I read a book (Carl Wellman Morals and EthicsEnglewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall, 1988) and I do
not understand why "one cannot be obliged or constrained by one's own will". I have quoted the
Every law creates a duty, but only relative duties have correlative rights. A duty is relative when it is a
duty to some assignable or identifiable person or persons; it is then a duty relative to one or more
particular persons to whom performance is due. This definition fits passive rights admirably. "The
creditor has a right to repayment" simply means that the debtor has a duty to the creditor to repay the
loan. Not every duty is a relative duty, a duty to some right-holder. One also has absolute duties, such
as the duties to pay one's taxes or to refrain from suicide. The former is not a relative duty because it
is due to the public at large and not to any assignable individual or individuals; the latter is not a
relative duty because one cannot be obliged or constrained by one's own will.
I think it means that, if the duty to refrain from suicide is a relative duty, It implies that you can claim
this against yourself. But to demand something from yourself is simply to will to do that thing. But to
will is different from to oblige for it allows you to make choice. Is that right? But what is it that, when
you will yourself to do something, you allow yourself to make choice?
I am confused and think I get it all wrong. I am really at a loss. Could you help me please?
Suppose Tom, Dick, Jane and Sue club together to make me a loan. Then the money that I owe, I
owe to Tom, to Dick, to Jane and to Sue. These are the individuals to whom the right to repayment of
the loan is 'assigned'. Would it be so absurd to say that I owe my taxes to each and every individual
person living in the UK? Tom, Dick, Jane and Sue each contributed a specific amount to the pot, and
so I owe each of them that amount. But there is no specific proportion of my taxes that I 'owe' my next
door neighbour, for example.
It is quite hard at first to see how the principle established here, the difference between relative and
absolute duties, transfers to the case of the supposed duty to refrain from suicide. But consider a
different case. A doctor discovers a treatment for a previously incurable disease. However, this
treatment is potentially so hazardous, that she believes it would be wrong for her to test it on another
person, even with their informed consent. So the doctor tests the drug on herself.
It seems to me that the idea that a duty to oneself is 'absolute' whereas a duty to another person is
'relative' could be used to explain the intuition that there is a significant difference between testing a
dangerous drug on another person, even with their full, informed consent, and testing that same drug
on oneself. The danger may be such that I have no right to askanother person to take that high risk.
But I don't have to 'ask' myself. It's entirely up to me.