Meredith Schwartz, Connected by Commitment: With Whom? For How Long? [2018 C4eJ 2] (Book Forum)

[read the rest of the Symposium on Mara Marin, Connected by Commitment: Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine It (2017)]

Meredith Schwartz*

Dr. Mara Marin provides a solution I have been waiting for since 1999. Margaret Olivia Little wrote a paper, “Abortion, Intimacy and the Duty to Gestate,” which I think is an amazing paper because it treats abortion in a more complex way than is typical for the subject. Little suggests that the legal and moral questions of abortion are separate. The legal question has to do with the legitimate powers of the State, which she argues do not extend to the power to force the intimacy of pregnancy on its citizens. When she turns to the moral question, she says that the issues are more difficult to resolve mainly because there is not a well-worked-out theory of our obligations or duties with respect to intimate relationships. Little’s discussion in this section is interesting, but unsatisfying because it ends with a promissory note that she will work on the ethics of relationships, but to my knowledge she has never completed this project.

Dr. Marin’s book does just this. It provides a lucid explanation of the ethics of relationships and explains why the obligations (or commitments) of relationships deepen over time. Not only does Dr. Marin’s book explain how we can voluntarily take on obligations we don’t directly intend, she also connects this account to a discussion of social structures in which we participate as analogous to intimate relationships. In both cases our responsibility comes from continuous intertwinement, though open-ended actions, with the social structure or with other individuals, and the resulting social relations in which we then stand (11). Dr. Marin focuses on the way the complex social world connects us through our mutual vulnerability and rather than trying to insulate us from that vulnerability, Dr. Marin demonstrates both its value and our vulnerability’s role in creating relationships of obligation (14). Dr. Marin demonstrates the existence of a kind of obligation that is often overlooked: those we incur because of our actions, and so are voluntary because incurred through our actions, but whose effects are not subject to our control because our actions are constituted by social meaning; they are responses to the actions of others; and the obligations of commitment go beyond our ability to know at the outset what will be required by them (15).

I find the account incredibly compelling, and so my commentary today is not so much critical as it is a request for further information and clarification. In particular, I am curious to know more about the conditions of entry into and exit from commitments. At times it was not entirely clear to me who, or what, could be party to commitments and whether there might sometimes be obligations to exit from our commitments.

Starting with the question of whether there could be obligations to exit from our commitments, I am puzzled by the strength and endurance of the obligations. In describing personal commitments, Dr. Marin writes “While commitment obligations, like any obligations, bind unconditionally, commitments also allow us the freedom to define, negotiate, and alter our obligations” (31-32). Later in analogizing these commitments to social structures, Dr. Marin claims that unjust structural relations might be thought of on the model of “bad friendships” in which the interactions give more weight to Aaron’s interests over John’s. In this case, John has a legitimate complaint against Aaron and himself, according to Dr. Marin, but John is not free to walk away form their friendship as if it did not exist (63-64). “He has an obligation to change the terms of the relationship, but he also has an obligation to continue it” (64). Dr. Marin suggests this obligation might be weak when reform is not possible, but I wonder whether there might be times when no such obligation exists. For example, if the friendship were not merely unbalanced but abusive. In an abusive relationship it seems that we do not have an obligation to continue that set of commitments, and sometimes refusing to meet and completely disengaging without acting as though the obligations existed might be the only way to save oneself in the case of intimate abuse. If Dr. Marin agrees that there are no obligations to continue abusive relationships then I wonder whether this might generate a similar limitation in the case of social structures, and what that might look like. Dr. Marin does describe the way in which our obligations are open-ended but not limitless (42-43), but I would like to hear more about how this might function at the limit case and whether there could ever be an obligation to exit from our commitments.

My second question comes at the other end: upon entering into commitments, and raises questions about who can be included in this account. My second concern returns to Little’s question with which I opened, about whether we might take on an obligation to gestate. Dr. Marin says that commitments are made, not given. They are made through our actions and so they differ from relationships in which we find ourselves such as with family (32-33).[1] Further, the actions that make commitments are open-ended and responsive so that one opens oneself to further responses and possible future claims (34). These open-ended actions are responses to other persons and the other person must welcome my open-ended responses. Thus commitments cannot be developed unilaterally (35-36). Our commitments are endorsed through our continued reciprocal engagement in open-ended responses and over time these give rise to norms or expectations (36-38). Finally, our commitments involve open-ended obligations, but these are not unlimited as the context of the kind of relationship and the appropriate level of concern matters. Here Dr. Marin gives the example of the differing kinds of responses that would be appropriate in a friendship vs. a parent-child, or spousal relationship (41). This account raises questions for me about who can be included or excluded from relationships of commitment. In particular, can we have relations of commitment with our children or parents, and if so then when does this begin? Can we have obligations of commitment to fetuses, or can these only begin once an infant is born? How would we understand the limits of these open-ended obligations if they do, indeed, exist. That commitments are made, not given like familial relationships suggests that children could not have such obligations to their parents. But the situation seems asymmetrical since parents sometimes, to some extent, do choose this relationship. If parent-child relations can be ones of commitment, then there seems to be something unilateral about this case that might be lacking in the cases of adults. In particular, it would seem that even when a child does not welcome my parental open-ended responses, nevertheless my obligations would continue. My question, then, is whether adults are just the paradigm case of committed relationships or whether children could also, in some cases, become intertwined in relationships of commitment. So I would like to hear more about whether children are included in or excluded from this account, and if they are included when these relationships might begin.

My final question is a request for clarification that arose for me particularly in the fourth chapter that deals with intimate and professional caregiving. At places throughout this chapter I became a little fuzzy on who was party to these relationships, their vulnerabilities and the benefits of caregiving. Dr. Marin describes caregivers and care receivers and is careful not to assume a particular model of relationships, which is admirable. But I sometimes find myself a bit lost when thinking about the personal relationships and structural relations they give rise to. At times the examples used seem interpersonal, such as the requirement and skills of flexibility implicitly relied upon when one adult stays late at work and so the other has to switch the planned dinner making night (96). In this case the partner who stays late accrues the benefits of flexibility, and the chore becomes more demanding for the partner who has to flexibly rearrange their schedule around making dinner. In other places, these relations of care seem to take on a more structural account, especially when discussing the class of care receivers who pay for care in the market (102-3). But it is not entirely clear to me how this less intimate class arises, does one become a structural care receiver when poor (usually women) provide care directly or does it also arise when care is provided that does not directly affect an individual member of the class? I am also unsure of how this would translate back to the personal case. For example, a single mother who provides care directly to her child, but not directly to the child’s father, does seem to be directly benefiting the biological father if he has a relationship with the child. In such a case he does seem to receive that care. But what if the biological father is not in the child’s life? What if it was a one-night stand or a sperm donor who might not even know of the existence of the child, then would this person still count as a structural care receiver? As someone who is infertile, I would say that yes, I do receive benefits of care from the work done by caregivers to children who are not even biologically related to me since I get to hear the joyous sound of children’s laughter without having to do the work. Now, this might sound like a mere matter of personal preference, that I prefer to hear children laughing. But that is not the situation I have in mind. Instead, I am thinking about a case not where this or that particular child is laughing or silent, but instead a case where there is no children’s laughter at all. This question arises for me from a discussion at the Canadian Philosophical Association’s roundtable on Truth and Reconciliation. During that discussion, Douglas Sanderson remarked that one of the harms of the residential school program was that it created communities completely devoid of the laughter of children. Whatever personal preferences one might have about hearing children laugh, Sanderson’s comments evoke a soundscape of horror. Dr. Marin does provide an account of how our work presupposes the caregiving of others in the fifth chapter but I wonder whether there are more immediate, personal, yet indirect benefits from caregiving activity that accrue in a structural way.

I look forward to hearing more from Dr. Marin on these topics. I found this book to be intellectually stimulating and personally helpful. After reading Dr. Marin’s account of the open-ended obligations of commitment and the skills of flexibility involved in caregiving my relationship with my brother, who has three kids, has improved. What I once thought of as annoying and untimely requests from him now seem like understandable open-ended obligations to exercise of skills of flexibility reciprocally for the benefits that I receive from my relations to my nieces and nephews. I think it is a rare book of political theory that can help one so immediately with personal relationships.

* Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Ryerson University.

[1] I don’t want to dwell on this point in the context of these brief comments, but this making of commitments rather than finding oneself in commitments seems to be a significant difference from social structures in which we do already find ourselves.


Marin, M. G. (2017). Connected by Commitment: Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine it. Oxford University Press.