No doubt we have all heard someone say (or have ourselves said), “I don’t owe anyone anything”, “I owe you nothing”, “nobody owes you anything”, and other such phrases. The idea behind these statements is that of debt, and the idea of debt particularly is conceptually linked to the ideas of contract and contractual obligation (paying a debt being a contractual obligation).
The notion of the social contract is something which features quite heavily in liberal democratic societies, having been developed by such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rousseau, etc. So to hear the prevalence of these phrases in a liberal democratic country like the UK is hardly surprising. But even though social contract theories generally hold that we have all given our (tacit) consent to be governed and to be a part of society, and hence to owe certain obligations to our fellows, the phrases above mistake contractual obligation for human obligation (i.e. obligations we owe other people because they are also human).
When I say, “I don’t owe you anything” to a person in desperate need of some kind of assistance, I am doing so mistakenly, under the false assumption that if I am not indebted to that person in some way, in terms of a social contract or a personal contract, then I have no obligation to assist them. If they are in desperate need then I owe it to them to assist them irrespective of any kind of contract. I owe it to them because they are a human being.
All human beings are by nature endowed with a special dignity that cannot in any way be taken from them. And because of this special dignity there are certain human obligations to which we all owe each other. Any and all violations of or offences to human dignity demand action and obligate us to try to help. A (noway near comprehensive) list of such affronts to human dignity are:
Subjection to cruelty or torture
Thus, if someone is starving we owe it to them to feed them. If someone is afflicted with intense suffering then we owe it to them to try to alleviate it. If someone is being dehumanised or subjected to cruelty or degradation then we owe it to them to intervene. Not because of any kind of contract between consenting persons, but because the unique value of human dignity creates relations of natural obligation between each of us. We know this is true every time we see a person in real need.
We can get overly caught up in legalistic conceptions of morality and human nature, seeing our political and legal rights as the totality of the value of the human being. As important as our political and legal rights are, they can lead us astray, we can start to see our relations as contractual, and explain away fundamental human needs as not being covered by rights.
But the dignity of the human being trumps political rights. Simone Weil wrote that rights are the things that a farmer will appeal to when he wants to set his own prices for his produce; but that such an appeal to rights, for a young girl who is forced to work in a brothel, would simply ring hollow. Our rights are what we make them to be, and we can choose to acknowledge or ignore them or even take them away, but human dignity will always demand obligation.
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