Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 2: What We Mean When We Say a Man Is Obliged to Do a Thing - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Chapter 2: What We Mean When We Say a Man Is Obliged to Do a Thing - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
What We Mean When We Say a Man Is Obliged to Do a Thing
A man is said to be obliged, “when he is urged by a violent motive resulting from the command of another.”
I. “The motive must be violent.” If a person, who has done me some little service, or has a small place in his disposal, ask me upon some occasion for my vote, I may possibly give it to him, from a motive of gratitude or expectation: but I should hardly say that I was obliged to give it him; because the inducement does not rise high enough. Whereas if a father or a master, any great benefactor, or one on whom my fortune depends, require my vote, I give it him of course: and my answer to all who ask me why I voted so and so, is, that my father or my master obliged me; that I had received so many favours from, or had so great a dependence upon, such a one, that I was obliged to vote as he directed me.
Secondly, “It must result from the command of another.” Offer a man a gratuity for doing any thing, for seizing, for example, an offender, he is not obliged by your offer to do it; nor would he say he is; though he may be induced, persuaded, prevailed upon, tempted. If a magistrate or the man’s immediate superior command it, he considers himself as obliged to comply, though possibly he would lose less by a refusal in this case, than in the former.
I will not undertake to say that the words obligation and obliged are used uniformly in this sense, or always with this distinction: nor is it possible to tie down popular phrases to any constant signification: but wherever the motive is violent enough, and coupled with the idea of command, authority, law, or the will of a superior, there, I take it, we always reckon ourselves to be obliged.
And from this account of obligation it follows, that we can be obliged to nothing, but what we ourselves are to gain or lose something by: for nothing else can be a “violent motive” to us. As we should not be obliged to obey the laws, or the magistrate, unless rewards or punishments, pleasure or pain, somehow or other, depended upon our obedience; so neither should we, without the same reason, be obliged to do what is right, to practise virtue, or to obey the commands of God.