On Generosity and Obligation

I am returning, at last, to the thoughts I was exploring in my recent posts on Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (post 1 | post 2), and I’m starting to wrestle this morning with the big one: obligation. Thinking about community as a strategic rather than an idealized concept, community in its pragmatic coalition-building sense, leads me to consider the work required to create and sustain communities. If the kinds of communities that I am seeking in trying to imagine a more generous relationship not only between the university and the publics that it engages but also, crucially, within the university itself are first and foremost voluntary communities—self-organizing, self-governing collectives based in affiliation and solidarity—what exactly can we be said to owe those communities? Do those communities and our relationships to them impose obligations on us?

This question about obligation came up early on in the review process for Generous Thinking. For some readers, my suggestion that “we” (meaning, in this case, those of us involved in and committed to the life of the university) have obligations to one another and to the world evoked a sense of noblesse oblige, a condescending assumption that we bear gifts that we must bestow upon the less fortunate around us. For others, the notion of obligation seemed to erode the idea of generosity itself, undermining individual commitment with a sense of requirement. Several commenters wanted me to replace the term, but I remain convinced that it’s the right one, though I’m still working on explaining why.

Obligation as I intend it is not connected, except etymologically, to noblesse oblige. In fact, I’d argue that noblesse oblige is a particularly self-aggrandizing form of voluntarism: we may feel that we have to give to those in need because of our station or privilege, but that “have to” is one we can easily walk away from; the commitment is entirely self-selected. The obligation that I’m focused on, that I hope that we can consider in the context of generosity, is one of which we cannot absolve ourselves. As Francois Lachance pointed out in the discussion, “obligation” derives from the Latin obligare, “from ob- ‘towards’ + ligare ‘to bind’.” That is the sense of obligation that I want to explore: that which binds us together, that which we cannot walk away from without doing grave damage both to ourselves and to the fabric of the whole.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have choice, as members of voluntary communities, about whether to fulfill those obligations, or that there isn’t agency in the kinds of generosity I’m hoping to foster. But I remain convinced that we do bear actual obligations toward one another deriving from our common presence in a space, an institution, a community. We owe one another recognition as members of that community. We owe one another attention to the concerns we bring to that community.

In the course of the discussion of Generous Thinking, I started wondering where my use of “obligation” in this sense began, and so searched my notes. The term popped up in several key locations, including Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism:

So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. (25)

These two strands, for Appiah, exist in an ongoing tension: we bear obligations that bind us together; we take seriously the differences that mean we must be allowed to go our own way. That individual, agential freedom does not relieve us of our shared obligations, but nor does the nature of our obligations eliminate the agency that all of us bear in our own lives.

This tension also appeared in my notes in Lewis Hyde’s consideration of the debts that participation in a gift economy creates. Hyde cites Marcel Mauss on the “three related obligations” that mark gift economies: “the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate” (xxi). Hyde winds up at moments treating the notion of obligation in a fashion much closer to the reading of my commenters—as a requirement that a gift imposes upon us, an imposition that we attempt to remove by passing on—but it’s also a relation that sustains the entirety of a community. There is, I think, something important to consider in this connection between obligation and the gift, especially if we are to seek alternatives to the neoliberal economies in which our institutional and personal lives are otherwise embedded.

Most compelling for me, however, is the use that Bill Readings makes of obligation in The University in Ruins. In attempting to define a path out of the morass that the University of Excellence has landed us in, Readings turns repeatedly to the notion of obligation and its connection to community. His goal, he notes, is “an anti-modernist rephrasing of teaching and learning as sites of obligation, as loci of ethical practices, rather than as means for the transmission of scientific knowledge. Teaching thus becomes answerable to the question of justice, rather than to the criteria of truth” (154). That connection among obligation, ethics, and justice leads to his commitment to dissensus and his sense that “the condition of pedagogical practice is, in Blanchot’s words, ‘an infinite attention to the other’” (161), an ethical obligation that cannot be discharged. And an obligation whose infinitude is created in no small part by our being-in-community; “the obligation of community,” he notes, is “one to which we are answerable but to which we cannot supply an answer” (187).

If we are going to build and sustain communities, then—not romanticized communities, but rather communities based in solidarity, communities based on non-market relations of care—we need to be able to think about our obligations to one another, about our relationships to our voluntary communities beyond voluntarism. Coming full-circle to Joseph: her association of community with the structure of the non-profit, which deploys private philanthropy as a replacement for public commitment to the common good, underscores not only the voluntarism at the heart of noblesse oblige but also the political and economic sources of it: I am generous with what I have—I choose to be generous with what I have—precisely because we are no longer committed to one another as members of a shared social structure. Instead, the shift of responsibility for the public welfare toward private entities displaces our obligations to one another in favor of individual liberties and, I think, leaves us queasy about the notion of obligation altogether.

What I’m trying to explore in considering generosity as a potential ground for rebuilding the relationship between the university and the public good, then, is in part the force of the commitments that we make to one another, but commitments that are based in an ethical obligation that endures beyond and outside individual agency. It’s a commitment that we must continually make the choice to renew, but an obligation that persists regardless of our choice.

I’m still wrestling with all of this as I revise the manuscript, but the notions of community, solidarity, and commitment to the public good with which I’m working seem defined by the unresolved tensions in the relationship between generosity and obligation. As Readings says, we are left “with an obligation to explore our obligations without believing that we will come to the end of them” (190). This is where I’m trying to linger. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “On Generosity and Obligation

  1. In addition to the etymology of obligation, that of community might be useful to this line of thought. It’s something I’ve written about in the context of online (fan) gift economies: In a gift economy, gifts produce obligations, which produce reciprocation, which produces relationships between and among people. From multiple and continually reconstituted relationships of giving comes community—as Roberto Esposito (2009, 5) reminds us, etymologically community is from cum (with) munus (“the gift that one gives because one must give and because one cannot not give.”


  • Chris Aldrich

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