July 20th, 2013


What Do We Owe Each Other?

One of the central questions in political philosophy, or perhaps one of the most intuitive initial framings, is "what do we owe each other?". I prefer to ask this question as a foundational one; one which we ask while the different ways we might structure society, property, and rights or legal norms are in place. We ask it that early because an answer to it might help us decide what specifics to offer. If we were, for example, to ask this question after a system of property or rights or similar are in place, we've already curtailed the number of answers to a question like this; we might not be able to consider oweing each other much of anything if we ask the question after having a well worked-out philosophy that excludes concerns like this. This isn't to suggest that this is the only worthwhile question, but rather that an answer to it would amount to a foundational concern that should, with other such concerns, should provide substantial structure.

The problem remains broad; I initially segment it into two bundles of questions:

  • What do we owe each other materially? What do we owe each other institutionally?
  • What do we owe each other in treatment? In a one-on-one fashion? In a broad social fashion?
And also another way to divide the question:
  • What do we owe each other absolutely?
  • What do we owe each other provisionally? Provisionally dependent on circumstance? Provisionally dependent on action?
From here, we might establish multiple categories, or start to move towards more specific questions and answers; in some cases and for some questions, I expect many people would say "nothing"; for others, I expect others would have substantial answers. People might layer in different levels of "owe", distinguishing different kinds of legal and social duties. Even as these matters come down to bald assertions, being willing to wade into this domain and stake claims is helpful for when activisms (or viewpoints in general) collide.