The Natural Origins of Obligation

Connor Wood: Where does this guilty sense that we ought to follow through on our obligations come from? The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, one of the leading figures in human evolutionary science, argues in a new paper that it hinges on our rare ability to think of ourselves as part of a collective “we.” Obligation isn’t empathy (feeling or intuiting the feelings of others) or sympathy (the motivation to act on feelings of empathy to relieve someone else’s distress). Sympathy functions in a positive way to directly motivate social connection, incentivizing us to perform acts of succor and aid. When a naturally sympathetic person sees a friend crying, he doesn’t feel obligated to put an arm around his friend: he feels the urge to. Obligation, on the other hand, is, in Tomasello’s words, a “stick, not a carrot”: it motivates us in a negative way to perform acts that, all things being equal, we might often prefer not to do, in order to fulfill promises or to avoid feelings of guilt.


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