May 13th, 2020

No obligation without agreement

My first wife was an avid gardener who maintained a collection of plants in the garden which often attracted the attention and admiration of other people. One of the other residents in the building was a man who likewise had a great interest in gardening and maintained a collection of roses which he was very proud of. Horticulture is not an exact science, and there are many different opinions about the "best" ways to cultivate plants; when my wife trimmed the bushes in front of our apartment to remove a portion which someone had spilled paint on, the man with the roses came to me and complained that my wife had inexplicably mutilated the bushes, insisting that the paint would have fallen off by itself if we had only left the bushes alone for some time. One day, he came to my wife and informed her that he had no room left in his flower bed and was looking to get rid of one of his rose plants, asking if she would be willing to provide it with a new home. She gladly agreed, and incorporated the rose plant into her own garden. After this, the man would often go to my wife while she was in the garden and tell her that she was not looking after the rose plant appropriately, that she needed to change how she was watering the garden or do something differently because she was doing it all wrong. It eventually became clear why the man had "donated" his rose plant: He was a control freak who felt that if he kindly donated a rose plant, this would give him the right to demand changes in how the garden was kept. We tried to reasonably discuss how the matter could be resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but as both sides of the dispute were pretty reluctant to concede any ground (pun intended) in this disagreement (people who read my blog may have noticed that I am neither particularly conciliatory nor in the habit of marrying people who are), it eventually became clear that any attempts at negotiation were not going anywhere, and it became necessary to break off negotiations with a declaration of independence: The fact that you did something nice for someone once doesn't give you the right to demand whatever you want from them. You cannot obligate someone to do something without their agreement to that obligation.

Years later, I understand that this is a fairly universal principle. Often, when people try to "help" one another, that "help" is a Trojan horse, an effort to apply pressure on people by exploiting their sense of fairness: I did something nice for you, so now you are morally obligated to do something nice for me. Because this is a fairly common trick which dishonest and manipulative people use, it's important to be aware of it and to understand that charity which comes with strings attached is not charity at all, but quite the opposite. It's important to understand that in all matters of life, there is no obligation without agreement. If two people agree ahead of time that they will exchange something, then they are committed to following through on that agreement, because to do otherwise would be breaking a promise. But if there has been no promise of recompense, then you cannot guilt someone into doing something for you by doing them a "favor" which they never asked you for.

A particularly prevalent example of these attempts to guilt people into serving you is seen in the relationship between parents and their children. Very often, parents try to guilt their children into serving the parents by saying things like "I gave you life", "I took care of you when you were little", or similar lines which are calculated to sow guilt. It is of course true that children are only alive because their parents had sex, but this does not mean that the children are slaves or indentured servants, because the children never agreed to such an arrangement in the first place. No person asked to be born, or was even given any decision in the matter; that decision was made entirely by the parents. This being the case, parents have no right to demand anything from their children. The decision to create a child lies entirely with the parents, and so all obligation lies with the parents: Parents have an obligation to take care of what they've created, while children, who never asked to be born or require care, have no obligation to their parents. If children live with their parents, then the parents can expect the same basic level of household participation from those children which they would expect from any houseguest, but too many parents see children not as human beings, but rather as an investment in the future, expecting that those children will give the parents whatever they want when the children are older. But there can be no obligation without agreement: Unless the children explicitly promise their parents something, the parents have no right to expect anything from their children, because those children were never given a choice in the first place.

This is not to denigrate charity, or to deny the value of the very real ways in which people can and do help each other out of a sincere desire to make other people's lives better. But people should not be naive: Honest, good-natured care, concern, and assistance are well and good, but people need to be wary of dishonest givers, people who make it a point to show how helpful and generous they are so that they can later guilt people into doing something for them. In the age of the Internet, these people are beginning to work not just at an interpersonal level, but also on a much wider level: This is really the basis of what has come to be called "virtue signalling", the practice of a person showing (typically on the Internet or via some other form of mass-media) how good they are, how agreeable and morally correct their opinions and life decisions are, for the purpose of garnering public support for later use in case of conflicts or other difficulties. In this sense, every person is a politician: If you can show the world how good you are and get everyone to agree with you, they are more likely to support you even if you do or say something which people would normally reject. The classic idea of a "con" is someone who wants to get you to trust them just long enough for you to give them some money, but in today's world, many people are playing a longer-term con game, not with the objective of getting money, but rather for the sake of public influence and "soft power". Again, this is not to denigrate people who are actually pure of heart and have the best of intentions, but when you see someone who is praised as a "good person", ask yourself as objectively and critically as you can whether that person is really deserving of being called "good", whether they have really done something that has made the world a better place, or whether they have successfully portrayed themselves as "good" in a way which people are willing to believe. Most people in the world who seek your attention just want it because they're trying to get something out of you. Yes, good people exist, and they shouldn't be demonized for being good people, but in all your dealings with people, remember that unless you have previously promised something, you are not required to give anything to anyone. There is no obligation without agreement.