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What is a Moral Obligation?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A moral obligation is a duty or responsibility someone feels honor-bound to perform because of personal beliefs and values. This concept is explored in fields like philosophy, ethics, and psychology, where people are interested in the origins of human behavior and the roots of the decision-making process. Some scholars suggest that such obligations are the result of external factors and pressures on the individual, while others feel they are internal, and some think a mix of both is involved.

A common example of a moral obligation is the act of charity. Generally, people are not legally required to give to charities, but they may feel a personal obligation to do so because they believe it is the right thing to do. External pressures like religious beliefs, particularly in Islam, where charity is considered a pillar of faith, can also play a role in charitable activities. When people give to charities, they do so with their personal values as a motivator.

Having a sense of moral duty arises from ideas about right and wrong. These ideas are usually shaped by social, family, and other external pressures. Religious faith often plays a role, as many religions have a number of precepts defining right and wrong behavior and providing guidance to the faithful. Children raised in religious households often internalize these values, and even if they leave the faith later, they may act with a sense of moral obligation in accordance with those values.

No legal relationships or requirements are involved in such an obligation. A passing driver, for example, is not required to help someone who appears to be having engine trouble, but many do anyway. Many acts involve providing services, money, or time to someone who appears to be in need. Following through on promises is another example, with people completing things they have committed to do because they feel personally obliged to do so, even if there are no punishments for failing to finish.

Some psychologists suggest that there may be neurological phenomena behind altruism and related activities. Studies show that people experience chemical rewards in the brain when they do things like engaging in charity. It is possible that human beings are literally hardwired to help each other out, and it is notable that, in people with certain neurological impairments or disruptions in brain chemistry, the sense of right and wrong can be disrupted. Such individuals may have difficulty making decisions based on moral or ethical issues, and may not feel a sense of moral obligation.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon948646 — On May 01, 2014

Moral obligation does not only come from religion or any other thing that looks like it, but is natural, innate and is something one can choose to do or refrain from. Conscience is what encapsulates these morals. It comes also from the heart, religion, family,environment, et cetera.

By DyRepresentn — On Jan 17, 2013

In my opinion, I think morality is not just a religious thing. I think it should come naturally. That bit should be destined in your heart to do the right thing. Say someone's car broke down on the side of a road. I would have to stop because it is destined in my heart to help them. I couldn't let them sit on the side of the road without any help.

By orangey03 — On Nov 06, 2011

@OeKc05 - I agree that programs like this help kids perceive their moral obligations in life. However, some kids are beyond help, whether because of their parents being poor examples or a neurological condition.

One kid in my class had parents who cared nothing for anyone but themselves. His behavior reflected their values. He was mean, rebellious, and heartless.

Another kid had wonderful parents who gave regularly to charity and helped everyone they knew who needed anything, but he was just as bad as the first kid. It seemed that he either did not possess a conscience or had made it his goal in life to rebel against everything it told him to do.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s always good for schools to teach moral obligations to children at a young age. It just doesn’t work for everyone.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 05, 2011

Some moral obligations are learned in elementary school and kindergarten. I remember being taught over and over to help people in need.

I even recall a video we watched a long time ago in which kids acted out the scenes. This video showed several examples of how we should respond when people need help, and though they were very obvious examples, I think that the use of a visual helped drill it into our minds.

One kid had forgotten his lunch money, so another kid shared food with him. One girl had fallen down on a railroad track and couldn’t get up, and a train was coming, so another girl helped pull her out of harm’s way.

Little suggestions like these permeated our school’s curriculum for young children. I believe it did some good, and I think that it stuck with most of us, whether we remember it specifically or not.

By seag47 — On Nov 05, 2011

I am a Christian, and I believe that my moral obligation comes from the spirit of Jesus within me. His spirit moves my heart to tell me what needs to be done, and it’s hard to ignore.

Some people call it a conscience. I define it as a direct connection to God. If I feel He’s telling me to do something and I don’t do it, I feel more guilty than if I believed it was simply something I thought up to do and refrained from doing.

However, I also believe He forgives me when I don’t do all that I should. His grace and mercy motivate me to fulfill my moral obligation, because who wouldn’t want to serve a God that good?

By wavy58 — On Nov 04, 2011

@julies - I feel the same way. I am not very strong, and I know I couldn’t defend myself against a physical attack. Also, I don’t carry any weapons, so there is no way I am stopping to pick up someone who could be a serial killer or rapist.

However, because of my inner moral obligation, I feel a twinge of guilt every time I pass a stranded motorist. Even worse is passing a hitchhiker. He will actually look you in the eye with a begging expression.

Regardless of my moral pull to help these people, I know that preserving my life is the wisest choice I can make. I would be of no help to anyone in any situation if I were dead.

By comfyshoes — On Nov 03, 2011

@Sneakers41 - You have a point, but I wanted to say that we also have to teach our children to have a moral obligation to help another child out if they are being bullied in school.

It is so important for kids to help one another so that the power that the bully has over the child is significantly lessened. It makes me really sad when I hear stories of kids being bullied and no one comes to the rescue to help.

At least the kids could get a teacher or an administrator to help not just stand there and watch. If more kids did this the bullying problem would not be what it currently is.

By sneakers41 — On Nov 03, 2011

I was reading an article about moral relativism and it basically was saying that we have to tolerate people that do not ascribe to our moral values even if it is counter to our beliefs.

But I wonder how many people are actually able to do that? For example, I was brought up that you don’t date a married man, but what if one of your coworkers is dating a married man and this falls counter to your belief system.

How do you interact with a person or tolerate a person that has opposing values? I think that people on the surface might seem like they are tolerating a person like this but in reality many people would not be able to do so.

By icecream17 — On Nov 03, 2011

@Hamje32 - I think that it is difficult to separate your religious values from your moral obligation because they are one in the same. I had a similar situation happen to me. I went to the bank and was writing a check at the check cashing station and saw that someone had left their wallet at the check writing stand.

I quickly alerted the teller and gave her the wallet. She asked the man in line if the wallet was his, but it wasn't. She was able to pull up the the information based on the license in the wallet and called the man. He was so grateful. The people at the bank thought I was some kind of hero because I did the right thing and did not steal the wallet.

I was not a hero. I merely did what I should have done, but it was really met with surprise from the people in the bank. I guess honesty is a value that not as common as it once was.

By julies — On Nov 02, 2011

While I think it is important to fulfill moral obligations, I don't think you should put your life in jeopardy to do it.

As an example, my Dad was not afraid to pick up somebody that was along side of the road. Or if someone was broke down, he would always stop and help.

This is something, especially as a female, that I would not do because I don't feel it is safe. I am aware that there is someone who might need some help, but don't think it is safe to take chances when it comes to something like that.

By andee — On Nov 01, 2011

I think everyone has a sense of some kind of moral obligation, but it is much more apparent for some than others.

If you have been raised to think about your moral obligation to your community and those around you, this is something that is hard to ignore.

I think most people who are taught to be aware of this, will continue on with it in their own lives.

One thing I feel I have a moral obligation to is to make sure my parents are well taken care of as they age. They gave sacrificially for me more than just the first 18 years of my life.

When they get to the point where they cannot live alone, I feel it is my moral obligation to do everything I can to make sure they are well taken care of.

Even though it may not be convenient or add some extra stress to my life, this is something I feel compelled to take care of.

By burcidi — On Nov 01, 2011

@ddljohn-- That's a good example of moral obligation resulting from a lot of social pressure. I think it is still categorized as moral obligation but one this is influenced more by external factors and pressures rather than internal ones.

I think it can be hard to know whether someone is doing something out of moral obligation or not because we don't always know what their incentives or reasons are. Even they might not be aware of it. But I think that we need to give people the benefit of doubt and hope that they are helping others out of moral obligation, whether that's internally based or not.

By ddljohn — On Oct 31, 2011

It's great for people to want to help others out. But sometimes I'm not so sure if they are doing it out of moral obligation or with an expectation of getting something else in return.

I think that in order to categorize a good that we do as one done out of moral obligation, it should be done selflessly and without expecting anything in return. But I don't think that's the case most of the time.

My brother for example loves helping people out. He's very good with cars so he will fix people's cars and give them rides all the time. He doesn't take any money or favor in return for it, but it's very rewarding for him to be able to create a good impression on someone. It's almost as if he's desperate to make friends and to impress people and goes out of his way to help them out.

I don't feel that what he does is done out of moral obligation. I think he is satisfied only if that person whom he helped is very impressed with him. If he ends up having a tiff with them, he regrets having helped them and vows to never do it again.

Do you think this has anything to do with moral obligation?

By SteamLouis — On Oct 30, 2011

I agree that religion is a big factor when it comes to moral obligation and acts of charity.

I'm a Muslim and I do give charity to those in need as much as I can. I do it not just because it is required by my religion and I want to please God and to be rewarded in the afterlife, but also because of the concept in Islam that everything actually belongs to God.

I was taught from a young age that what we own, our properties and monies are only temporary and that the true owner of everything is God. So it is our responsibility to share some of these properties with those who don't have them. It is said in the Qur'an that giving charity is like giving God a loan which he will return to us in the afterlife ten-fold.

It's this idea and knowledge that drives me to feel moral obligation towards those who have less than I do.

By lonelygod — On Oct 30, 2011

@MrSmirnov - There are a lot of moral dilemmas when you own your own business, and I think that in regards to as whether or not you should choose a specific charity to present to your employees for donations is one of the easier ones to solve.

At the company I work for they provide us with the option to either donate to the company's chosen charity during our parties or ask that we make a donation on our own time to a charity of our choice. I suppose there is a bit of a moral obligation there, as we all say, "sure, we'll give money," but I am not sure everyone does.

By MrSmirnov — On Oct 30, 2011

How do moral obligations apply to business organizations? Do you think that individuals who own the company should impart their own beliefs about morality into their source of income?

I am a small business owner and find that making policies that everyone agrees with is quite tough. This is especially true with things like whether or not to make a particular charity a part of our Christmas party. I don't want people to feel obligated to give to the charity I choose, just because I happen to think it is a good cause. Is there anyway to present a more morally neutral option to my workers?

By NathanG — On Oct 29, 2011

@hamje32 - My car wound up in the ditch during a bad snowstorm once. A couple of passing drivers with pickup trucks and tow gear helped pull me out.

I was very grateful. Whenever a fellow citizen displays such altruism, I always wonder if he is a Christian, or if, like the article says, that person simply gets a chemical thrill by helping another person.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Have you noticed that while we tend to be divided along ideological, philosophical and even religious lines, that in a disaster we will all reach out to lend a helping hand?

During these crises, we are all one, regardless of how trite that expression may sound.

By hamje32 — On Oct 28, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - Here’s a case in point of how powerful religion can be. I have a friend who is a devout Muslim.

He went to the store to buy some stuff, and upon returning home found out he had been undercharged by a few dollars. He rushed back to the store to inform the cashier and she gave him this blank stare.

She couldn’t believe he was trying to pay back a difference of only a few dollars. He later told me, “What’s a few dollars over the loss of my soul?”

That’s how powerful religion was to him. He wasn’t just being honest; he was paying a moral obligation debt imposed by his faith.

Would he have been just as honest without the faith? I think so, but not to that extent.

By SkyWhisperer — On Oct 28, 2011

@Charred - I think it would be hard to separate the influence of faith from any moral obligation to obey the law.

Even if you argue that this sense is innate, how do you know that individual was not influenced by faith at some juncture – even if they are not religious? Religion has permeated all of our society.

Only if you could point out people living on an island somewhere who had no contact with other civilizations or religious faiths, but who nonetheless acted morally by our definition of the word, could you make that case.

By Charred — On Oct 27, 2011

C.S. Lewis, the great fantasy fiction writer, wrote quite a few books on apologetics, or defense of the Christian faith.

In one of these books he argued at length on the nature of moral theory. He talked about the concept of fairness, or right and wrong. He said people have this innate conviction that right and wrong exist, and the fact that it does proves that it was God given.

He argues that moral obligations are therefore not the result of external pressures but internal convictions. He was a brilliant polemicist, and I agree with him totally.

People have a sense on the inside of them that life should be fair, or things should be right; that sense is proof that things like the Golden Rule are universal truths are implanted in the human heart.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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