Obligation — where does it come from?

Most people would say they feel obligated as a result of someone else’s expectation(s) of them. That’s no surprise when you look at the dictionary definition:

an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment: [ with infinitive ] : I have an obligation to look after her.

• [ mass noun ] the condition of being morally or legally bound to do something: they are under no obligation to stick to the scheme.

• a debt of gratitude for a service or favour: she didn’t want to be under an obligation to him.

• [ Law ] a binding agreement committing a person to a payment or other action.

Morality, legal binding, that’s pretty weighty stuff. Here’s another way of thinking about obligation that, for me, feels easier to swallow:

Obligation = choice + responsibility

This means that if I make a choice, it may include taking on some responsibility. By choosing to take on that responsibility, I’ve given myself an obligation.

For example, last year I chose to have my friend’s teenaged daughter live with me so she could attend the school down the road. In fact, I offered.

Now, I have responsibilities — to make sure she gets to school, does her homework, eats well and, most importantly, that I know where she is and when she’ll be home. I feel obligated to do these things because I made a choice to take on the responsibility that goes with having a teenager living with me.

I don’t feel obligated to her mother, I feel obligated to myself. Nor do I feel obligated to have her daughter living here — that was my choice. I am free at any time to make another choice, eg. to not have her live here, bearing in mind that choice may involve other responsibilities, ie. helping to find an alternative living arrangement.

If you’re thinking, “But surely people have a legal and moral obligation to look after a child in their care,” you’re right. I am legally and morally obligated as well, as are parents legally and morally obliged to care for their own children (or pet-owners their pets). But it is still as a result of a choice — to be a guardian, a parent or a pet-owner.

Internalising obligation, rather than externalising it, makes for much healthier relationships. It eliminates resentment and martyrdom. And it keeps all of us in the driving seats of our own lives.

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About Philip Patston

I develop capacity in individuals, teams, organisations and communities in the areas of leadership, diversity, complexity and change. I'm available to work with you now.

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