

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Expressive Duties are Demandable and Enforceable.Romy Eskens - forthcoming - Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 14.

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