Analyzing Samuel Scheffler's "Relationships and Responsibilities"

Updated on May 9, 2018
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Relationships and Responsibilities

In Samuel Scheffler’s article “Relationships and Responsibilities,” he defends a nonreductionist account of special responsibilities from what he calls the voluntarist objection, or from what is often times called the reductionist position. In this article, I will describe the voluntarist position and why this position is seen as problematic. After, I will show how Scheffler defends his nonreductionist account of special responsibilities against the voluntarist’s. Finally, I will assess Scheffler’s analysis, and offer my own opinions as to whether or not I think Scheffler successfully defeated the voluntarist’s position. By the end of this article, we should have a firm grasp on both positions and the debate that arises between them.

The Voluntarist Position

The core of Scheffler’s article is an attempt to figure out how special responsibilities come about through relevant human interactions. He begins by presenting the voluntarist position. “A voluntarist position comes from those who believe that all genuine special responsibilities must be based on consent or on some other voluntary act” (Scheffler 191). Essentially, voluntarists reject the notion that special responsibilities come as additional baggage in a relationship unless the person voluntarily accepted such notions as part of the initial relationship. This means that special responsibility comes about, for voluntarists, not from the relationships we hold with others, but through the voluntary interactions who chose to procure with others.

For voluntarists, special responsibility comes about not from the relationships we hold with others, but through the voluntary interactions who chose to procure with others.

While voluntarists may disagree amongst themselves as to what voluntary acts generate special responsibilities, “All voluntarists agree that the mere fact that one stands in a certain relationship to another person cannot by itself give one a special responsibility to that person” (191). The reason for such debate begins not only with the question of how special responsibilities come to be in a relationship, but also with the question of whether or not those who receive the end of the special responsibility confer unfair advantages over others.

The Nonreductionist Position

Hence, the problem Scheffler tackles with his ideals of a nonreductionist account of special responsibilities is how the benefits and burdens of such responsibilities should be allocated not between the persons interacting, but also upon those outside of the relationship as well. For Scheffler clearly sees a problem with the voluntarist’s way of shrugging off the notion of special responsibility unless voluntarily having applied said responsibilities in a relationship.

Imagine, Scheffler suggests, that you and I come into a friendship that includes voluntary special responsibility. If I have only these special responsibilities to you, then I have given you an unfair advantage over those of whom I am not in a relationship with. In fact, these people outside of our relationship have been unfairly disadvantaged by the advantage I have brought to you from such responsibilities.

This is a problem, because while I am furthering our relationship by carrying out the burdensome special responsibilities I owe you, there are people outside of our relationship who I may, in fact, be putting at a disadvantage. This continues as vice-versa as well; since you too would owe me similar responsibilities and would be neglecting those outside of our relationship in an equally neglectful manner.


Responsibilities to Immediate Relationships

As we have seen, the voluntarist holds the notion that special responsibilities come about through voluntary interactions with people. They feel this must be so, since special responsibilities are burdensome and should not be held by those who do not take them voluntarily. Scheffler’s response to this is that special responsibility comes about not merely through voluntary interactions with people, but rather, and more so, through relationships we have with all people and the reflectively decisive reasons we have for such relationships. Therefore, “the nonreductionist principle states a sufficient condition for special responsibilities, not a necessary condition” (199). This means that if if we have reason to value the relationship we have with others, then we have good reason to assume we have special responsibilities toward participants of such a relationship.

Here Scheffler wants to concede that, as human beings, we all are somewhat in a relationship with each other. But for his argument, he is only going to include those relationships that are socially salient connections. To better understand this notion, we should understand that we are in a relationship with people of whom we share the same group with. Furthermore, we hold stronger relations to those who we are closer to as members of the same group.

For example, I have a relationship with all the members of my class, yet if we were to break down into small groups or groups of friends I would hold an even stronger relationship than that previous. In continuation with the strength of relationships, I hold an even stronger relationship with members of my family. To each member of my different relationships I owe a special responsibility, but certain responsibilities can be nullified in lieu of contemplation of my special responsibilities toward those members of the stronger relationship.

Differentiating Relationships

Now, as promised, Scheffler begins to allocate the burden of special responsibilities among those who are in a relevant relationships by placing reasons of value on the relationships. As it has been suggested, we owe those who we are in relationships with special responsibilities, even if such a relationship has not been chosen voluntarily. These relationships we hold are oftentimes misvalued within our own minds.

To further expound upon this notion, Scheffler suggests the relationship between a neglectful father and the neglected children, or that of an abused wife and the husband she cannot seem to leave. Here, “nonreductionism makes it possible to claim both that people sometimes have special responsibilities that they think they lack, and that they sometimes lack special responsibilities that they think they have” (199).

It should not be said that nonreductionism puts forth a conception of reasons to value a relationship, because Scheffler accepts that we, as humans, somehow innately know the value of our relationship and can distribute special responsibilities based on such valued statements. By partaking in such relationships with others, we bring about special responsibilities into the relationship. For those who lie outside of the boundaries of relationship, these people should be treated in a moral fashion similar to those who we have general responsibilities toward.


How to Allocate Special Responsibilities

Now that we have established how special responsibilities arise in nonreductionist relationships, one may ask how they are then allocated between those in and out of the relationship. It seems that Scheffler has focused much of his attention on the bearers of responsibility and has little focus on the beneficiaries.

Here, the voluntarist might have concern that we are often times thrown into relationships that we did not necessarily chose for ourselves. And, if we have special responsibilities to those people we hold relations with, then we are overburdened by an unreasonable degree of special responsibility. If this is true, the voluntarist may say that we are giving these people with whom we have relations with a large measure of control over our lives. If we give up this measure of control, then the voluntarist adds, other people may be able to shape our identities in ways that run counter to our wishes. If this is true, it seems as though many will flock toward the voluntarist position.

Scheffler responds to this worry almost in a way of agreement by appealing to the notion that perhaps we do not have much say in shaping our social identity in the first place. The idea that special responsibility gives up too much control over our own lives is a valid one, but Scheffler calls into question how much control we really have in the first place.

Nonreductionist's Response to the Voluntarist

In Scheffler’s response to the voluntarist, he states that we have little to no control in much of our social relations, so why worry that owing others a special responsibility will give them control over our social status? To back up this response, Scheffler has us look at exactly what our social status entails. “For better or worse, the influence on our personal histories of unchosen social relations--to our parents and siblings, families and communities, nations and peoples--is not something that we determine by ourselves” (204). This is true, and it seems as though we value the majority of these relationships since they have been with us since birth. Therefore, the nonreductionist can stand firm in his notion that relationships that generate special responsibilities are those which an individual has reason to value.

It seems, then, that Scheffler has correctly defeated the voluntarist position. Yet, the voluntarist may have one more way of response, for it seems as though special relationships still generate unfair advantages for participants and unfair disadvantages for nonparticipants. I believe this is easily counteracted by the nonreductionist by appealing to the general moral values we owe all sentient beings. Even though special relationships do incur special responsibilities, this does not entail that general relationships do not have general responsibilities.

Samuel Scheffler


Mutually Beneficial Moral Standards of Responsibility

I personally feel that Scheffler has successfully defeated the voluntarist position with his appeal to natural creation of social relationships. For it seems true that the most influential and special relationships in my life are those which I have known my entire life, or are those which have arisen because of my innate social standing. What follows are simply special responsibilities toward these people I hold relationships with, and since these people must reciprocate the responsibilities upon myself, we, then, share the burden of these responsibilities; if the special responsibilities even are burdensome in the first place.

As for those outside of the relationships, I think Scheffler is correct in his notion that we owe these people a mutually beneficial moral standard which is similar to general responsibilities. For Scheffler is correct in his assumption that all humans are in relationship with each other; especially by today’s standards. If we hold these relationships as general, then we should treat our responsibilities toward others outside of special relationships as general as well. I find that it would be difficult for voluntarists to dispute such a claim, especially with their personal claim that we only incur responsibility to those who we voluntarily chose to do so with.

In conclusion, it seems as though the nonreductionist has been able to include mere interactions as well as relationships in the purposeful discussion of special responsibilities. Also, the nonreductionist has shown that owing others these responsibilities does not necessarily give up any power or social standing we may have either with the persons or in society. When stating whether or not we should involve ourselves with special responsibilities toward others, I feel that we should lean more toward the nonreductionist account rather than the voluntarist’s, just as Scheffler tends to do so as well.

Our Responsibilities to Future Generations

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 JourneyHolm


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      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        15 months ago from Houston, TX USA

        This article seem to be a little over my head. I offer the following prescription on human relations.

        1. Learn to control yourself, Not the whole world. Do your part in the world, but know when a situation is out of your control. Raise your hand, open it, palm out to indicate stop. This action keys the mind to think differently. Your stress will be relieved.

        2. Accept others as they are and learn to cope. We know only a small fraction of the background of the people around us. For most people, we do not know their upbringing and their live's experiences. Therefore acknowledge our lack of knowledge and learn to love their eternal soul. The gesture for this open, upturned hands. Do this and your stress will be relieved.

        3. Learn to Forgive others. Associate your negative feelings with an individual and learn to forgive that person. Remember, we do not know their entire background. Everyone acts as they do for a reason. Forgive them for we do not know why they do what they do. Place your hand over your heart and your stress will be relieved.

        4. Block the negative projections of others. Everyone projects their attitudes and opinions onto others. If these projections are negative, block them. Hold up your two index fingers in a cross and your stress will be relieved.


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