Expectations and Obligations


Ever since the publication of Scanlon’s Promises and Practices and What We Owe to Each Other, expectations have become an important topic within discussions on promises. However, confining the role of expectations to promises does not do justice to their importance in creating obligations more generally. This paper argues that expectations are one of the major sources of obligations created within our personal relationships. What we owe to our friends, partners, or siblings very often follows neither from the duties associated with the given role, nor from our explicit promises, commitments, declarations, or consents. The obligations that our close relationships create often arise from a shared understanding of those relationships—and subsequent mutually acknowledged expectations.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper, I use words like “duty,” “obligation,” and “commitment” interchangeably, as nothing I say rests on any eventual distinction between them.

  2. 2.

    This point can be made in Wittgensteinian terms. “Friendship,” like any other concept of our language, is less than fully determinate. Its use can be characterized by family resemblances, not by a fixed list of duties and obligations. Nonetheless, if none of these family resemblances are present, we would struggle to call a given relation “friendship.” If someone claimed that she has a friend to whom she owes no special obligations beyond the ones that she owes to a complete stranger, we would probably conclude that she does not know what “friendship” means.

  3. 3.

    Perhaps contrary to this statement, Niko Kolodny invites us to imagine “the exhaustive list of partiality principles.” However, he uses this list only as a heuristic device in his argumentation and does not contemplate it seriously. To my best knowledge, no one argues for such a reductive picture of human normativity. See (Kolodny 2010, p. 39).

  4. 4.

    One of the defining features of obligations is the fact that reasons based in convenience cannot defeat them—they even seem out of place. “I was having such a good time that I found it difficult to leave the group and call you” is not only an insufficient reason in this situation. It is a reason of a wrong kind. For a further analysis of what obligations entail, see (Heuer 2012, pp. 843–844).

  5. 5.

    An elaborated argument claiming that promises are inimical to intimacy is provided by (Markovics 2011). Markovics persuasively explains that promises tend to be fixed (and as an instrument are therefore quite rigid) while loving relationships develop and shift with the changing mutual understanding of the relation.


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I would like to thank the audiences at British Society for Ethical Thought Annual Conference and “Situating the Human” workshop, as well as all my colleagues from University of Pardubice for many stimulating comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Special thanks goes to Marina Barabas, who made me re-think the framing of the main argument.

This publication was supported within the project of Operational Programme Research, Development and Education (OP VVV/OP RDE), “Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value”, registration No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/15_003/0000425, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the state budget of the Czech Republic.

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Correspondence to Matej Cibik.

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Cibik, M. Expectations and Obligations. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 21, 1079–1090 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-018-9947-x

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  • Expectations
  • Obligations
  • Promises
  • Scanlon