Our Obligation to Society


Obligation can appear as a commitment solely enforced through law due to its forceful nature. However, moral obligation is also present within individuals as well as society. Within our own society there are a number of ethical issues that can be perceived differently—all of which due to the wide array of numerous morals each individual lives by. For instance, a woman has been married to her husband for only one year. The newlyweds are still undecided whether or not they want a child in the future, but for now, they would like to simply enjoy each other. Within months, the woman learns she has become pregnant despite taking all possible preventative measures. After discussing the issue with her husband, she concludes to abort the child. She figures they did everything they could to prevent pregnancy; therefore she is justified in her decision. Also, they are not yet ready.  In this case, abortion is okay for the woman due to the circumstance she is dealt, yet another woman’s point of view may have differed. In other cases, another woman may presume this instance to be her fate and despite circumstance, she disagrees with aborting her unborn child. What is important to consider in this hypothetical situation is that in the end, each individual has morals, yet all differ upon what some believe is right, others wrong, and how to consider the circumstances. Although there is no concrete moral code to uphold among society, moral obligation remains vital and through that, what about other pressing ethical issues? I believe society is morally obligated to others in many situations such as helping those who face poverty, and preventing war due to its effect on the weak and marginal. In addition, we must also eliminate the death penalty due to its harsh measures on those who are usually poor and weak.


Having demonstrated the importance of obligations to others, I assert that implementing moral obligation can be successful by assisting individuals who face poverty. The world’s poverty gap is far too wide and must be bridged immediately. According to the World Bank, the world poverty gap lies at $1.25 per day[1]. What is important to realize is that while many people live comfortably, largely among Western Europe as well as the United States and others, there are people living in countries such as Brazil, El Salvador, and Somalia who struggle to survive solely due to the shortage of food and water. While others spend money on unnecessary material items, people are starving and fighting to survive. It is a wide gap that I believe must be eliminated. Anyone who lives comfortably or has the luxury to buy unnecessary material items should be obligated to help those in need. Those who face extreme poverty are weak and marginalized. They most likely have a slim chance of working to attain a comfortable lifestyle and therefore should be protected.


Many believe that it is not required nor is it our problem to help those in need. Ultimately, they may be of a different nationality or perceived to have gotten into those positions by their own actions. However, the reality is that we are all human. Despite nationality or race, we as a society are obligated to protect life and those fighting for it due to their circumstances. It is an undeserving situation no matter who the individual and it is up to us to end it and bridge the gap. According to Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer, “[. . .] if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”[2] If we are in the means and without succumbing to the level of poverty this person may be in, then we are obligated to do so because they are weak and helpless in their position.


Along with the issue of poverty, our moral obligation to others is also successful by extending it to the eradication of war. War also is an instance where the weak and innocent are wrongfully effected. Take for example the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. My Lai was located in South Vietnam where agitated troops ultimately opened fire on weak and innocent civilians:


 As the ‘search and destroy’ mission unfolded, it soon degenerated into the massacre

of over 300 apparently unarmed civilians including women, children, and the elderly. [William Calley] ordered his men to enter the village firing, though there had been no report of opposing fire. According to eyewitness reports offered after the event, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped and killed.[3]


Although it can be argued that it was a one-time occurrence where these troops should not have opened fire, the death of human beings is inevitable in war. These troops may not have been in their right mind at the time, and all due to the formality or war and what it causes physically and psychologically. Had the United States and Vietnamese officials negotiated, this atrocity could have been eliminated. More efforts must be taken to prevent the outcome of war. That is one of the important issues of why an individual is elected into office- for his/her leadership. It is our obligation as well as our leadership to prevent war at all costs—even if that mean months of talks and meetings. If two leaders are unable to come to an agreement, more officials should step in to provide objectiveness and possible solutions.


Conviction that some negotiations are impossible to make can be seen through the Camp David Accords II, where former president Bill Clinton made the effort of bargaining the Middle East conflict between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.  The accords were to end the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinians. Ultimately, President Clinton did not give up, however. Time ran out and elections took place, ultimately implementing a new leader in replace of Ehud Barak.[4] As a result, violence is a reoccurring issue within the Middle East and innocent victims die every day due to the holy war. Had all leaders persisted to come to a collective agreement, much of this would not be an issue. In retrospect, we as humans are obligated to help the weak and marginalized. By preventing war, this can occur and innocent victims would not lose their lives as frequently.


In order to enact our obligation to others, assisting victims of poverty and preventing war must be supported, and it follows that we should also eliminate the death penalty. In many cases throughout history, there have been heinous crimes committed that outweigh others. Nevertheless, all result in victims dying. Yet, what must be remembered is we are replacing what those murderers did with a punishment that is of equal or more value. According to From Justice, Civilization, and the Death Penalty: Answering van den Haag by Jeffrey H. Reiman, “Calling for the abolition of the death penalty, though it be just, then, amounts to urging that as a society we place execution in the same category of sanction as beating, raping, and torturing, and treat it as something it would also not be right for us to do to offenders, [. . .].”[5] It is our obligation to not repeat the same injustice these criminals commit. However, it is also important to note that in many cases, these criminals are also weak and marginalized themselves. Within the conditions they were raised, there is likely to have been some traumatic experiences that left them mentally ill or vengeful. We must look beyond using the scapegoat of capital punishment and possibly implement other programs that can rehabilitate or help these people.


It is possible that not everyone can be rehabilitated, but through this we must be able to draw the line and impose punishment by means of life in prison rather than rehabilitation and instead of the death penalty. For example, after killing 77 people, Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik was sentenced the maximum in Norway of 21 year in prison. It was clear Breivik was not mentally ill; he acted as an apparent terrorist and anti-Islamic killer. According to Why Norway is Satisfied with Breivik’s Sentence by Mark Lewis of the Time World Newspaper, “For the survivors and the bereaved families, a sane man [was] properly punished, while Breivik [felt he could] still burnish his credentials as a political terrorist, without being written off as a madman.”[6] There was a clear distinction Breivik was not mentally ill. Although rehabilitation is an aspect of society’s obligation to prevent the death penalty, we must also be able to distinguish which criminals even serve the qualifications or genuinely need help rather than those, like Breivik, who cannot be tamed. More so, it is our obligation to prevent the death penalty and protect the weak and marginalized—in many cases, they murder and commit crimes due to these very reasons. By that, instead of choosing the death penalty, we must make an effort to identify the root of the cause and see if it is possible to change this person.



More so, we as a society have an obligation to assist others that are weak and marginalized in society. Through this means we are obligated to help human beings facing poverty, prevent war because it ultimately leads to the circulation of innocent deaths, and lastly, we must prevent the death penalty because it repeats the criminals’ mistakes while not considering they too may be the victim of marginalization. Although obligation may seem like a choice everyone should make on a personal level, why not implement a system of moral guidelines that creates a maxim for society regarding moral obligation? It is ideal for no one to suffer from starvation while the issue can easily be prevented. For that matter, why not instill a moral code that individuals can look and live by as a set of guidelines? There is no need to make it a law, however it should be a code that is commonly stressed and spoken by. It is also ideal for war not to occur; therefore we as a people must step in when officials cannot negotiate. We must force them to come to an agreement because war is not an option, and if they cannot, we improvise until there is a solution. Lastly, I believe it is ideal to prevent the death penalty because it repeats the act of the criminal and does not address the root of why the criminal committed such an act. Why not see if there is hope for that person? Then after, we can determine his/her fate.  Society is responsible for each and every situation. We must step in and make a change through obligation, because without it, there would be no change made.

[1] “The World Bank,”


 [2] “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Peter Singer


 [4] “History of Failed Peace Talks.” BBC News


 [5] From Justice, Civilization, and the Death Penalty: Answering van den Haag.” Jeffrey H. Reiman


16 thoughts on “Our Obligation to Society

  1. How does globalism fit into the meeting the needs of the disenfranchised poor? I wonder if it helps or hurts them . When the United States was isolationist it was able to build up the infrastructure that eventually made it powerful enough to enter world war one and win. Before this the united states focused mainly on its own fitness as a nation , building railways and the like. Seems that in our case globalization eventually hurt the United States by crippling the industrial sector due to unfair competition with other countries. Globalization also seems to have made some commodities much more affordable like clothes but I hear that the sweat shops treat their workers horribly so the trade off doesn’t seem worth it.

    • Well then is it too unrealistic to ask that everyone play at a fair game for the betterment of the world? I see how it seems like it all is a cycle– we have sweat shops that further beat down the disenfranchised yet we strive to make efforts of helping those very people. Is it too unrealistic to ask that we play at fair game by having those certain factories meet humanistic, workable conditions before allowing them to service our own companies? OR can we simply pull out completely and go back to a self-reliant United States, especially to bring jobs back to the U.S? Personally, I think the second option is not viable due to world’s grown reliance on globalization.

  2. When it come to capital punishment i find it hard to make up my mind. I believe that committing the acts that has gotten them to be sentenced to death their moral compass must not be aligned with societies and rehabilitation seems unrealistic. However, i see your point by the idea of killing a killer send the message that although killing is wrong it solves problems and conflicts. We ourselves are setting up children to become violent and solve conflicts with force through the death penalty and then wonder why our world is the way it is.

    • How can we be sure killing the killer is solving any problem or conflict? It may very well create new ones this man/woman may be a father and he or she is being killed there by depriving a child of the relationship and guidance of his or her parent. Deep seeded problems can stem from the absence of a parent and we may creating a whole new generation of problems by carrying out a death sentence. In addition a government that is allowed to legally kill its citizens under any circumstances sets a bad tone for what a government may be capable of.

      • The whole big controversy about ethics and ethical issues is the unknown, problems can stem from killing the killer, and they could also stem from not killing them. A member from a victims family could see the justice system to be un just and take justice (revenge) into his own hands. Or say the killer serves hims time and gets released, when he’s released he goes out committing more crimes and even take another life. Sometimes death is necessary for the betterment of society.

      • There a lot of hypothetical situations that could occur on either side. Ethical issues have no tue right or wrong in the, with regards to capital punishment what I agree with Ricardo in the idea that the death penalty may not be solving and problems but creating new ones. Crime and murder has not decreased because of the death penalty which and no overall improvement of society has taken place.

    • In this case I am actually against the death penalty and argue that we should not kill a killer because it does not solve anything, yet simply repeat what the criminal did. Why not address the root of the issue and identify if that killer was too marginalized, weak and a victim of his past? It is possible he acted out and therefore, it is possible to solve the issue. Yet I do note that in other cases such as the murderer in Norway, there are others that are simply killers and there remains no hope in trying to rehabilitate them. In the end, we need to be able to distinguish what category the criminal lies in, yet completely eliminate the death penalty.

  3. Shelby, as far as the poverty issue is concerned as it relates to moral obligations I completely agree with you. It’s astonishing to me that people oppose this notion. And as much as I would like to sit her and point fingers I cannot deny that I am among those who live better off than people starving in poor regions of the world. By no means am I rich or wealthy, but I am not starving and nowhere near it. I do contribute money to charities and without restraint contribute it to local charities if you catch my drift (friends and family that are in need) but do I do enough or as much as I could? No. If a national bill passed tomorrow saying that there will be a redistribution of wealth (oh and yes I know how much moderates and right wingers hate those words) would I try to fight it? Nope. As you said, it is sad.

  4. Although I agree that it would be a great act of kindness for citizens who are better off to help those in need, I do not believe that we are obligated to do so. This brings me back to the conversation we had in a class a couple weeks ago about the boy drowning in the river. I personally, would definitely be in the water saving the boy, but do I have an obligation to do so? Absolutely not. In a perfect world, the wealthy would donate to those who are in need in hopes of getting everyone on an even playing field financially. I myself donate to charities and other family members when I have the chance. But the world we live in has an “every man for himself” mentality and we cannot demand that the rich donate to the less fortunate because they are simply not obligated to do so.

  5. I believe if people felt a moral obligation about poverty in the world it would be in a better state. I really think it should start in our own country first and then branch out and help others. I think we are quick to see other countries suffering and overlook what’s happening in our own backyard. I do agree that with war our nation feels obligated to shoot first and ask questions later. A lot of recent war could have been avoided if we just found a non-violent way to resolve our conflicts. You have to still remember if we don’t fight back that our nation as we know it could become over run by other regimes. The death penalty always get a bad rap for prior steps taking on truly finding out if someone was innocent or not, but in the age we live now I feel that it is an obligation to protect our way of life by disposing of the one who cannot comply with order.

  6. Moral obligation is something that an individual in themselves needs to decide. We as humans in general are not obligated to do anything unless we so choose to do something. As honorable as saving a life may be, you are not obligated to save another or to even notice that they are in pain. Obligations come from societal view points on how humans should behave. If we behave outside the norm then we are considered to be taboo or cold. When in fact we are just running off of the basic instinct to survive, and to keep what is meaningful to us safe. I personally do not feel obligated to give a homeless man/woman money, does that make me bad that I care nothing for them? No, it makes me human and it makes me feel free to express my own feelings. You cannot save or help out everyone.

    • It’s funny to mention that we are running off the basic instinct to survive when in reality others are running on the basic necessities to survive. I understand it is humanistic to look out for ourselves; we’re all we’ve got. However when the circumstances are that extreme, we should be obligated because it means protecting the lives of others.
      I guess I should have made it more clear by stating that there are exceptions, as the one you stated about the homeless man. Maybe he/she got himself/ herself into that situation and in that case, there is more room for choice rather than obligation. I stress, however, that it is not solely how we humans ‘should’ act but how we must act in helping those who face death due to lack of necessities. Clean water, food, proper hygiene– is that too much to ask in assisting another person while we comfortably live in one of the richest countries in the world? Yes, we may struggle. Our bank accounts may have only $20, but even a dollar can make a difference. What our hardship is here does not nearly mirror the hardship within a third or even second world country. We have an obligation to help others who are struggling to survive– it is our duty. Due to the advancement and progression of our world, death due to starvation and poverty should not even be a thought let alone an issue.

  7. Shelby I couldn’t have said it better. Although we clearly do not have a mandatory obligation to help others. What the hell is so wrong in doing so?! When I see ANY homeless person on the street my heart aches regardless of the background story. You are absolutely right when you point out that the extremes on both ends of the spectrum are very real. So, why is it such a bad thing to suggest that we help humankind? It’s so bewildering to me the defensiveness that people (particularly Americans) when asked to contribute something to the world. Boggles my mind.

  8. I found this conversation quite interesting, especially the question of moral obligations because a lot of good points were mentioned. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world; we do have a lot of advanced technology in food production and medicine; we even have the capabilities to massively distribute this food. Yet that does not designate a duty to do so. While it may be a great thing, to help our neighbor, it cannot be considered an obligation to humanity because it assumes that every person shares that same moral code. However, when there are varying moralities and each person is justified in acting out his/her personal moral beliefs to the fullest extent, the results may not be pleasant. Varying moral codes may mean a morality that obligates us to: give the homeless man money; to give the homeless man shelter; to give the homeless man an early death… It is easy to say that moral obligations exist; it is not so easy to say, as many of you are, that all humans share the morality that you currently hold. Morality is subjective and when it is so subjective the obligations of morality cannot exist past your own mind.

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